Thursday, June 16, 2011

How to Write a Scene with Cecilia Russell of How Movies Work

Writing compelling scenes is the basis of any good screenplay, novel or short story for that matter. But how does one do this?

Practice, practice, practice

According to Cecilia Russell of How Movies Work, the only way to get better at writing scenes is to practice

“It’s like playing scales for a concert pianist, or practicing a putt for a golfer," says Russell.

“One of the things that used to mess up my ability to write was the idea that I needed to 'know' what I was writing in order to write something. So not true. Writing characters, dialogue, conflict, subtext, action narration doesn’t require a story. It doesn’t require a reason to write. You don’t wait to practice your craft when you are in a situation where you have to perform. You practice so you can perform. Big difference.

“Also, there’s something magical about practicing writing without an intended product. For so many of us, especially those who are producers and professional copywriters, we’ve been to school in structure, [told to] outline heavily before you start writing. For some, it shuts down another avenue for accessing your story – writing purely through character.

“When you let your characters speak, roam around and find their internal direction you can often find your story that way too. The characters are more liberated to act when they aren’t constrained by your roadmap.”

The tennis match

In order to practice writing scenes, Russell came up with all the different types of scenes that she typically reads in scripts. 

One of these basic conflict scenes between two or more people Russell calls the “tennis match.”

“One character serves up the problem, the other character answers, deflects, lobs, changes the problem or loses the point. There’s two people NOT talking about the conflict. Then there’s pure action. There’s a scene that creates tension and suspense. A scene that introduces and reveals character. Another where a character is challenged to change his/her core wound (what we call the internal character flaw that’s the core of the hero’s journey). As a writer, you want to know how to do every one of these scenes artfully. It’s so much easier if you practice before you are ‘in the game.’ "

What are the components that need to be in each scene?

According to Russell, each scene needs change.

“Something needs to change or be different between the beginning of the scene and the end of the scene, whether that’s emotional, informational or physical. Sometimes it’s all three.”

- Every character has to have a desire or a motivation.
- They need a willingness or lack of willingness to reveal their desire or motivation.
- Conflict must occur. Either as a result of the characters’ actions or differing desires or as an outside conflict (a bomb explodes).
- The end of the scene reveals a new conflict that will need another scene to resolve it.

Other tips for showing more in scenes and telling less?

Russell advises:

1. Imagine having to write your story without dialogue. How would that change your scenes?

2. Play with character who lie and missing information. When a character lies or has limited knowledge, the writer has to SHOW how they are lying. The story tends to reveal itself in action, not words.

3. Remember the audience is smart and looking for story connections. If you show a gun, you assume someone’s going to use it. If a character says they are happier than they have ever been in their lives, you assume that something bad is going to happen. 

Learn more about the workshops that Cecilia Russell offers on her website Her next scene writing class starts next Wednedsay night, June 22cd, 6-9pm. It's online, $279 for 9 weeks. Click here: to get a 20% discount: $237!

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