A scene is like a mini story. Each one has a beginning, middle and end. It starts out good and ends up bad or vice versa. It turns based on conflict. It always yields a result.
If your scene doesn’t turn, it’s half a scene. It could be setting something up, but we need the other half. For example, your opening scene might be Jack and Jill meet at the bottom of the hill with their empty buckets, they talk about their daunting challenge ahead: climbing the hill. This is not a complete scene. There’s no conflict. Neither character shows what they want. If Jack doesn’t want to climb the hill and Jill has to talk him into it, then you have a scene. There’s conflict, it starts out with a negative, ends up positive – Jack goes from “no way I’m climbing that thing” to “fine, but don’t think I won’t say I told you so when things go wrong.” Add another layer with what this means to their relationship and then you have an intriguing scene. Jill might say, “You’re always trying to get me to do new things and now here we are and you can’t follow through. Is this what you’re going to be like the rest of our married lives?” Then Jack has to man up to save their relationship.
Here’s a scene taken from Cashmere Mafia.
Zoe and Kate are seated as far apart as possible in the intimate cabin, Zoe on the phone and Kate’s gaze going from laptop to Zoe and back, as if waiting to be noticed. Zoe ends her phone call and opens her laptop; Kate closes her laptop and summons courage and walks up to Zoe’s seat.
I know we don’t use the word “sorry”, so I won’t. I just really, really admire you and I can’t tell you how grateful and honored I am to be in your such good hands.
Well, thank you, Kate.
And I’m going to knock your socks off, starting with the meeting tomorrow morning.
Where you will use last names only, go easy on the eye contact, and keep your mouth shut after the
small talk is over.
Kate nods, takes it like a good soldier, gestures to Zoe’s laptop.
Do you have any pictures of your kids?
Zoe hesitates a moment, clicks a folder open and offers the screen. Kate takes the seat opposite her.
That’s Sasha, she’s eight, and Luke, five.
God, they’re gorgeous.
Closes it up.
What’s your secret?
I don’t have one.
Come on. You’re the youngest Managing Director Gorham’s ever had, and you’re a woman, and a Mom?
There is no secret, Kate. Profit doesn’t care if you have kids or cats, a penis or a vagina, where you went to school or who you’re sleeping with. Profit only cares if you’ve got the hot hand, and through hard work and some luck mine’s been hot more often than not.
Zoe picks up the phone again and opens her laptop.
You’re going to have to excuse me…
Thank you so much for taking the time.
And Kate, a word to the wise? Be careful of office romances, especially with the married ones. Eyes like lasers, watching her reaction. Which is startled,
though she tries to hide it.
I don’t have anything going on…
For future reference then? At some point it will end and you will become an inconvenience. And if you try to sue when they trump up a due cause for firing you, they will bury you under lawyers and you’ll end up with cab fare and you’ll be blacklisted at every firm you’d ever want to work for.
Thanks, but it’s not my style.
She gets up, trips, rights herself, and starts back to her seat, clearly flustered. Zoe smiles a little.
It’s a bit long, but if you break down the scene, you’ll see Kate wants to figure out how Zoe got where she is. Kate is an entitled kid who thinks success has nothing to do with hard work and is looking for the easy way up the corporate ladder. Zoe hates this about Kate and in the scene, is waiting for Kate to reveal to her what she’s really after. Zoe knows this isn’t really an apology, Kate will show her true colours eventually and she does. Depending on what you want from the scene, it could have ended in various places.
If you wanted it to resolve the issues between them, you could have ended it after ‘good soldier‘.
If you wanted Zoe to make her point that there is no easy way up, you could have ended it on ‘opens up her laptop’.
But Zoe needed to win. A prior scene between these two ended with Kate having the upper hand. Zoe is her boss and she needed to put Kate in her place by telling Kate she knows about the romance, but also by threatening her job and her career. It also shows her ultimate power: screw this up and you won’t only be fired, you won’t have a career. The power starts in Kate’s hands, it turns the moment Zoe discovers Kate’s true motive when she asks, “what’s your secret?” and ends when Zoe knows she’s got Kate frazzled.
If Kate simply apologized without any hidden agenda. “Zoe, I’m sorry. I’ll do better next time.” and Zoe took it, “Glad to hear it.” it wouldn’t be complete simply because the dynamic between these two is so hostile so you’d need more to get them to the point of agreement. Also, Kate always has a hidden agenda, which is why Zoe waits for her to show her true colours. Zoe could say, “Sure.” but she doesn’t believe her. The trouble is, the scene already opens this way: Zoe thinks Kate’s apology is insincere so we’re waiting for her to prove it. One of the two characters must change their position, this time it’s Kate and Zoe wins.
Take a look at your scene, does it turn? Is there conflict? What does each character want and who wins? Without it, your scene dies.