December 13, 2018

How To Write A Scene in Your Screenplay

If you want to learn how to write a scene you’ve come to the right place.

Sitting down to write a screenplay can be a daunting task. That's part of why we started our free online screenwriting course.

But really, at the heart of it, every screenplay is just a series of interlocking scenes that build a narrative.

But what if you don’t know how to write a scene?

Today I’m going to take you through the basics of how to create a scene, how to write a scene, and also challenge some of the more seasoned readers to examine which scenes in their screenplays matter.

We’ll even examine how even the smallest scenes in your story can stand out amongst the crowded pages.

Okay, let’s get started.

How to Write A Scene: The Basics

Whether you're writing your first scene or your last scene, every screenplay scene starts with the slugline. It tells us if we are in the interior or exterior, where we are in general, and the time of day.

Screenplay scene sluglines look like this:

INT. (or EXT.) WHERE WE ARE - TIME OF DAY

Underneath the slugline, you put the action, and underneath that, you put the dialogue.

You can check out other screenplay formatting techniques in the below video:

Professional screenwriter, John August came up with a handy checklist for every scene you write. It can help carry you through times when you're not quite sure what happens next in your narrative:

Now that you understand basic screenplay formatting, let’s get into the nitty-gritty on how to write a scene.

How To Create A Scene

Whether you’re writing a long scene or a short scene, every scene is about one thing: conflict. Learning how to write internal and external conflict is critical to your success as a storyteller. 

Sure, maybe you’re writing a romantic comedy, or an action film, or the next great space opera. But it still doesn’t matter. Every scene has to have conflict to survive.

Whether it’s a guy trying to get the girl, or a girl trying to channel the force, or the force meeting an immovable object…

Conflict is everywhere!

So before you write a scene, you have to ask yourself...what do these characters want?

As soon as you can identify what they want, you can deny it to them. Create an obstacle. Obstacles go hand in hand with conflict. They feed off one another.

It even works with anthropomorphized characters.

These volcanoes want to be together but the ocean gets in their way. But it’s not just the external conflict, it’s about internally what each volcano is feeling.

So no matter who is in any scene you are creating, you need to add internal and external conflict to each scene. This duality of conflict will make your scene necessary in the story and keep the audience interested.

WANT + OBSTACLES = CONFLICT

Make sense?

Great.

Now let’s get into how each of these scenes is written.

Writing A Scene: Scene Structure

Now that you have the strategy behind writing a scene, now it’s time to sit down to do it. 

But as you know, most writing is a pain in the butt.

I like to tackle each scene using the old strategy, “Arrive late, leave early.”

This is the key to all scene structure.

When you first start out writing, you tend to have characters enter a room, speak for a while, and then have someone leave.

What if you just threw people into the middle of a scene?

How late in the action can you start?

How late in the conflict?

If you’re not quite getting the trick, check out our post on cold opens for some more tips.

Another scene structure idea to consider are the moving parts.

Do we have multiple characters roaming in and out?

What’s the setting like?

How can we convey who sees what, and how they process that information?

Okay, let's look at a few short scenes and long scene examples.

How To Write A Scene: Screenplay Examples  

In No Country For Old Men the movie starts with a series of scenes. Then we move into two crucial ones. We see the antagonist, Anton Chigurh, arrested. And then we pick up at the station where someone is already on the phone learning they are in danger.

Let’s take a look at what the script pages look like inside the station:

____________

INT. SHERIFF LAMAR'S OFFICE - DAY

              THE DEPUTY

              Seated in the sheriff's office, on the phone. The prisoner
              stands in the background. Focus is too soft for us to see
              his features but his posture shows that his arms are still
              behind his back.

                                    DEPUTY
                        Yessir, just walked in the door.
                        Sheriff he had some sort of a thing
                        on him like one of them oxygen tanks
                        for emphysema or somethin'. And a
                        hose from it run down his sleeve...

              Behind him we see the prisoner seat himself on the floor
              without making a sound and scoot his manacled hands out under
              his legs. Hands in front of him now, he stands.

                                    DEPUTY
                        ...Well you got me, sir. You can see
                        it when you get in...

              The prisoner approaches. As he nears the deputy's back he
              grows sharper but begins to crop out of the top of the frame.

                                    DEPUTY
                        ...Yessir I got it covered.

              As the deputy reaches forward to hang up, the prisoner is
              raising his hands out of frame just behind him. The manacled
              hands drop back into frame in front of the deputy's throat
              and jerk back and up.

              Wider: the prisoner's momentum brings both men crashing
              backward to the floor, face-up, deputy on top.

              The deputy reaches up to try to get his hands under the
              strangling chain.

              The prisoner brings pressure. His wrists whiten around the
              manacles.

              The deputy's legs writhe and stamp. He moves in a clumsy
              circle, crabbing around the pivot-point of the other man's
              back arched against the floor.

              The deputy's flailing legs kick over a wastebasket, send
              spinning the castored chair, slam at the desk.

              Blood creeps around the friction points where the cuffs bite
              the prisoner's wrists. Blood is being spit by the deputy.

              The prisoner feels with his thumb at the deputy's neck and
              averts his own face. A yank of the chain ruptures the carotid
              artery. It jets blood.

              The blood hits the office wall, drumming hollowly.

____________

Arriving late in that scene builds tension and allows us to have a conflict right away in the scene. The audience isn’t playing catch-up. We know what's going on, and it's a killer first scene in the movie. We’re hooked and scared right away.  

That was a fairly short scene.

But what if you want to keep the audience's attention for much longer?

That probably requires a scene with a ton of moving parts. Multiple characters, lots of dialogue. Even some action back and forth.

I think The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has one of the greatest pilots of all time. Let’s take a look at its most famous scene to see how Amy Sherman-Palladino gets us through a long scene on the page, and how she keeps our attention focused.

____________

 

INT. GASLIGHT CAFE - NIGHT 57
The crowd has thinned out a bit from earlier. A few people
chat next to a guy sprawled out asleep on several chairs. A
cat makes its way down the bar, drawing no-one’s attention.
Another group passes flasks, spiking their coffees. A very
soggy and slightly tipsy Midge makes her way down the stairs.
She walks over to Vonnie who’s sitting at the bar.
 

MIDGE
I left my Pyrex here and I’d like
it back.
 

VONNIE
Your what?
 

MIDGE
Pyrex. My Pyrex.
 

VONNIE
(no idea what you’re
talking about)
Nope.
 

MIDGE
(exasperated)
It’s a Pyrex.
 

VONNIE
You keep saying that but...
 

MIDGE
Pyrex! A glass baking dish. Very
durable, can go from hot to cold
without cracking.
 

VONNIE
We don’t serve food here.
 

MIDGE
I know. It’s not yours. It’s
mine. I brought it here.
 

VONNIE
Why?
 

MIDGE
I made a brisket for... is that
really important right now? My
dish is here. I’d like it back.
Can you make that happen?
 

VONNIE
Where is it?
 

MIDGE
I don’t know. I had hoped you’d
have a clue.
 

VONNIE
I don’t.
 

MIDGE
(beat)
Hey, have you ever thought about
being a secretary?
 

Vonnie looks at her a beat.
 

MIDGE (CONT’D)
(deep breath)
Where do you wash the coffee cups?
 

VONNIE
In the back.
 

Midge smiles at her. “Well?”
 

VONNIE (CONT’D)

This place gets so weird late.

 

Vonnie pulls herself off the stool and begrudgingly ambles
off. Midge sits exhausted. The young fragile sad poet
finishes and the room APPLAUDS half-heartedly. Midge takes
the last swig from her bottle. It’s empty. She sighs and
puts it on the bar. The MC takes the stage again.
 

GASLIGHT MC
That was deep, Christian. I think.
Who knows? Okay, next up...
(rummages in his pocket)
... Huh... hang on folks. I’ll be
right back.
 

He gets off the stage.
 

GASLIGHT MC (CONT’D)
(calling off)
Vonnie! Where is my set list?
 

The audience starts talking amongst themselves. Midge, eyes
fixed on the stage, slowly gets up and steps up on it, almost
as if in a trance. She walks around, taking it in. She
stops, facing away from the audience.
 

MIDGE
(talking to herself)
So, this is it, huh?
 

The audience starts to notice her.
 

MIDGE (CONT’D)
This is the dream. Standing up
here on this filthy sticky stage
all alone... if you couldn’t have
that, you didn’t want me. Was that
it, Joel?
 

Beat.
 

BLONDE IN FRONT ROW
Who’s Joel?
 

Midge turns around startled, not realizing she was being
watched. There’s a bright spotlight on her. She blinks,
partially blinded.
 

MIDGE
Oh! What?
 

BLONDE IN FRONT ROW
Who’s Joel?
 

MIDGE
My husband.

A GUY WITH THE BLONDE calls out.
 

GUY WITH BLONDE
We can’t hear you!
 

MIDGE
Oh sorry.
(she takes the mic)
Joel is my husband. Of four years.
And tonight, he left.
 

BEATNIK
Whoo!
 

MIDGE
Thank you. Thank you very much.
(starts to pace)
Yep. He left. Joel left. He
packed up my suitcase and left.
(a thought occurs to her)
Ah - the Rabbi! I’m gonna have to
lie to the Rabbi about why Joel’s
not there. Lying to the Rabbi on
Yom Kippur. Couldn’t get a clean
slate for one fucking day.
 

BLONDE IN FRONT ROW
I don’t understand what’s going on.
 

MIDGE
Me either, sister. Me either.
 

ANGLE ON BAR
Susie ambles in from the back. She freezes, stunned to see
Midge onstage.
 

ANGLE ON MIDGE
 

MIDGE (CONT’D)
So many questions spinning in my
head. Why did he leave? Why
wasn’t I enough? Why didn’t they
put the stage over there on that
wall instead of here by the
bathroom so you wouldn’t have to
listen to every giant bowel
movement that takes place in there?
(to horrified audience)
Oh yeah. Clear as a bell.
 

ANGLE ON SUSIE
She’s fascinated now.
 

ANGLE ON MIDGE

MIDGE (CONT’D)
I’m sorry. I’m a little drunk.
It’s all gone. Everything I had
counted on is gone.
 

A guy comes out of the bathroom.
 

MIDGE (CONT’D)
(to the guy)
You feeling better now?
 

BATHROOM GUY
(confused)
I...
 

The audience LAUGHS. They think it’s a performance now.
 

MIDGE
(continues pacing)
So, my life completely fell apart
today. Did I mention that my
husband left me?
 

BEATNIK
Whoo-hoo!
 

MIDGE
Okay, fine. But, did I tell you he
left me for his secretary? She’s
21 and dumb as a Brillo pad. And
I’m not naive. I know men like
stupid girls.
(suddenly to guy with the
blonde in the front row)
Right?
 

GUY WITH BLONDE
(caught)
Uhhh...
 

MIDGE
(continues on)
... But, I thought Joel wanted more
than stupid. I thought he wanted
spontaneity. And wit. I thought
he wanted to be challenged.
(to the Blonde)
You know what I mean?
 

BLONDE IN FRONT ROW
Uhhh...
 

MIDGE
(indicating Blonde and the
guy with her)
You two will be together forever.
And I’ll tell you this much, I was
a great wife. I was fun.
(a little more heightened)
I planned theme nights. I dressed
in costumes. I gave him kids! A
boy and a girl and yes, our little
girl is looking more and more like
Winston Churchill every day, you
know, with that big old Yalta-head?
But that’s not a reason to leave,
right?
 

A guy crosses the stage and heads to the bathroom.
 

MIDGE (CONT’D)
(to the guy)
Really? After what I just said
about the bathroom?
 

The audience LAUGHS. The guy does a U-turn back to his
chair. Midge follows him.
 

MIDGE (CONT’D)
Walk of shame!
(back to her monologue)
I loved him.
 

The women in the audience are with her.
 

MIDGE (CONT’D)
And I showed him I loved him.
The men of the audience are with her.
MIDGE (CONT’D)
All that shit they say about Jewish
girls in the bedroom? Not true.
There’s French whores standing
around the Marais district saying
“did you hear what Midge did to
Joel’s balls the other night?”
 

More HOOTS. More LAUGHS.
 

MIDGE (CONT’D)
I can’t do accents. Sorry. Joel
did accents. Joel did great
accents. His Aunt Bertha - and the
garnish. So spot-on. Oh God.
(tearing up)
I can’t believe this is happening.
I can’t believe I’m losing him to
Penny Pann.
(pissed off again)
That’s her name. Terrible, right?
Penny Pann - Penny Pann - Penny
Pann - I’m officially losing my
mind. Which is perfect. Now, I’ll
be alone and crazy. The famous mad
divorcee of the Upper West Side.
 

A couple APPLAUDS.

MIDGE (CONT’D)
Upper West side? Really? Where?

 

UPPER WEST SIDE WOMAN
72nd and Amsterdam.
 

MIDGE
The place on the corner with the
courtyard?
 

UPPER WEST SIDE WOMAN
That’s the one.
 

MIDGE
Oh, that’s nice. We looked there.
But the closets were so small and I
wanted a powder room.
(she sits on the stool,
back to her rant)
You know, I’ve seen her twice
wearing her shirt inside out?
Penny? Twice. Once, fine, you
were rushed in the morning. Twice -
you can only be trusted to butter
people’s corn at the county fair.
And here’s the worst thing, and I
know it’s shallow and petty and
small but, she’s not even that
pretty. Her ankles and calves are
the same width.
 

BLONDE IN FRONT ROW
Eww.
 

The audience LAUGHS.
 

MIDGE
(getting more wound up)
I know! And I’m sorry, but look at
me!
(stands up)
I am the same size now that I was
at my wedding! And, come on --
(throws her coat off, she’s
only in her nightgown)
Who wouldn’t want to come home to
this every night?
(realizing)
Okay, maybe today is not the best
day to judge. I’ve been crying, my
face is all puffy, just...
(grabs the blonde’s purse
and covers her face)
... ignore my head and now...
(indicating neck)
... from here down, who wouldn’t
want to come home to this?
Actually, I’m a little bloated
right now, I drank a lot of wine so
my stomach’s sort of...
(to a passing waitress)
Can I borrow your...?
(grabs her serving tray)
Thanks. Okay. So, ignore this --
(covers face with purse)
And this --
(covers stomach with tray)
But imagine coming home to these
every night.
 

The room APPLAUDS. They’re completely with her now.
 

MIDGE (CONT’D)
(getting swept up in her
own madness)
They’re good right? Plus, they’re
standing up on their own! Wait...
 

Midge pulls down her straps and shows her boobs. We hear
GASPS, CHEERS, a couple of BOOS. A waitress drops a tray of
coffee, sending mugs CRASHING to the ground. It’s complete
pandemonium. Susie’s riveted.
 

SUSIE
Oh, shit!
 

MIDGE
Now, seriously...
(she covers her face and
stomach again leaving the
boobs exposed)
... there’s no fucking way Penny
Pann can compete with these tits!
 

A woman gets up to leave, her date hurrying to follow. He
bumps into another guy and they get into a shoving match.
 

Two Policemen (including OFFICER PELUSO) walk past Susie
toward the stage.
 

SUSIE
Oh shit!!!
 

Susie takes off after them. Midge continues, oblivious to
all this.


MIDGE
So what if you’re never going to be
a comedian? Look at what greets
you at the door!
 

OFFICER PELUSO
Get down from there right now.
 

MIDGE
(ignores him)
You think Bob Newhart’s got a set
of these at home? Rickles,
maybe...
 

The Policeman yanks Midge off the stage.
 

MIDGE (CONT’D)
Ow! Hey...
 

GUY WITH BLONDE
(to Blonde)
That was the best thing ever.
 

The Policemen walk Midge out. Susie catches up with them.
 

SUSIE
It’s not what you think. She’s a
housewife. She doesn’t know the
rules.
 

OFFICER PELUSO
We can discuss it at the station.
 

MIDGE
Station? What station?
 

Susie watches helplessly as the Policemen pull Midge up the
stairs and the room gives her a standing ovation.

____________

That was an EIGHT PAGE scene in the screenplay. Much longer than most scenes you’ll write.

If you want to learn more about pilot writing, we have you covered.

BUT ANYWAY…

That scene is so long I could only find a short clip from the trailer for it! But you should totally watch or read the pilot because it's so amazing!

The point is, look at how this scene MASTERFULLY uses all out tools.

What’s the first conflict?

The pyrex. And why can’t she get it? The waitress is incompetent.

So the waitress goes out, and the next conflict? She wanders on stage to talk to herself...and the woman in the front row can’t hear her.

Then the bathroom is too loud.

Then she just starts talking and we see what she's up against...the audience’s attention span.  

As Midge battles the audience and slowly wins, we don't let her off the hook. She gets the police in there and ends on a final conflict of her flashing her boobs to the crowd, and having the police take her away.

Now I told you never to write a scene where someone enters and then exits.

And I stand by that notion in general.

But if you write a script this solid, you can do anything you want.

Writing scenes is harder than just deciding on a conflict. You also have to see what you can convey with just action and not dialogue.

Challenge yourself to express the conflict on the page without the use of the spoken word.

Writing A Scene Without Dialogue

Sure, an action scene makes sense here. You can show people storming the beaches of Normandy and understand the conflict and goals of that scene.

But what about something more complex?

In screenwriting, we’re always saying “Show, don’t tell.”

So what about a scene that just shows us everything we need to know?

Let’s talk about There Will Be Blood. And look at a few of the first scenes which have no dialogue.

____________

 

EXT. NEW MEXICO DESERT - DAY - 1898


CAMERA looks up a steep trail. Half the frame filled with a
hill in close distance, the other half is sky ... over the top of
the hill we see a prospector's pick come up and then down ... up and
then down ... up and then down …


ANGLE. BEHIND THE MAN WITH THE PICK.


DANIEL c. PLAINVIEW (late 30's here) is, with pick and ax,
in the middle of the day, in 110 degree heat in New Mexico,
searching for SILVER.

 

He has a shaft about fifteen feet deep at this point.
Nearby is a MULE and a CART. He digs and digs and digs.
 

FRONT ANGLE. CU. DANIEL'S FACE.
 

He continues.
 

EXT. DESERT - EVENING.
 

CUT TO:
 

The MULE is pulling a cart filled with his prospector's
supplies. He walks beside, across the very rough desert
terrain. HOLD.

 

CUT TO:


EXT. MINE SHAFT- ANOTHER DAY.
 

He's back at it again. The SHAFT IS NOW TWENTY FEET DEEP.
He hears something outside the SHAFT in between swings
of the pick …


He listens ... waits ... continues with the work ... but turns back
and climbs up out of the SHAFT …


ANGLE, MOUTH OF THE SHAFT.
 

He climbs out and looks;

His MULE has dropped dead in the heat. It is out like a light,
turned over on it's side, the CART has fallen over with it ...
He walks over, inspects, wipes his sweat off, takes a break for
a minute and then goes back in the shaft.


CUT TO:


INT. SHAFT. LATER.


cu. PICK into earth once again.


CU. DANIEL. He sees something in the earth here.


HIS POV- IN THE ROCK. The clear tracing, glistening vein of a
SLIVER ORE CHAMBER.


HOLD ON HIS FACE. AND THE CAMERA EXAMINES CLOSELY THESE MINERALS
IN THE ROCK. PLAY OUT FULL.


OUTSIDE THE SHAFT, LATER.


He unleashes the dead mule from the CART. and begins to LOAD IN
MASSIVE CHUNKS OF ROCK, LEADED WITH SILVER ORE INTO THE CART.
 

He catches his breath. He wipes his face and he goes back into
the SHAFT - but as he starts back down - somewhere between
passing out and tripping -- he plunges - loosing all his
balance, twists around and HEADS FEET FIRST STRAIGHT DOWN THE
SHAFT WITH NO HOLD - AND LANDS AT THE BOTTOM
BOTH HIS ANKLES SNAP TOWARDS EACH OTHER.


HOLD. He passes out.


CU. DANIEL.
maybe a few moments later and he has come to ... he looks up to the
top of SHAFT and sees the light -
 

So ... over the course of however long it takes, he pulls himself up
and out of the MINE SHAFT.


ANGLE, MOUTH OF THE SHAFT.
 

he arrives at the opening ... He puts himself on his back and
rests ... HOLD.

As he opens his eyes, he notices that the CART - from the weight
of SILVER ORE - it has tipped forward ... and in doing so, has
dropped his CANTEEN OF WATER that had been strapped safely to
the cart - water dribbles out in a pool of mud where the canteen sits.

 

____________

Okay, so these scenes are rife with conflict, desires, and obstacles. We have mules dying of thirst, the hardened land, and even people on his crew taking falls.

And what do these scenes reveal about Daniel as a protagonist?

We see his determination, his grit, and his tenacity...all without a single word.

You don’t have to be writing a drama to understand this stuff. You could be writing a great comedy and also load every scene with wants, conflicts, and obstacles...and no dialogue.

Let’s use Wall-E as an example here.

Pixar is known for its great storytelling.

And the opening to Wall-E is no different.  

____________

 

EXT. AVENUE OF TRASH
         
         "...Beneath your parasol the world is all a smile..."
         
         Something moving on the ground far below.
         A figure at the foot of a trash heap.
         A SMALL SERVICE ROBOT diligently cubing trash.
         Rusted, ancient.
         Cute.
         Every inch of him engineered for trash compacting.
         
         Mini-shovel hands collect junk.
         Scoop it into his open chassis.
         His front plate closes slowly, compressing waste.
         A faded label on his corroded chest plate:
         "Waste Allocation Loader - Earth Class" (WALL-E)
         
         Wall-E spits out a cube of trash.
         Stacks it with the others.

 

         Something catches his eye.
         Tugs on a piece of metal stuck in the stack.
         A hubcap.
         The sun reflects off it.
         Wall-E checks the sky.
         
         ON TRASH HEAP HORIZON
         
         The sun sets through the smoggy haze.
         
         "...And we won't come back until we've kissed a girl --"
         
         He places the hubcap in his compactor.
         Presses a button on his chest.
         The song stops playing.
         The end of a work day.
         
         Wall-E attaches a lunch cooler to his back.
         Whistles for his pet COCKROACH.
         The insect hops on his shoulder.
         They motor down from the top of a GIANT TRASH TOWER.

 

____________

We can see that Wall-E’s one desire is to clean all the trash on Earth. We know that he has a pet cockroach, he likes shiny things and has a playful spirit.

But...where’s the conflict?

Come on, dummy, it's internal!

Wall-E is supposed to be cleaning but he’s also easily distracted. He knows there's more to the world than trash!

Again, when you are writing a scene, you have to take all these into account.

This one is a short scene, but it says so much and follows all the rules.

Summing Up How To Write A Scene

Now that you know the basics and the pro-tips for how to write a scene, it's time to write a bunch of them.

Whether you’re writing love scenes, fight scenes, or just two people talking, keep in mind the wants and desires of each character.

And then deny them their goal.

After all, your entire story should be built on a character desperate to achieve something.

So if you feel confident that you know how to write a scene, go out there and put it into action.

Give us marquee character descriptions, gripping action, and erotic love stories.

Write what makes you happy, and what makes the audience stay tuned.

We can't wait to see what you do!      

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