Writing scenes

There are some key differences between life and drama. Picture the scene…

***

SCENE 1 – INT. RESTAURANT

MIKE and DIANA enter the restaurant. They wait to be seated, with MIKE checking his phone. DIANA tries to attract the attention of a member of staff.

The waiters are still serving, and so MIKE keeps checking his phone. He winces as he notices that his football team is losing.

DIANA waves shyly at a WAITER, who sets down some plates and comes over.

WAITER: Table for two?

DIANA: Yes, please.

The WAITER leads MIKE and DIANA through the restaurant and seats them at a table.

WAITER: Here are the menus, and there are also some specials on the board by the kitchen. I’ll be back in a couple of moments to get your drinks.

MIKE: Thank you.

The WAITER leaves. MIKE and DIANA take some time to look through the menus and find what they want to eat.

MIKE fumbles in his pocket to make sure the engagement ring is still there…

***

Mike may be about to propose to Diana, but the audience is already bored. The scene above might be true to life, but barely anything has happened in it. You have given your audience nothing to chew on out of 2 or 3 minutes of stage time (rehearsed over weeks and weeks, with your actors taking even more time to learn the lines).

In his brilliant book Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, John Yorke quotes the legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock:

“Drama is life with all the dull bits cut out”.

In our restaurant example, this means you should only start your scene once something interesting is about to happen. You do not need to document every step your characters take: just show us the ones that move your story forward.

Yorke argues that the structure of individual scenes should mimic story structure on a cellular level.

Each scene should have its own 3 act structure:

  1. Set-up
  2. Climax
  3. Resolution

Although this may seem overly methodical, there are ways of concealing this structure from the audience. For example, you could include your set-up in the previous scene, for example, Mike invites Diana to the restaurant that evening.

To maximise your narrative momentum, Yorke argues that you could end your scene immediately following the climax: “By cutting away at the crisis point, each scene ending requires an explanation, and thus creates curiosity and anticipation, defers gratification and keeps people watching”. For Yorke, there is great value in an old screenwriting maxim:

“Come in late, get out early”.

Julian Bond, Artistic Director of Liverpool’s Burjesta Theatre, sees this as a matter of economics:

“You don’t want to show things that are unnecessary to the points you’re trying to make. Otherwise, you have a document but not a drama. Likewise, you should end your scene once all the points have been made”.

This brings up another key idea. Whilst your first draft of a scene may involve you switching off your brain to write as freely as possible. When you come to edit your work you need to have a clearer idea of what you’re looking for.

What are the key points you need to show the audience in each scene? Craft your scene so that these points come to the fore.

Nathan Evans

Nathan is an actor, director and writer based on The Wirral. Since getting involved with the world of theatre, he has directed a show at the Edinburgh Fringe and he is now looking to develop his writing further.