Scene Writing: One Writer, Two Killer Examples

Nothing clarifies a writing principle like a shining example of perfection.  I offer up two for you today.  Plus a little surprise ending that I dare not label as perfect.

You’ll need a DVD player, a trip to Blockbuster and an afternoon at the local Cineplex.  Because both are from iconic films, one sixteen years old and the other in current release.

They were written, not coincidentally, by the same writer – Quentin Tarantino.  I often cite this guy as the rare successful exception to the principles of structure – he plays loose and illogical with it – and yet, when it comes to iconic scenes that serve as major structural milestones in his story, nobody does it better.

And if you want an example from a novel… well, that’s the little surprise ending today.  Got one for you.  The entire scene, in fact, right here.

Two Scenes They’ll Be Teaching 50 Years From Now

Writing great scenes is the hammer and nails of building our stories.  The rest is architectural theory and paint, maybe a little wallpaper and tile, too… but it is our scenes that make or break the storytelling.

In these two scenes, you’ll witness the principles of great scene writing come alive before your eyes.  They drive toward a jarring narrative mission – the numero uno principle of writing great scenes – that delivers a major story point.  They do it with unthinkable dramatic tension and sub-text.

And, they both violate a precious scene writing principle.

William Goldman, the great Oscar-winning (twice) screenwriter, advises us to enter our scenes at the last possible moment.  Sage advice, something we should paste to our computer monitors.  But like any guideline, there may be a time and a place to do otherwise.

These two scenes are examples of that.  They are both about 11 minutes in length.  An eternity for a single scene.  They luxuriate in narrative detail, visual composition, metaphor and nuance. 

And yet, they deliver off-the-charts characterization that just may require all eleven minutes to accomplish. 

You may find yourself trying to hold your breath the entire time.  Because you just know something huge is about to happen.  And it does.

There is much to learn here.  An entire year of scene writing workshops, in fact, delivered in two 11-minute sessions.

The Learning Points

Both of these scenes are major story milestones.  One is the opening hook, the other the movie’s mid-point

Both offer the viewer a key piece of information about the story, even if they make you wait to get it.  Everything in these scenes builds toward those revelations, the content of which alters the story while ratcheting up the stakes and the resultant dramatic tension.

The tension within these scenes is palpable and terrifying.  You can’t look away.  You don’t know what’s coming, but you’re certain something is.  This is sub-text at its very best.

Both scenes are virtually dripping with deep and compelling characterization. 

The dialogue and acting is nothing short of spectacular. 

As for length, the fact that these scenes deliver on a story milestone licenses them to be lengthy and artful.  Few of the other scenes in these films are delivered in this manner, nor should they be.

If you view these scenes as stand-alone works of art, and really study them in context to what you know about the mission and criteria for an effective scene, you’ll be both amazed and motivated.

I’m not advising you emulate this length, pace and micro-structure for your scenes, any more than an art teacher would emulate you try for the statue of David by carving out an image of your naked brother holding a shotgun.

But in terms of sub-text, tension and character, this is how it’s done, folks.

The Scenes

The 16-year old scene, thought by some to be one of the finest ever written and acted, was from 1993’s True Romance, which Tarantino wrote but did not direct.  The script was sold to Tony Scott for $50,000, the proceeds then used by Tarantino to self-fund his directorial debut in Reservoir Dogs.

Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper display an acting clinic that rivets, and with no action whatsoever (until the shocking conclusion) other than facial ticks and delicious nuance-infused dialogue.  All of it script-driven.

The scene is the movie’s mid-point, completely changing the context of the story from that moment forward (the essence of the function of a mid-point).  When you see Walken inside Hopper’s trailer for a little sit-down chat, you’ll know you’ve arrived.  Settle in, enjoy, and be amazed.

The other scene I ask you to study, this one in current release, is the opening sequence from Inglorious Basterds (misspelling intentional, as Tarantino’s foreshadowing of the movie’s deliberate bastardization of history).

The similarities between these two scenes is fascinating to watch, and no accident.  Tarantino reprises his True Romance triumph here, only under his own directorial hand, and with every bit the juice.

If you’re at all confused about what sub-text is and how it can infuse a scene with tension, study these scenes at length.

And now for the Surprise ending…

Most readers here are novelists, but it should be no surprise that I’m sending you to the movies to see the principles of storytelling in action.  There is really very little difference other than how the words appear on the page, and when you see it come alive before your eyes your mind will grasp it in a way that reading it cannot.

That said, the principles of great scene writing apply to novels every bit as much.

In fact, it’s harder for us, since we must imbue our scenes with lighting, sound and music, we must direct the actors to etch nuance into their words, expressions and movements, and we must do it all with nothing more than words.

But I can’t give you an entire scene to study here, if not for reasons of length, then because of copyright issues.

I’ve found a way to get around both: I’ll give you a scene from one of my novels.  Right now, in fact.

Now, I don’t claim to be Tarantino.  But this scene has received feedback that labels it a bit iconic in it’s own right, and there is much to learn from it.

Mostly, because this scene is infused with sexual tension, it becomes an example of sub-text in play to drive the scene toward the fulfillment of a mission with a high level of…well, juice

It’s from my 2004 novel Bait and Switch, named by Publishers Weekly to their “Best Books of 2004” list as the lead entry in the mass market category.  That, after a starred review and their nod as Editor’s Choice in the month of its release.

I’m not trying to sell you the book.  In fact, it’s out of print; if you buy one it’ll be a used copy from or a used bookstore, which means I don’t get a penny of the proceeds.

But I do want you to read it, because I still get emails about it.  Mostly from women, which you’ll understand once you do.

The scene involves my hero, Wolfgang Schmitt, confronting his mentor in his quest to seduce a woman he’s been hired to romance away from her husband, if he can.  The mentor is a supposed expert in the art of seduction, but Wolf turns the tables on her to create the classic student-becomes-the-teacher role reversal.

The scene, too, is the mid-point of the story.  Just in case you wondered if the Storyfixer can walk the walk after all this talk.  I’ll leave that judgment up to you.  Publishers Weekly and other reviewers have already weighed in on that count.

Please note, it’s R rated.  Definitely. 

You can read Chapter 29 of Bait and Switch in its entirety HERE.



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5 Responses to Scene Writing: One Writer, Two Killer Examples

  1. Becca

    I had the pleasure of seeing Inglorious Basterds tonight and just loved every minute of it. I am so thrilled how Tarantino snags you and draws you so deep into a scene that when he gives you the payoff it is mind blowing. I sat on the edge of my seat almost the whole movie and the others in the theater were just as focused on what was going on as I was. Tarantino is such an amazing writer and if I can write even half as good as he does I will be pleased. My goal is to do better but only time and practice will tell.

  2. Rob

    Man, I already wanted to see Inglorious Basterds. Now I GOTTA!

    Thanks for addressing scenes. I’m looking forward to your Six Core Competencies book coming out. Don’t make us wait too long. 🙂

  3. Another impeccable post that packs a lot of punch. I just have one question…how do we enter our scenes at the last possible moment? What does that entail? How do we do that?

  4. Keif

    Please explain this: William Goldman: “Enter our scenes at the last possible moment.” I don’t understand what he means in this quote. Can someone explain it please? Thanks!

  5. Explaining Goldman’s quote: first, you have to know precisely what the scene’s mission is, what narrative content will be delivered to the reader. Not characterization — that’s more “how” it’s delivered — but specific story exposition.

    Then, knowing that, you craft a scene that drive toward that point (the best scenes deliver only one salient point), and you get to it quickly. It’s really that simple.

    To best understand it, focus on what not to do. Don’t show us a bunch of chit chat, irrelevant business and details, don’t bid time, don’t over-describe scenery, don’t clutter with flashbacks and asides… just get to it.

    Let’s say two people are having a conversation, and the point of the scene is a specific message one party has for the other. To “enter the scene at the last possible moment,” you’d avoid all the banter leading up to that moment (unless there’s a reason for it to get there, if there’s “content” there), and enter the scene like this:

    John put down his cup and drew a deep breath. He closed his eyes a moment, signalling a shift.

    “Anything wrong,” asked Mary.

    “Actually, there is,” said John, leaning forward, his hands gripping each other with sudden ferocity. “You need to know something. I don’t know how else to say it. But I’m in love with someone else. I’m sorry.

    End of example (this is where she hits him in the head with a fireplace poker, by the way).

    Hope this helps. It’s a guideline, and therefore very imprecise and open to many exceptions. Just keep it front and center and, when you feel a scene is lagging or padded, ask yourself if you’ve entered that scene at the last possible moment. Chances are you haven’t, and when you do (in a rewrite), you’ll quickly see how powerful this can be.