John August outlines the steps of how to contruct a scene piece by piece.
Spend a few years as a screenwriter, and writing a scene becomes an almost unconscious process. It’s like driving a car. Most of us don’t think about the ignition and the pedals and the turn signals — but we used to, back when we were learning. It used to flummox the hell out of us. Every intersection was unbelievably stressful, with worries of stalling the car and/or killing everyone on board.
It’s the same with writing a scene. The first few are brutal and clumsy. But once you’ve written (and rewritten) say, 500 scenes, the individual steps sort of vanish. But they’re still there, under the surface. It’s just that your instinct is making a lot of the decisions your conscious brain used to handle.
So here’s my attempt to introspect and describe what I’m doing that I’m not even aware I’m doing. Here’s How to Write a Scene.
1. Ask: What needs to happen in this scene?
Many screenwriting books will tell you to focus on what the characters want. This is wrong. The characters are not responsible for the story. You are. If characters were allowed to control their scenes, most characters would chose to avoid conflict, and movies would be crushingly boring.
The question is not, “What could happen?” or “What should happen?” It is only, “What needs to happen?” If you wrote an outline, this is the time to look at it.1 If you didn’t, just come up one or two sentences that explain what absolutely must happen in the scene.
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