How to Write a Scene in 10 Steps

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According to John August.

In case you’re wondering – who? … John August is an American screenwriter, director, producer, and novelist. He is known for writing the films Go, Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie, the Disney live-action adaptation of Aladdin, the novels Arlo Finch in the Valley of Fire, Arlo Finch in the Lake of the Moon and Arlo Finch in the Kingdom of Shadows.

So, let’s dive in …

  1. Ask: What needs to happen in this scene?
    Just one or two sentences that explain what MUST happen in this scene.
  2. Ask: What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?
    If the movie still makes sense without it, you don’t need it. Edit.
  3. Ask: Who needs to be in this scene?
    Scripts can get clogged with characters who don’t NEED to be there. Edit.
  4. Ask: Where could this scene take place?
    The most obvious setting is often the least interesting. Brainstorm other potentially unique locations. Note: Not all scenes need moving 😉
  5. Ask: What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in this scene?
    You always need a few totally unexpected moments. So, is this one of them?
  6. Ask: Is this a long or a short scene?
    Don’t overinflate what can be achieved in ¼ page. Ego can be the enemy of great screenwriting.
  7. Ask: How could this scene begin?
    Brainstorm 3 different ways the scene could begin. Your first image may be correct, but allowing creative juices to look for alternatives is better.
  8. Play it on your mind’s internal screen.
    Let the scene percolate. Immerse yourself into the moment as fully as you can. Read the dialogue. Be there. Does it work?
  9. Write a “Scribble Version.”
    This is a free-writing cheat sheet of how the scene flows and plays out. A couple of lines to act as a prompt. Such as “The scene where Harry meets Sally and they talk about X and then Y happens, leading to Z.”
  10. Write the full scene.
    Don’t edit the scribble. Scribble does not make a good scene, and neither does edited Scribble. Start clean.
  11. Repeat 200 times (give or take) and you’ve got a screenplay 😇

Do I follow this process?

Like all creatives, I have my own version but these elements are the essence of that process. I often visualise a scene as I am writing it and pause and rewind to “copy” what I see into the screenplay. I also write “Scribble Versions” of upcoming scenes – it’s a way to outline the beats. And sometimes I just write because that’s where my flow state is taking me, even if I haven’t followed the checklist. But, I come back and edit and ask these questions.

The important thing for me is that you get to the end of the process and write a good screenplay. There’s no one path to get there because creativity cannot be packaged and systematised. But … there are certain activities that you find in common in all the journies of successful screenwriters and, by adopting these into your own process, you can ensure better results every time.

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By Edward