Scene Construction and Symphonic Dialogue, John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, p. 373–376
Scenes are where the action is — literally. Using description and dialogue, you translate all the elements of premise, structure, character, moral argument, story world, symbol, plot and scene weave into the story the audience actually experiences. This is where the story come alive.
A scene is defined as as one action in one time and place. But what is a scene made of? How does it work?
A scene is a ministory. This means that a good scene has six of the seven structure steps: the exception is self-revelation, which is reserved for the hero near the end of the story. The self-revelation step within a scene is usually replaced by some twist, surprise, or reveal.
CONSTRUCTING THE SCENE
To construct any scene, you must alwas achieve two objectives:
i. Determine how it fits into and furthers the overall development of the hero.
ii. Make it a good ministory.
These two requirements determine everything, and the arc of the hero’s overall development always comes first.
KEY POINT: Think of a scene as an upside-down triangle.
The beginning of the scene should frame what the whole scene is about. The scene should then funnel down to a single point, with the most important word or line of dialogue stated last.
Let’s look at the ideal sequence you should work through to construct a great scene. Ask yourself the following questions:
Position on the character arc: Where does this scene fit within the hero’s development (also known as the character arc), and how does it further that development?
Problems: What problems must be solved in the scene, or what must be accomplished?
Strategy: What strategy can be used to solve the problems?
Desire: Which character’s desire will drive the scene? (This character may be the hero or some other character.) What does he want? This desire provides the spine of the scene.
Endpoint: How does that character’s desire resolve? By knowing your endpoint in advance, you can focus the entire scene toward that point.
The endpoint of the desire coincides with the point of the inverted triangle, where the most important word or line of the scene is positioned. This combination of the endpoint of the desire with the key word or line creates a knockout punch that also kicks the audience to the next scene.
6. Opponent: Figure out who opposes the desire and what the two (or more) characters fight about.
7. Plan: The character with the desire comes up with a plan to reach the goal. There are two kinds of plans that a character can use within a scene: direct and indirect.
In a direct plan, the character with the goal states directly what he wants. In an indirect plan, he pretends to want one thing while actually wanting something else. The opposing character will have one of two responses: he will recognize the deception and play along, or he will be fooled and end up giving the first character exactly what he really wants.
A simple rule of thumb can help you decide which sort of plan the character should use. A direct plan increases conflict and drives characters apart. An indirect plan decreases conflict initially and brings characters together, but it can cause greater conflict later on when the deception becomes clear.
Remember, the plan refers to how the character tries to reach a goal within the scene, not in the overall story.
8. Conflict: Make the conflict build to a breaking point or a solution.
9. Twist or reveal: Occasionally, the characters or the audience (or both) are surprised by what happens in the scene. Or one character tells another off. This is a kind of self-revelation moment in a scene, but it is not final and may even be wrong.
Note that many writers, in an attempt to be “realistic”, start the scene early and build slowly toward the main conflict. This doesn’t make the scene realistic; it makes it dull.
KEY POINT: Start the scene as late as possible without losing any of the key structure elements you need.
COMPLEX OR SUBTEXT SCENES
The classic definition of subtext is a scene where the characters don’t say what they really want. This may be true, but it doesn’t tell you how to write it.
The first thing to understand about subtext is that conventional wisdom is wrong: it’s not always the best way to write the scene. Subtext characters are usually afraid, in pain, or simply embarassed to say what they really think or want. If you want a scene with maximum conflict, don’t use subtext. On the other hand, if it’s right for your particular characters and the scene they are in, by all means use it.
A subtext scene is based on two structural elements: desire and plan. For maximum subtext, try these techniques:
a. Give many characters in the scene a hidden desire. These desires should be in direct conflict with one another. For example, A is secretly in love with B, but B is secretly in love with C.
b. Have all the characters with hidden desires use an indirect plan to get what they want. They say one thing while really wanting something else. They may be trying to fool the others, or they may use subterfuge they know is obvious but hope the artifice is charming enough to get them what they really want.