Scenes and dialogue are paramount in the art of storytelling. Learning to craft these essential building blocks is a requirement in content of different kinds. Indeed, films, television, documentaries and advertising are well served by tight scenes with crispy dialogue. Throughout this article, we’ll examine scenes and dialogues and their effect on the art of storytelling as a whole. Let’s get started.
The Scene is the Key in the Art of Storytelling
There’s an unfortunate distance between having an idea and executing it. Talk to people and you’ll find that many have ideas for films. Many of these ideas may very well sound intriguing and even great. Unfortunately, ideas really are a dime a dozen. When it comes to crafting content, unless it’s on the page, it doesn’t really count.
Even the creation of treatments and beat sheets is often deceiving. The real test of the mettle of an idea or a premise is the screenplay. If it works on the page, it works. If it doesn’t, that idea is probably not going to be seen by an audience.
The epicenter of a screenplay and the key to the art of storytelling is the scene. We need to craft tight scenes, complete with good action and crunchy dialogue. Add a few of these scenes together and you’ll soon have a sequence. Add a few more and you’ll have an act and, eventually, a screenplay.
What is a Scene?
Let’s start with the basics. What exactly is a scene? The great writing coach Robert McKee has certain things to say:
“A scene is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance. Ideally, every scene is a story event.”
In short, McKee has summed up this with a simple principle in the art of storytelling:
“No scene that doesn’t turn”.
What this essentially means is that a scene must be vital to the story and the character. It must yield a result (as subtle as it may be) without which the story would seem incomplete. If a scene doesn’t meet these standards, it’s best to simply cut it. Let’s try to see this with some examples.
When we talking about making our scenes turn, we may get several ideas. The first intuition is to make the turn as massive and ‘physical’ as possible. Although this certainly happens in many films (certainly in the action genre, for instance), there are more ways to make scenes turn.
INT./EXT. SAAB – DAY
The car now descends the Santa Ynez Mountains and heads toward
Buellton. Miles and Jack must SHOUT to be heard in the open
You know what? Let’s take the Santa
Rosa turnoff and hit Sanford first.
Whatever’s closest, man. I need a
These guys make top-notch Pinot and
Chardonnay. One of the best producers
in Santa Barbara county.
(looking out the window)
Look how beautiful this view is.
What a day!
I thought you hated Chardonnay.
I like all varietals. I just don’t
generally like the way they manipulate
Chardonnay in California — too much
oak and secondary malolactic
Note the subtle art of storytelling in this scene alone. We learn a lot about each of the characters. Miles is very cerebral, whilst Jack is much more impulsive. Miles is also very knowledgeable about wine, whilst Jack isn’t. These clues about their characters aren’t merely expository. They will all come to play massively in the story later on. Note how the scene ends:
EXT. SANTA ROSA TURN-OFF – DAY
The Saab passes over the 101 and turns onto SANTA ROSA road.
INT./EXT. SAAB – DAY
The boys now pass vineyards of immaculate grapevines.
Jesus, what a day! Isn’t it gorgeous?
And the ocean’s just right over that
ridge. See, the reason this region’s
great for Pinot is that the cold air
off the Pacific flows in at night
through these transverse valleys and
cools down the berries. Pinot’s a
very thin-skinned grape and doesn’t
like heat or humidity.
Jack looks at Miles, admiring his friend’s vast learning and
The Saab now pulls of the road and makes its way down a long
Hey, Miles. I really hope your novel
Thanks, Jack. So do I.
Here we are.
Note the stakes that this section reveals. Miles and his novel will feature prominently throughout the story. Also, his knowledge of wine will carry much of the story too. The discerning spectator will also begin to notice the subtle metaphors behind the description of wines and their grapes.
The Trouble with Exposition
Let’s take the time here to talk a bit more about expository dialogue. When crafting scenes, a typical problem is to make them merely expository. This is a typical stumbling block when approaching the art of storytelling. Read this rather tongue-in-cheek example by Script Magazine:
Hi Chuck. How are things in the accounting business?
Fine, Jeff. I hope that the transition you made from being
a high profile defense attorney to being a middle school
English teacher is working out for you.
Oh, it is. It really helped me resolve that midlife crisis I
had last summer. How’s Betty?
My wife? She’s great. That artisanal cupcake bakery she
opened two summers ago is doing great business. How is
your son, Billy? Is he still captain of his college football
Yes, he is. He had to take a few weeks off after he broke his
leg in two places during the homecoming game, but he got
his cast off a week ago Thursday and now he’s back to playing.
Great. Oh, I talked to Doctor Johnson yesterday.
Our mutual dentist?
Exposition dialogue and scenes are really problematic. Sometimes there’s information that must be given out in a scene. This is usually the case in the first act or first half of complex science fiction films for example.
Check out how ‘Inception’ gives out information. It seems quite astute and efficient. Some critics have pointed out that the film does carry too much exposition. What do you think? Here’s a fragment of one scene. Notice the vast amount of information conveyed (and this is not even the full scene). Also notice the ending, quite cinematic, visual and beautiful, an example of the art of storytelling in itself (check out the full clip here):
EXT. PARISIAN CAFE – DAY
How could I ever get enough detail to convince him that it’s real?
Our dreams feel real while we’re in them. It’s only when we wake up we realize things were strange…
But all the textures of real life… the stone, the fabric… cars… people… your mind can’t create all this.
It does. Every time you dream. Let me ask you a question: You never remember the beginning of your dreams, do you? You just turn up in the middle of what’s going on.
So… how did we end up at this restaurant?
We came here from…
How did we get here? Where are we?
Ariadne THINKS, unable to remember. A FAINT RUMBLE begins.
Oh my God. We’re dreaming.
Cobb nods. The RUMBLE is BUILDING.
Stay calm. We’re actually asleep in the workshop. This is your first lesson in shared dreaming, remember?
Ariadne looks around, mind REELING. Cobb BRACES.
The restaurant VIOLENTLY FRAGMENTS, EXPLODING AND IMPLODING PARTICLES OF FURNITURE, WALLS, PEOPLE FLYING AROUND- Ariadne WONDERS at the MAYHEM WHIRLING around them- Cobb SHIELDS his head against the debris.
Troubleshooting Scenes and Their Dialogue
The scene, as we’ve pointed out, is an essential component in the art of storytelling. The examples above have pointed out that dialogue is certainly the basic ingredient. Let’s take a look at some typical problems with scenes.
My dialogue is boring!
A typical challenge with dialogue is avoiding dialogue that’s too ‘on the nose’. Such dialogue is too evident and even silly. The key to avoiding this pitfall is to write subtext. This subtext is basically what’s going on beneath the surface. Although it’s left unsaid, it completely determines the flow of the dialogue.
Writing good dialogue in a scene requires a certain poetic sensibility too. At the end of the day, dialogue in scenes is not quite like conversation. It usually has to be much bolder and interesting than that. A great idea is to write dialogue as though one is writing short little interesting speeches.
The scenes are sagging!
As usual in dramatic writing, conflict is essential. If a scene sags or seems too slow and uneventful, conflict is probably lacking. At its most basic, conflict happens between two characters who want different things. It’s always useful to go back to basics and understand what each character wants in a scene and re-work the scene from there.
My tragic scenes seem funny!
Melodrama usually occurs when a scene is not strongly motivated. Writing coach Robert McKee explains:
“Melodrama is not the result of over-expression, but of under motivation; not writing too big, but writing with too little desire.”
Suppose that a character throws a fit, crying and lamenting over the loss of his favorite pair of pants. Such a scene is melodramatic because a human being would seldom feel such a loss so acutely.
The Art of Storytelling and Bunny Studio
When looking for writers to create your project, think of Bunny Studio. This online hub has a roster of writing talent well versed in the art of storytelling and all its different facets. Simply visit Bunny Studio and contact us. Let’s get writing today!