STORY CUBE GIFSteve from Los Angeles asks:

So I’m going to the big screenwriting expo this weekend. I just signed up for it a few days back with no intentions other than checking out a lot of seminars. This morning, I was perusing the site and took a gander at the screenwriting tournament. You probably know that they give you a scenario and then you have 90 minutes to pen a 2-3 page scene. I LOVE working on deadline. I got excited. Really excited. I read some of the scenarios from past contests and felt the ideas come. Even more exciting. Then, I took a deep breath and realized, these are premises for a SINGLE scene.… In the past, I’ve tried to do too much in too small a space. I don’t want to do that again. Since the contest is on deadline, there’s no time for wasted minutes. Any suggestions as to how to approach a contest like this?

I can only suggest you remember a few basics of scene construction:

1. Get into the scene as late as possible. It’s usually later than you think. Chop off the first part and see if the scene still works.

2. Get out as early as possible. It’s usually earlier than you think. As soon as you have accomplished what you intended, get out.

3. Unless it is the last scene in the picture, make sure it leaves something incomplete. The reader should want to know what is next. One way to do this, is to have characters talk around an issue between them, unable to talk about it directly, and move on with the thing still hanging in the air.

4. Scenes also have a beginning, middle and end. They should have movement. No wasted action – everything directly in service of the movement.

5. Clean professional dialogue. See this column on dialogue to understand how I approach dialogue. For me, this approach tends to generate reasonable dialogue fairly quickly.

Good luck. Let us know how it goes.


  1. This doesn’t apply to the exercise Steve is talking about but what if the scene is one of the first couple of scenes or even the opening scene? Does or can rule #1 apply?

  2. Yes. No throat clearing. Just get into the story. A car speeding down the highway – a man waving a gun out the window. We don’t need to start with others cars driving peacefully along, a roadside sign that says “35”, and a woman pushing her baby through the cross-walk. Go right to the speeding car.

  3. Sorry to leave everyone hanging. I hate to say it, but I got spanked. Here’s what happened: I entered the contest on the second day, after pulling a marthon, 14 hour day at the expo the day before. The scenario for that session was this: “Your protagonist is a public figure who has been publicly disgraced recently. His sponsors have pulled their dollars. Their spouse followed the money; they left too. In the scene, the protag meets with their manager, who secretly has a crush on the star, and talks about future possibilities.”

    If there are two types of scenes: the ones that you’d kill to write and the others, this was deeply in the latter category. I started brainstorming. George W? Michael Moore already had that sewed up. Lance Armstrong? Not that interesting. I had a few more and none of them excited me too much. I chose Woodsy Owl and had him get pinched for littering. I even worked on a perfunctory outlinew with a beginning, middle, and end. By the time we meet our protagonist, he’s being chased down Hollywood Boulevard by the fake movie stars/movie characters that hang out in front of Mann’s Theater. The tourists wanted a piece of him too. That was fine. My reader liked that. Then, I had a meltdown and ended up telling a bunch of backstory. I know, I know, it was a very stupid idea. Well, it was downhill from there. The lesson? Don’t get in and spend most of the scene going in reverse. You’ll get run over.

  4. Many thanks for that rundown Steve, sorry to hear it did not go as well as hoped, but you put yourself out there, and obviously learnt from it.

    More than a lot of peopel do.Congrats!

  5. Wow!

    It’s first time I read your blog and I find it very interesting and enjoyable.

    I’m a young italian screenwriter (but Rome isn’t Los Angeles…) who has just started to make his first steps as a pro…

    And – referring to this question – I totally agree with your way to put down a scene… The problem is to keep mind cool and try not to love so much every word we’ve written… (also after the 24567th draft).

    (sorry for my poor english…)

  6. Heya i am for the primary time here. I found this board and I to find It really useful & it helped me out a lot. I am hoping to offer one thing back and aid others such as you helped me.

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