This post was written by Chris Perry and Eric Henry Sanders.

If you’re writing a script, it’s a safe bet that at some point in the process you’ll have an outline. Whether it’s a pile of index cards, a beat sheet, pages of bullets, or some obsessively overworked-detective-mind-map with pins and yarn, it adds up to basically the same thing: a summary of what’s supposed to happen in your screenplay. But how do you take that summary and turn each beat into a living, breathing scene?

The answer from SceneWriting is that you’ve got to focus on the three key elements of information, resolution, and reader engagement.

In short, a great scene is a contained portion of a script that delivers necessary story information, resolves in a way that compels further reading, and does so in a way that thoroughly engages your readers.

Let's dive in.

SceneWriting Key #1: Information

The class standing in salute in 'Top Gun: Maverick'

'Top Gun: Maverick'

Credit: Paramount Pictures

Let’s start with information. As your main character journeys from whatever kicks off their story (they’re lost in space!) to the final showdown when it all gets resolved (they make it home!), ideally every scene will advance the character’s progress towards their goal, detail their motivation, depict an obstacle in their way, and/or showcase their approach to overcoming one of those obstacles.

Put another way, the story information conveyed in every scene addresses questions such as: What does your character want? Why do they want it? What’s stopping them from getting it? And, what are they going to do about it?

In an early scene from the 2022 blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick, Warrant Officer “Hondo” Coleman (Bashir Salahuddin) informs Maverick (Tom Cruise) that Darkstar, their prototype hypersonic-jet program, is about to be shelved. Maverick wants to keep it going (this is his goal), as it represents three years of progress (this is his Motivation), but Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) wants to appropriate funding for another Pentagon project, and he justifies the shutdown on the grounds that the jet hasn’t yet cleared Mach 10 (this is his obstacle).

For Maverick, being Maverick, there’s only one solution: even though the jet isn’t ready, he’ll fly that sucker to Mach 10 (this is his approach) to prove the project is worthy.

All stories run on drama, drama is built from conflict, and conflict is all about knowing what a character wants (and why), what stands in their way, and what they attempt to do in order to overcome those hurdles. In this scene from Top Gun, like countless others, the conflict arises from two characters with mutually exclusive goals and no easy compromise.

SceneWriting Key #2: Resolve

Marverick, played by Tom Cruise, flying a jet in 'Top Gun: Maverick''Top Gun: Maverick'

Credit: Paramount Pictures

The second big lesson from SceneWriting is that a great scene must resolve.

But where and how should your scene end?

As it turns out, there are two important functions of scene endings: The first is to reveal a new piece of story information to your reader, and the second is to compel the reader to keep reading. These often happen in tandem; the reveal will pose a question that the reader wants answered (will Maverick get the jet to Mach 10 or die trying?).

Ending on an unresolved question gives the reader a segue to the subsequent scene, offers a signpost for where the larger story is headed, and compels the reader’s interest in getting answers.

A reveal at the end of your scene is a new piece of information that refines, enhances, reverses, or otherwise expands your readers’ understanding of the main character’s journey. The subject of that reveal is often the point of the scene. If, for example, this is the scene in which the main character finds her missing dog, that is the reveal.

But it’s not enough to simply answer the question: will the main character find her dog?

There must be a new narrative question posed in the ending to compel further reading: the dog is found (answer), but she has a new collar with a locket and an address! This new information prompts some exciting new questions like: who had the dog, what’s at that address, and what will happen when our main character goes there?

A great example of resolution can be found in the opening scene of the Ted Lasso pilot, when Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) fires the old manager of her newly acquired Richmond team. When that business is happily concluded (this is the information revealed in the scene), Higgens (Jeremy Swift) asks Rebecca if she would like him to prepare a list of new candidates to fill the vacant job. Rebecca replies, “With a sparkle in her eye,” that it’s already done.

What she doesn’t say is who has been hired. This missing piece of information leaves us hanging, and directs us to the next scene detailing Lasso’s unlikely rise from an obscure football program to Rebecca’s newly-hired Premiere League coach.

SceneWriting Key #3: Engagement

WALL-E sitting on a pile of trash, looking up at the stars in 'WALL-E'


Credit: Walt-Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Finally, a great scene must actively engage the reader in experiencing the story. An engaged reader is going to laugh out loud, jump in surprise, cry, think, and draw connections.

An engaged reader wonders what’s going on and what’s coming next, how your character is going to get out of a jam, and what will happen if and when they do. An engaged reader keeps reading because they feel that they must. They have an itch that needs scratching.

Consider the following example of scene description from SceneWriting:

Giannis is a busboy at the Athena Diner. He secretly carries a kitten in the pocket of his apron and, as he clears tables, feeds her fries left behind by customers.

This is an example of telling the reader all the story information they need to know without asking them to do any work. It’s no more engaging than an instruction manual. This guy snuck a kitten into work and is feeding it leftover fries, for crying out loud! There’s got to be a way to make this more engaging. And there is. Consider this alternative:

Old fries litter a formica table. A rag sweeps them onto a plate.

As Giannis carries the plate to the kitchen he hears a quiet mewling. He looks left and right, then grabs a French fry and holds it near his apron pocket. The tiny head of a kitten pops out, grabs the fry, and disappears.

This second version engages the reader by putting them on what the authors call a treasure hunt: a series of clues that, when followed, rewards the reader for their careful attention.

In this case, the clues are the mewling, Giannis’s surreptitious behavior, and the fry being held near his apron--all of which hint at the conclusion that is paid off when the kitten rears its head. It’s the same information, told in a more engaging way.

Here’s another example of reader engagement, taken from the beginning of WALL-E:

A range of mountains takes form in the haze.
Moving closer.
The mountains are piles of TRASH.
The entire surface is nothing but waste.

In just four sentences, screenwriters Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon pull readers in by establishing expectations of a bucolic mountainscape and then immediately inverting them. This reversal tells readers they need to stay on their toes, that this ride will not be what they expect. That’s engagement!

Every great scene provides information, resolution, and engagement. The invaluable new book SceneWriting offers screenwriters a thorough roadmap to accomplishing all three.

This post was written by Chris Perry and Eric Henry Sanders.