There are probably many more features that could be listed to describe scenes that “work” or “don’t work,” but here are some essentials.
First, for good scenes:
- The scene connects to the main character’s problem/goal for that story. It should not be about something other than that. The problem should be so pressing that it requires their constant focus, in every scene.
- It develops the problem in a new direction, which will lead to new scenes. It should not just be a “stutter step,” or failure that leaves them right where they started—it needs to “change the game.”
- It’s focused on a conflict, which builds entertainingly to a climax and “turn”. Conflict is the lifeblood of all drama and comedy, and whatever the main character of that story is trying to achieve in the scene, it has to meet with unexpected resistance.
- It’s got a passionate, emotional point-of-view where we’re inside the main character of that story. The audience will only be engaged if they can relate to what they’re trying to achieve, and why—if they can feel for them on some level.
- The subtext of the character’s attitude and desires behind their realistic dialogue is clear. What the main character is really after in the scene should be obvious to the audience—even if their dialogue does not always reveal that (as good and realistic dialogue usually doesn’t).
Problematic scenes usually tend to have one or more of the following characteristics:
- Information exchange: characters tell each other things, or tell the audience, but the nature of the problem isn’t building and developing.
- Not a necessary step in the evolution of trying to solve central story problem: if the scene were cut, nobody would miss it, because its outcome doesn’t lead to and produce other scenes.
- Not driven by a conflict/problem that builds to a climax: there is either no evident relatable problem or difficult agenda being pursued, or it doesn’t build throughout the scene and get worse.
- “Good times”/success: audiences tend to get bored when characters are happy. Characters faced with a problem and actively trying to resolve it
tends to draw audiences in.
- Unclear main character motivations: if the audience doesn’t know what the main character wants, and why, they have nothing to hinge their emotional investment on, and will tend to disengage.
- Objective vs. subjective point-of-view: audiences don’t like to look down on, or at, a bunch of characters—they want to take on the perspective of someone they can connect with, and experience the story as them!
- Lack of strong driving emotion: good stories are all about an emotional experience, not an intellectual one. Characters need to feel, and feel strongly—which makes audiences feel, too…
- Not fun to watch! Television is part of the “entertainment business” and writers are paid to entertain—meaning, to deliver to audiences an emotional experience that they want to have (be that laughter, fascination, shock, connection, inspiration, romance, escapism, etc.)
In this workshop, writers will learn all the key elements to a successful “episodic spec,” and will receive ongoing instructor guidance in building their own—from basic idea through finished outline. It begins with knowing how to choose the right kind of show to spec, then understanding which elements to study, in order to really grasp how a typical episode functions well enough to write one. Students will then learn the elements of great story ideas for a spec, and be given a chance to pitch and re-pitch multiple ideas for their episode, before finally settling on one to write. At that point, they will begin “breaking story” (figuring out the key “beats” of each “act”) over several weeks, getting instructor feedback along the way. Finally, they will be guided in crafting a scene-by-scene outline, from which they could then go on to write the actual script.