Thursday, June 02, 2011

How to Build a Scene: The Checklist

(Welcome Reddit readers!  I wrote more about Breaking Bad in the follow-ups to this post here and here and I expanded on the checklist here)

I’m not sure that these rules can be applied to your scenes before you write them—you’d be putting up too many walls in your way blocking you from finding out what the scene wants to be about. As with most of the “rules” on this blog, this list is far more useful for rewriting than pre-writing. I was originally going to call this series “How to Juice a Scene,” and maybe that would have been better after all—if a scene is lacking something, this list will help you identify what that might be:
  1. What is the main action of the scene?
  2. What expectations for this interaction have been established beforehand?
  3. Which of these events have been foreshadowed?
  4. How emotional is the setting?
  5. What’s the character’s strategy? (tricks and traps)
  6. How does the plot progress at the end?
  7. Which old questions are answered?
  8. Which new questions are asked?
  9. Is this a reversal or an escalation?
  10. Are there hints of a character’s past?
  11. Is there reblocking?
  12. Is there one touch? (push and pull)
  13. Are there objects exchanged? (give and take)
  14. Is there a counterpoint to the tone?
  15. Does someone talk about something other than the plot?
  16. Does subtext replaces text as often as possible? 
(It occurs to me that I never actually mentioned that last one in this series. I’ll do it now: Make sure that you’ve substituted symbolism or unintentional character reveals for intentional reveals as often as possible.)

Of course, a checklist like this is also a tool for analysis: occasionally breaking down a well-written story and figuring out what makes it work is always a useful exercise for writers. I’ve finally been catching up with “Breaking Bad” and wow- It’s just as brilliant as everybody told me it would be. When I came up with the above list, I tested it out on the next episode I watched, and I thought that both the list and the episode came through the process pretty well. This is a breakdown of every scene from an episode in the middle of season two called “Down.” Click to enlarge, of course…


Jonathan Auxier said...

It's funny you mention Breaking Bad in a piece about scene construction. I made it through only three episodes of Breaking Bad BECAUSE its scene construction was so good. The end of the third episode contains a moment (with Walter in the kitchen) that was, perhaps, the greatest piece of scene writing I have ever witnessed. It made me gasp out loud. The facts of the event were compelling enough on their own, but the way said facts were revealed to the protagonist (and audience) was nothing short of genius. I gave up on the show after that because it seemed like the writing could only go downhill from such an height. Maybe it's time I pick it back up?

Matt Bird said...

I don't mean to brag or nothing but I totally called that kitchen scene as soon as Walt woke up on the floor. Still, very nicely played out.

YES, you should keep going! What a silly reason to stop watching a show! The show just gets better and better so far.

Jonathan Auxier said...

That's WHY it was amazing. I too suspected what had happened while Walter blacked out. But not in a million years could I have come up with that plate-on-the-counter scene. When I say I gasped aloud, it was not at the information of the reveal so much as the elegance of the reveal. To me is was a perfect example of how scene execution is not just a seasoning ... it's the whole dish. All the more reason for you to be writing this excellent series of posts on your site!

Anonymous said...

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