WHAT IS A SCENE?
Here’s an article from the old website. It’s long and dense, so read slow and enjoy. It’s good stuff. I promise not to post stuff this dense again.
(Please excuse any formatting problems. It didn’t quite translate from the old HTML.)
A scene is an expression of essential conflict that advances the story. By adhering slavishly to this principle at all times, you will never have a flat or dull scene, nor will you ever have a scene which is merely expository. To understand the power of this statement, we must start with the essence of character – the forces that drive the character. These are the essential forces that shape the character’s choices. In screenwriting, choices are the only means of displaying character. Each character has a number of driving forces, often conflicting with each other. Various writers and commentators classify these forces differently. For our purposes, we will use the terms super-objective, story objective, scene objective and point of
Super-objective = a character’s deep-rooted
goal, not to be confused with the specific goal of the story. Rather,
it is something which runs deeper and often outlives the specific
goal of the story. For example, an ex-con may seek to kill the man
who set him up (the character’s story objective), but
beneath that is a more important goal, to restore or maintain his
self-respect. That deeper goal is the character’s super-objective.
It informs all the character’s actions, even if it sometimes
runs afoul of his or her story objective. Other examples
may be the woman who wants to steal a baby (her story objective)
but what is really underneath it is her desire to have a family (her
super-objective.) The plot may have her trying to steal a
baby all the way through the story, but in the end, as she is carted
off to jail for kidnapping, she discovers she is pregnant. Despite
the catastrophe of her life (and the irony), she is happy because
she is achieving her super-objective. Of course, the author
may choose to make her unhappy because, although she is pregnant,
she may consider that having a baby in prison does not meet her super-objective,
namely, to have a family. The super-objective need not be
known to the character or the audience, but it must be known to the
writer who, as we will see below, will use it in determining every
action of the character.
NOTE: The term “Super-objective” is sometimes
used differently by different writers and dramatists. Sometimes, it
is used for what we are calling the story-objective. Sometimes,
it is used in a broader sense, similar to the way we use theme. In
this article, it is always used to mean the character’s deeper
Story Objective = a character’s specific
goal during the screenplay. For example, to save the girl, to steal
the money, to avenge the death, to bring the killer to justice, to
return to one’s regular life, to escape the law, etc. Unlike
the super-objective, this goal is typically a result of events
which occur in the first act of the screenplay and it is typically
resolved by the end of the screenplay. Keep in mind that, like the
super-objective, the objective may not be obvious or known
to the character. For example, in The Color of Money, Paul
Newman’s character believes he is on a journey to train and
exploit new raw talent (Tom Cruise). However, the talent leaves him
at the end of act two. Thereafter, he decides to compete in the pool
tournament himself. It takes a deeper analysis to see what his real
story objective was and an even deeper analysis to see his
super-objective. Like the super-objective, the story
objective must be known to the writer.
Scene Objective = a character’s goal
in the specific scene. It could be getting past a guard, convincing
a friend to participate in a robbery, convincingly lying to a spouse,
climbing a sheer cliff, or sitting alone in a room for ten minutes.
Powerful scenes have only one scene objective for each character.
Typically, the scene objective is known to the character,
but not always. It should always be known to the writer.
Point Of View = the way in which the character
sees the world. This seminal concept is dealt with at length in
another article which should be fully considered. (Sorry – other article is also from old website, not posted yet. It’ll go up again in the next few weeks.) In short, it
is a filter through which the character runs perception and an ordinarily
unspoken position from which a character performs all acts. Examples
of points of view are “everyone in the world is out
to rip everyone else off”. In that case, each word and action
of the character comes from her belief that everyone is trying to
rip her off. Even if she never says it, it always informs her actions.
She looks at fruit longer than the next person, she rejects a gift
because “it must be a rip-off”, she is unable to evaluate
a business proposal because she is certain is has a hidden trap which
she is not seeing. There are infinite points of view available. A
few examples include “only the smart survive”, “I
am ugly and people are repelled to look at me” and “The
world owes me.” Typically, there is one point of view per character
and characters are rarely aware of their own points of view.
Each and every character has his or her own super objective,
story objective, scene objective (in each scene),
and point of view. Every choice of every character must be
informed by each of these forces and is a result of the interaction
of these forces. The writer must continually keep in mind the specific
forces guiding the character and allow the forces not only to inform
how a character behaves in each circumstance but to inform what circumstance
the writer puts the character in. Put another way, the writer must craft
each and every circumstance to test the character’s resolve with
respect to each of these forces. Do not ever put the character in neutral
circumstances which do not require resort to these forces to determine
outcome, not for an eighth of a page, not for a brief establishing shot, not even
for a single word of dialogue. Adhering to this extremely high standard
is one of the marks of a truly professional writer.
Before writing begins, the writer should make a serious and thoughtful
attempt to determine the super objective, story objective,
and point of view of each major character. However, as in any
creative effort, writing is a journey of discovery and the writer may
find that objectives and points of view emerge through the process of
writing itself. When this happens, and it always does, the writer must
re-address the story from the beginning and revise it so that all of
a character’s choices are a result of the interaction of these
forces. Often, this means discarding a favorite scene or line of dialogue.
Have courage, bite the bullet, make the change. You will come up with
other beautiful lines of dialogue. The writer must write in service
to the story as a whole or his or her scripts will always be mediocre.
The purpose for understanding the essential forces for each major character
is to allow the writer to ask and answer these questions in each circumstance:
(1) What is the character feeling and thinking at this exact moment?
In other words, what is his or her emotional state?
(2) What will the character do or say in this moment?
The informed inquiry into these two questions is essential to determining
action. It is not a light inquiry and it is often not an easy inquiry.
Excellent writing is hard work. The writer should not simply accept
the first answer that comes to mind, but probe the answer by examining
in light of each of the essential forces, trying a different answer,
analyzing it, and trying yet a different answer. For each possible choice,
the writer should consider its opposite as another possible choice.
Often, the opposite turns out to be much more powerful.
As stated above, each moment should be crafted so that, given the forces
acting on the character, he or she is tested in that moment. Often,
it will take approaching a moment from many different standpoints, experimenting
with different possibilities, until that one single moment is best crafted
to exploit the forces which shape the character and best reveal that
character’s choices. Each moment must push the character further
than the last, ever stretching the fabric of the character, creating
greater and greater pressure with each choice the character makes, until
the character surely must burst apart. It is only in that moment when
the character is stretched to his or her limit that he or she can learn,
change, grow, adapt, or be destroyed.
Given this framework for understanding the essence of character, we
return to the initial premise – the seminal principal which guarantees
engaging, powerful scenes. A scene is an expression of essential conflict
that advances the story. Looking at in pieces, we find “ an expression
of essential conflict” and “that advances the story”.
“Essential conflict” is a conflict which tests the character
in light of the essential forces shaping his or her choices. The character
can be alone, for example climbing the shear face of a cliff, or more
typically with other characters, for example trying to talk her way
out of hostage hold-up. However, in each case, the moment must be an
essential test of the character in terms of the essential forces. When
Clarice first confronts Hannibal in the classic scene from Silence
of The Lambs (bottom of page 9 through page bottom of page
16), the conflict springs from the forces which drive each character.
For Clarice, these forces are: Super-objective = desire to
demonstrate her real worth beyond that of humble background; story
objective = desire to apprehend the “Buffalo Bill”
serial killer; scene objective = to get Hannibal to help her;
Point of view = “If I adhere to my principals, I will
always prevail.” In this six page scene, Hannibal astutely preys
on exactly these forces in toying with Clarice. His insight into these
forces gives him his power. It is worth reading and rereading this scene
and considering the forces at work to understand how character creates
perfect scenes. Just as Clarice has forces at work, so does Hannibal.
His forces are just as essential to his action as are hers to hers.
Notice that in all scenes within a story, each character’s essential
forces remain constant except for the scene objective, thus
forcing each scene into a focused context in which it is supported both
before and after. A scene can never be saved after the fact; it must
work in the moment or it fails. However, the enjoyment of the scene
grows when subsequent scenes illuminate and clarify the essential forces
which created that scene. In this way, the entire story is wound tightly
around the interaction of the main characters’ essential forces
and these forces continuously drive the action to its ultimate climax
In a scene involving multiple characters, the writer must craft each
scene with reference to each of the character’s essential forces.
Internal conflict arises when circumstances test a character’s
essential forces, some of which themselves may conflict. External conflict
arises when one character’s essential forces conflict with another’s.
On the most superficial level, this occurs when characters have different
scene objectives. However, the writer should not be satisfied
there. Well crafted characters will collide on multiple levels –
conflicting super-objectives, story objectives and
points of view can all also come into play. When each choice
of each character is controlled by conflicting essential forces, sparks
ignite. Because these forces are essential, the characters care about
the conflict. Because the characters truly care, the reader also cares.
The characters seem to have authenticity and we find the scenes engaging.
Finally, in order for the scene to be effective, the essential conflict
must advance the story. Advancing the story means driving it towards
its ultimate conclusion on multiple levels. Although a scene must always
advance the plot towards the story’s ultimate conclusion, that
alone is not enough. It must also advance (1) each character by increasing
the tension between the character’s circumstances and his or her
essential forces and (2) the relationships between characters by deepening
the essential conflicts between them. It must also make these advancements
through essential conflict, in other words, by exploiting the essential
forces at work on each character. In this way, each scene presses each
character further and further, strains the relationships between the
characters even as it deepens their bonds, and ultimately brings us
to the point of maximum tension where meaningful growth or destruction
A common pitfall of emerging writers is to rely on non-essential forces
to drive particular scenes forward without reference to the essential
forces. Doing so creates weak, wandering stories since readers and audiences
do not care much about non-essential forces acting on these characters.
While such a story moves logically forward, it does not engage at the
level of a competitive, professional screenplay. The audience cares
about the same things the characters care about, but the audience must
be shown what the character really cares about. Define the essential
forces acting on your character and stick with it through the entire
Following these principals, doing the work that needs to be done, creating
choices by asking the questions that need to be asked, you can expect
perfect scenes which add up to a highly focused, engaging, professional