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Scene Exercises

By Michael Schilf · January 21, 2010

You will use a lot of different types of scenes to accomplish very specific parts of your overall story. Sometimes the main purpose of a particular scene is to establish setting, or deliver exposition, or reveal important information. Try these exercises to strengthen your ability to use each type of scene effectively.

Objective: Set the mood through character action

Exercise: Write three short scenes (each 1/2 page). NO DIALOGUE. The same character walks alone through the same surroundings (interior or exterior) three different times. NO DIALOGUE. Use concise, creative description to alter the mood and atmosphere of each scene: The first time we get the feeling we’re in a horror film. The second time a romance. The third time a cheerful comedy.

Hints: Use night/day, lighting, props, sounds, wardrobe, and movement. Ask where the character is coming from/going, how the character moves, what is the next scene, what same elements can be used in each scene, but to different effect?

Objective: Scene economy, planting and payoff, involving an active audience.

Exercise: Write two short scenes (1/2 page each). NO DIALOGUE.
Scene 1: Your character is in alone in a room getting read for a date. We should be able to tell from the way in which he/she prepres if he/she is looking forward to the date, apathetic about it, dreading it, etc…
Scene 2: The same character enters the same room after the date. What happened on the date? We should tell by his/her actions – how he/she moves, gets undressed, looks in the mirror, etc. – how the date went. Was it a disaster? Unexpected? Predictable? Passionate? Remember, you must know what kind of date it is: a wedding, a funeral, the prom.

Remember: Scenes of preparation and aftermath should be at an emotional extreme. Hints: Since the scene of aftermath should contradict the preparation, you want to bring the character from one extreme to the other.

Example: Imagine a hitman in a suit with a press pass for the Democratic Convention. He’s assembling his elite sniper rifle, while looking over the dossier of the party’s Presidential nominee… We know who he is, where he’s going, what he’s going to do, how he’s going to do it… and we feel smart because we put the information together. And when he returns, his mission will have been a success, or maybe he’s the one who has been shot.

Objective: Give props extra emotional power. Exercise: Write a scene (3 pages) in which a prop is used in two drastically different ways. The prop should originally be given as a gift or good-will gesture. Then, at the end of the scene, it is reversed and used to express anger or a change in sentiments.

Remember: Props should be visual, hand-held items. Hints: Be creative. Select an unusual prop and us it in an original manner.

Objective: Give the audience information in a unique manner.

Exercise: Write a scene (3 pages) in which a character works hard to uncover some information. This can be a crime scene, an interview, or some other situation in which your character needs to assess and relate pertinent information to the audience. Give him/her obstacles: other characters unwilling to come forward with information, clues or information hidden from plain view, dead ends.

Remember: Do not be easy on your character. Make your character work hard and in a unique manner that gives the audience something new. A “stool pigeon” who easily gives away information is boring. Hints: Use the main character’s unique “view of the world” to either manipulate the other characters into giving the information or view the clues at the scene in a way other don’t.

Objective: Have one character convince another character to do something he or she does not want to do.

Exercise: Write either of the following scenes:
Scene 1. A scene in which one character attempts to seduce another character and the seducee is willing but the circumstances are all wrong. For example, there is a third party there – mom or dad, the boss, an ex-lover – or the place is all wrong – they’re at work, or at a job interview, or backstage before a performance.
Scene 2. A scene in which someone attempts to seduce another person and the circumstances are absolutely perfect – the mood, the time of day, the place are ideal – but the seducee is not willing.

Remember: A seduction is not necessarily sexual, but merely one character convincing another character to do something he/she doesn’t want to do. The resolusion of the seduction is up to you – the seducer succeeds or fails – but whatever the outcome, the seducer must try a few times, each with increasing difficulty, before they fail or find the key to make the other character turn.

Hints: Use your character’s wants/passions. If John knows that the Samuel wants money, power, fame… or he has information Samuel wants to remain secret, have John use that want or information to seduce Samuel into doing what John wants.

Objective: Force opposite characters to interact and change.

Exercise: Write a scene in which two people from seemingly opposite poles are forced together. By the end of the scene they grow closer, either physically or emotionally or both. Make sure to give each character a very clear goal in the scene, and choose one character whose shoes we will be in – decide whose scene it is, and make us feel what he or she feels.

Remember: For your scene to be effective, you’ll need to find interesting, believable differences between the characters – the stronger their differences, the further they will have to travel, and the more interesting your scene will be. In addition to the external differences, be sure to consider how they react differently to the predicament of being stuck together – does one panic? Is one delighted? Aroused? Brave? Remember how quickly a reaction to the problem gets us involved with a character.

Hints: Find something difficult but plausible – something from which they cannot escape – that forces them to be stuck together. And be clear about what brings them together in the end. Do they discover some common interest or objective? Do the romantic designs of one of the characters succeed in breaking through the barriers?

Objective: Use your audience’s knowledge (or lack of knowledge) to create tension.

Exercise: Write a scene (3 pages) in which the audience discovers something that the character does not. Then use this to manipulate the audience.

Remember: “The Bomb.” There are different levels of tension and emotion you can create, depending on what you tell your audience and when.

Hints: How do you want your audience to feel? Work back from there to manipulate their emotions.

Example: STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) – Luke has just returned from Dagobah and has rejoined his team on the forest moon of Endor. Stepping out from the Ewok party, he stands alone in deep thought as Leia joins him to ask what’s wrong. Luke explains that he has to face Darth Vader alone because Vader is his father. He then continues to reveal that “The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it, and… My sister has it.” And as the words sink in for her, he clarifies, “Yes. It’s you, Leia.” Clearly Luke has dropped a bomb – two actually. We knew Vader was Luke’s dad, but we didn’t know Leia was his sister, yet poor Han doesn’t know anything, so when he sees Luke kiss Leia on the cheek and leave, we enjoy Han’s misunderstanding.

Objective: Explore polarity by creating a situation in which your character chooses to change his/her motivation or goal.

Exercise: Write a scene (3 pages) in which a character enters expecting a certain, very clear outcome, but the other character in the scene surprises him, and as a consequence, the first character has to reverse his intention and do something else – practically the opposite of what he entered to do.

Remember: The character who enters must come in with a lot at stake and a very clear goal. Give him/her plenty of urgency and make his/her expectations clear. Also make sure that the person with the surprise has a good, strong reason for delivering the surprise. Don’t make him/her just a messenger – involve him/her.

Hints: This scene depends upon an entrance that tells us where the character is coming from. What happened just before the scene starts? What was each character doing? Show this – reveal it without a lot of expository talk. It is essential. Also, this scene is about polarity – change! Go for maximum polarity to achieve maximum dramatic effect.

Example: CHINATOWN (1974) – the climatic third act scene where Gittes comes to tell Evelyn he’s turning her over to the police – Lt. Escobar is already on his way – but Gittes wants the truth about the girl Katherine, so Evelyn explains, “She’s my daughter.” Gittes slaps her. “I said I want the truth,” he demands. “She’s my sister.” Slap. “She’s my daughter.” Slap. “My sister. My daughter.” More slaps. Gittes throws her across the room: “I said I want the truth!” Evelyn screams out: “She’s my sister AND my daughter.” With this new and potent information, Gittes reverses his initial goal and now tries to plan how to help them escape.

Objective: Create an obstacle that brings out the true identity (or personality) of your character.

Exercise: Write a scene (3 pages) in which a character anticipates the arrival of one character, but instead, the unexpected visitor shows up, and that visitor is the absolute wrongest person. Your main character then needs to come up with a creative lie to get rid of the unexpected visitor.

Remember: Start in a scene of preparation. What’s the mood of the character as he/she waits for the “right” person, and how does this change when the “wrongest” person arrives?

Hints: Actions speak louder than words.

Objective: To engage an active audience that will understand what has happened between the scenes. If done properly, you can tell the story of an entire feature in these three short scenes.

Exercise: Write the following three scenes (1/2 page each scene). NO DIALOGUE. A character enters a specific place to meet a person three times:
Scene 1: The first time it is unfamiliar, mysterious to him/her. The scene ends when he/she greets the person.
Scene 2: The second time the place seems familiar, friendly – the greeting is a happy one. The scene ends with the greeting.
Scene 3: The third time the place is deserted. There should be a feeling of sadness. Nobody is waiting for him/her this time… Remember: Know the character who enters. Create a situation for him/her, a story that is told in these three distinct scenes. The story occurs between these scenes.

Hints: The way your character reacts to the environment will tell us what’s happened. Visualize! Use mood, lighting, sound.

Example: Think of Scrooge entering Marley’s Office the first time as a young man, then sometime later, after he became a partner, then later still when he was all alone. Questions that should be answered: Who is the character? How old? Why are they coming to the place? What do they expect to find?What about the place? What is it? How does he/she perceive it? In the second and third scenes – How has the place changed? How has the main character changed? More confident? Nervous? What is she doing there again?