Whether you’re writing a novel, screenplay, stage play, or short story, great scenes are essential. As detailed in their new book, SceneWriting, Chris Perry and Eric Henry Sanders demonstrate how to construct scenes that hook your reader and advance your plot no matter your medium. So where to begin?
Here are 5 key elements to consider:
1) What do they want?
The first step is to determine which character is driving the scene and what specific goal they’re pursuing. That goal can be simple or complex, but it must be specific. For example, in the scene from Pride and Prejudice when Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennet, the specificity of his desire is clear: he wants her to say “yes.” His goal isn’t just to propose. What he wants, precisely, and “against his better judgment,” is for Elizabeth Bennet to say “yes!” (Spoiler alert: she doesn’t).
2) Why do they want it?
Whatever specific scene goal your character is after, the reader must (at some point) learn why. Understanding that motivation is essential to offering the reader a point of emotional entrance into the character’s journey. If, for example, you know why Jay Gatsby wants to ingratiate himself with Nick Carraway at one of Gatsby’s lavish parties (because of Nick’s connection to Daisy Buchanan), it creates a context for his interest in Nick. You don’t have to be pining for Gatsby’s scene goal (Nick’s friendship), so long as you understand his universal motivation (to build a bridge to the woman he loves). But remember that although you, the writer, must know everything about your character’s scene goal, you need not share every detail with your reader immediately. As Scenewriting underscores, “What you know, versus what you share, is the distinction between story and storytelling.”
3) Why can’t they have it?
Wouldn’t life be simple if we could all get what we wanted with the snap of a finger? Sadly, most goals come with a struggle, but that’s what makes their attainment such a reward. The same thing works for an engaging narrative: If you give your character a goal and then throw interesting, seemingly impossible obstacles in their way, you stand to make their lives miserable. But your reader will delight to see how they muddle through. Whether your choice of obstacle is an opposing person, a physical barrier, or an internal challenge, having a specific and formidable obstacle is critical.
4) What are they going to do about it?
How a person navigates their way around an obstacle speaks volumes about their character. Imagine a student accused of cheating on a test who is sent to the principal’s office. Do they march into the office irate and rebellious? Or do they slink in, silent and remorseful? Do they threaten to sue, slip the principal a bribe, or skip the meeting altogether? Interesting characters are often mistakenly thought to need detailed backstories, when in fact the most critical method of building a fascinating character lies in the unusual, clever, ridiculous, or supremely confident way in which they act in the present.
5) How does it end?
Does your character achieve their scene goal, or do they fail? Choose one or the other. Unless this is the last scene in your story, the ending you choose should propel the journey forward. For example, if they succeed at achieving their goal, make it come at some cost. What did they have to sacrifice to get what they wanted? And if they fail, what might they have learned or discovered along the way that will steer them in a different direction in the future? The answer to these questions will help you to determine the next scene to come.
Chris Perry is a screenwriter, director, and producer who worked at both Pixar and Rhythm & Hues Studios before he began teaching at Hampshire College in 1999. Perry won a Sci-Tech Oscar in 2014 and joined the Writers Guild of America in 2017.
Eric Henry Sanders is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, film producer, and director. He began his film work as a production assistant at Good Machine (co-founded by James Schamus and Ted Hope). Sanders’s plays and films have had productions and screenings in London, Paris, Berlin, Edinburgh, and throughout the US.