This practical exercise will help strengthen your scene writing.
One of the best strategies you can use to strengthen your scenes is to work out their structure by breaking them down into a series of turning points. This practical exercise involves simply choosing a scene from a movie, watching it, and then jotting down the structural turning points. This is a great way of really digging into the nuts and bolts of how a well-crafted scene is put together and illuminating why it works as well as it does.
By noting the structure, you’ll also see not only how scenes establish what’s at stake, but how they increase the stakes and conflict of the film as they progress through each turning point. Remember that scenes are units of action that move the story along, and without any structure, they run the risk of containing excess fat, slowing down the story and ultimately losing the reader.
This more hands-on approach works so well because it’s an extension of the purely theoretical approach found in screenwriting books
Where do we begin?
Overall, rather than just thinking of scenes as an unstructured two or three minutes of “conflict between a protagonist and an antagonist”, it’s best to think of them in terms of a “mini-movie.” This is because a scene is its own self-contained story with its own structure, major reversals and a change in fortunes from a positive at the beginning of a scene to a negative (+/ -) or a negative to a positive (- / +).
Let’s start by taking a look at the turning points within a well-crafted scene:
- Set Up
- Call to Action
- Act One Turning Point
Note how a scene can be broken down into most of the same plot points as a sequence, an act, and the overall movie. The only one missing is the Act Two Turning Point, as most scenes have a major reversal at the Midpoint and then end. But I’ll talk more about this in a moment.
The structure described above gives a scene’s conflict shape and enables it to be fully expressed on the page as a single narrative unit that pushes the story forward.
Case Study: Sideways
In order to illustrate how to approach this exercise, let’s take a look at a scene from Sideways, written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. In this scene from the end of Act One, Miles and Jack meet Maya at a bar. (You can review it below.)
Firstly, here are the plot points, and then we’ll look at each in more detail.
- Set Up: Miles and Jack are having a drink at the bar
- Call to Action: Maya enters and Miles calls her over
- Act One Turning Point: Maya asks Jack if he’s an actor and they begin flirting
- Midpoint: Maya asks them what they're up to tonight, and Miles says they're probably going to go “crash”
- Climax: Maya leaves
- Denouement: Walking home, Jack berates Miles for screwing it up
Note how this scene doesn’t rely on a heap of action or things happening, but illustrates perfectly the fact that even dialogue scenes have structure. So let’s take a look at each element that you need to note in more detail.
If the Call to Action is a positive moment for the protagonist, it will generally end on a negative one, and vice versa.
1. Set Up
This first beat sets up the action that’s about to unfold. To use a three act structure analogy, these initial moments represent the scene’s “ordinary world,” in which things seem momentarily normal. In this beat, the protagonist often muses on, or talks about, what just happened in the previous scene. Even if they’re in a thriller or a horror, they’ve still got things under control at this point. We may be on edge, the characters aren’t. Yet.
In Sideways, we find Miles and Jack quietly enjoying a glass of wine at the bar. The scene is set, ready for something to shake it up.
2. Call to Action
The scene gets moving with the arrival of the Call to Action. In this moment, something happens—another character asks a question, a picture is noticed in a newspaper, a noise is heard down the corridor—and the scene sparks into life. Although the stakes haven’t been raised yet, and there’s no real conflict, it’s time for the characters to stop chilling and get their wits together.
The other important thing to note about the Call to Action is that it plays a large part in determining whether the scene turns from a positive to a negative (+/ -) or a negative to positive (- / +). The Call to Action in a scene serves the exact same function as the Call to Action in a sequence, an act and the overall movie. If it’s a positive moment for the protagonist, it will generally end on a negative, and vice versa.
In Sideways, the stakes suddenly go up a notch when Maya unexpectedly enters the bar, as we realize that this is Miles’s chance to make a move. The scene, therefore, officially kicks off on a positive beat (+). This is rammed home even more by the writers’ choice make it Miles who asks Maya if she’d like to join them, not Jack. Things are definitely looking up!
3. Act One Turning Point
This Act One Turning Point is the first major reversal of the scene, as the characters enter into the “extraordinary world” of Act Two. After some long or short exploration of the idea raised at the Call to Action, the characters are thrown a curveball as the action veers off in a different direction—opposite to the one they thought it was heading in. From here on in, we’re now officially in the “meat” of the scene.
The stakes, intrigue, suspense, conflict—or whatever technique the writer chooses—begins to rise, as key bits of information about the characters and/or plot are revealed to the audience.
In Sideways, the Act One Turning Point and first major reversal occurs when Jack launches into his actor schtick. As Maya laps it up and Miles smolders in the background, the stakes begin to rise. Is Miles going to get involved? Are they all going to party the night away as Jack hopes? Or will something unexpected happen which tips the scene on its head?
The intrigue, suspense, conflict, and stakes continue to rise and rise until…bam! The scene is completely spun off in another direction.
With the Midpoint comes the second major reversal in the scene. The intrigue, suspense, conflict, and stakes continue to rise and rise until…bam! The scene is completely spun off in another direction—the opposite one from which it started. This can be anything from a simple line of dialogue, to a gun being laid on a table, to a giant robot breaking through the wall.
Apart from the shock factor, the main requirement for this beat is that it reveals the primary reason that the scene was written in the first place. Whatever the writer intended to show the audience in the scene—whether that’s a character and/or a plot development—this is where it’s revealed.
In Sideways, the flirtatious tension between Jack and Maya that has been growing since the Act One Turning Point culminates in her asking the men what they’re doing tonight. Miles shocks everyone—Jack, Maya, and the audience—when he rejects her obvious availability by announcing they’re “probably going back to the hotel and crash.” In this scene, the writers wanted to show the audience just how far Miles is from being ready to meet someone new, and they reveal it in this beat.
Once the purpose of the scene has been revealed at the Midpoint, it’s time to get out. Quickly. This is why there’s no Act Two Turning Point as found in the structure of the overall movie. There’s no more small talk—we’ve learned what we needed to learn and now we just need the Climax to affirm it so we can exit the scene.
It’s at this point that we can label the scene as having ending on either a positive (+) or a negative beat (-). And, as mentioned above, this will usually be the opposite to whatever was established at the Call to Action.
In Sideways, after Miles throws a wet blanket on the situation, Maya puts out her cigarette, wishes the boys a good night and exits the bar. The scene has gone from a positive beat to a negative (+ / -). There’s nothing more to say, and the scene is almost done.
The Denouement is the short beat at the end of a scene that gives the characters and the audience a moment to take in what’s just happened. It also forms a bridge from one scene to the next, pushing the action forward as the audience are left wondering just what’s coming next.
In Sideways, the Denouement takes place in a different location (a common technique to mix things up) as we see Miles and Jack stumbling home alongside the freeway. Jack can’t believe how Miles has just brought the night to a premature end, and this bridges the gap between Maya leaving the bar at the Climax, and the Set Up of the following scene, in which we see that Jack’s still angry the next morning.
Still not sure? Here are some more examples.
Here are a couple more examples of scene turning points:
The 40 Year Old Virgin: Andy and Trish break up (min 104)
- Set Up: Trish tells Andy he might have enough toys to be able to open a store.
- Call to Action: Trish reminds Andy that it’s their twentieth date—they can finally have sex—and starts kissing him.
- Act One Turning Point: As they kiss on the bed, Andy’s toy boxes get knocked to the floor. An argument ensues, as Andy would rather pick up his boxes than make love.
- Midpoint: The argument over why Andy doesn’t want to have sex continues until Trish tells him to get out. Is it over?
- Climax: Andy angrily leaves. The answer appears to be “yes.”
- Denouement: Andy cycles away through a red light, narrowly avoiding a pile up.
The Bourne Identity: Jason gets attacked in his Paris apartment (min 38)
- Set Up: Jason and Marie enter an empty apartment.
- Call to Action: Jason calls a hotel and asks for Jason Bourne. Then John Michael Kane. He becomes suspicious someone is in the apartment and picks up a knife.
- Act One Turning Point: An assassin suddenly bursts through the window. Jason and the assassin fight.
- Midpoint: After Jason wins, Marie goes through the assassin’s bags and sees he has pictures of them both.
- Climax: The assassin gets up and jumps to his death out the window.
- Denouement: Jason tells Marie it’s not safe and they have to leave.
Simply watching scenes with this structure in mind is a useful exercise, but the real benefit lies in jotting down the turning points in a notepad. That action forces you to get inside the scene and work out exactly what’s happening structurally. This more hands-on approach works so well because it’s an extension of the purely theoretical approach found in screenwriting books, many of which fail to discuss scenes in any depth at all. By breaking down as many scenes as you can, you’ll soon understand how to better structure your own scenes and increase the impact of their conflict and stakes on an audience.