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  • Writer's pictureKaryn Fischer

How to write a scene

Did you watch the Oscars this past weekend? I didn’t, but I used to love watching the celebrities dress to the nines, and celebrate the magic of movie making. Movies are magic, and if you read my newsletters regularly, you know that I adore analyzing them and dissecting pieces of story.


This week, I started thinking about films and screenplays, and the building blocks that we novelists share with screenplay writers: scenes. I’m waist-deep into my novel’s revision, and I’m looking with a keen eye at my scenes. Which are working? Which aren’t, and why? Which are moving the story forward? Which can I cut? Which are missing the key ingredients to make the scene memorable?


So of course, as I’m asking my questions and thinking about films, I began thinking about some of the most famous scenes in movies. There are the obvious ones like Dorothy landing in Oz and realizing she’s not in Kansas anymore. Or the goodbye scene in Casablanca, or the scene in Shawshank Redemption when Tim Robbins crawls through the sewers to finally get his freedom.


But instead of focusing on those to analyze what makes a memorable scene, my mind went to a movie that is quoted in my household above any others…one that lives rent-free in my head all the time, and which was the first movie that made me fall in love with the Academy Awards: Titanic.



Jack and Rose from Titanic in the

"I'm Flying" scene from Titanic

Love it or hate it, this film has some famous scenes. And I’m going to dissect one of the most famous—yes, the much spoofed “I’m flying” scene. So grab your life jackets and let’s talk about scene-making magic.


What is a scene?

Before we can get into the components of memorable scenes, first it’s important to establish a baseline understanding of what a scene is and how it works. A scene is a unit of writing in which we watch something happen in real time. We are living in the experience with the character the moment the action is happening. A scene usually takes place in one location and is a mini story arc. So when we think of the “I’m flying” scene in Titanic, it’s the scene that begins when we see Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) smoking a cigarette at sunset at the very front point of the Titanic. Rose (Kate Winslet) finds him and then they do their flying affair and it ends with the sweeping swell of music and the big first kiss. So again, a scene is a unit of writing where we watching something happen. And that something moves the story forward.


What isn’t a scene?

The flip side of the writing coin from scene is summary. These are the events that happen “off screen.” The daily minutiae that doesn’t move the story forward, or some events that happened before the story began but don’t quite warrant a flashback scene. Both are important and have their place in novel writing, but it’s really the scenes that move the story forward, and create a lasting impression on readers.


In order to keep your readers turning pages, you must have compelling scenes. That means understanding—and mastering—the components that make up a scene.


I think the five ingredients to a killer scene are: setting, motivation, conflict/tension, action, and change/meaning.

These five things definitely exist in Titanic’s “I’m flying” scene, but the secret sauce to why this scene is memorable actually because of the scene prior, which is the scene I’m really going to be focusing on. Let’s call this the “gym” scene, named so poetically for the setting in which it takes place. You can watch it here.


Essentially, this is the scene in which Jack secretively pulls Rose into the gym and tells her that he can’t walk away from her without knowing she’ll be all right. It’s his big “pick me” scene. So let’s talk about how the elements of a killer scene play out here.


Setting:

As I mentioned above, every scene takes place in one setting. When the characters leave and go elsewhere, it signals a new scene. I think that the most memorable scenes are set in a place that stands out, and/or in a way that the characters can interact with their setting. Consider the “I’m flying” scene. Obviously most of the movie takes place on the ship, and, large as it is, it’s a contained setting. “It’s a ship—there are only so many places she can be.” (See, I told you I can’t make it a day without a Titanic quote, even the minor, less memorable ones.) But in that “I’m flying” scene, the characters really interact with their place at the ship’s bow. Jack has Rose climb up the guard rails, asking her whether she trusts him, and then he makes her open her arms as the ship soars through the water. The setting is also a huge indicator of tone/mood. The “I’m flying” scene is dripping with the glow of sunset, lending the whole thing a romantic, golden, warm tone.


In the “gym” scene the setting plays a role, even if not as important a role as the “I’m flying” scene. Jack pulls her into this dimly-lit quiet, stark gym room. And though they’re not interacting with the exercise equipment, the beveled windows behind Rose’s head remind viewers that they could be caught at any moment. This place is also just another 1st class amenity, something that Jack is not allowed to partake in being a third-class passenger.

So, as you’re getting ready to write your scene, consider your setting and how you can leverage it to push the characters. Are you conveying tone/mood? Are the characters interacting with it? Is it clearly-wrought? Is it memorable?


Motivation:

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, reminding people that you always want to keep these four things in mind when you write: character, desire, obstacles, stakes. And yes, those are all elements you need in scenes. But when it comes to crafting your scene, you want to ask yourself one question to kick it off: What does my character want in this interaction? What is their goal, in other words? What is motivating them in this scene? Okay that’s more than one question, but it all comes down to motivation, which your character needs in every scene. Even if it’s something like they just want to sit quietly and read a book.


So let’s look at our Titanic scenes. What does Rose want in the “gym” scene? Her goal is to convince Jack to leave her alone, to commit to her delightful fiancé and save her mother and herself from financial ruin.


And in the “I’m flying” scene, what does she want? To be with Jack. To escape her life as a “porcelain doll.”


Another way of thinking about this is that a scene arises as a result of your character making a choice or decision, or taking action. First, Rose chooses to tell Jack that she’s marrying Cal because she “loves” him. Then, in the following scene she makes a new decision after watching a young girl taking tea and being coached by her 1st class mother. So in the “I’m flying” scene, she goes to tell Jack that she changed her mind.


Conflict/Tension

Okay, this is where it gets good. Every memorable scene has some form of conflict—or tension. An obstacle that stands in your character’s way from getting what they want. This can be internal or external or—better yet!—both. One advantage that novelists have over screenwriters here is interiority, which can help show the internal conflict that’s happening in a character.


What’s the conflict in the “gym” scene? It’s Jack’s heartfelt speech. His attempt to win her over when she feels bound to her station in life by duty (which, if you remember, is why they met at the stern of the ship in the first place, as she was considering jumping). This scene does a great job at reminding us the stakes of their love story, of what being with a third class man might mean to Rose…but also what staying in her station might mean to her:

“I’m not an idiot. I know how the world works. I’ve got ten bucks in my pocket, I have nothing to offer you and I know that. I understand. But I’m too involved now. You jump, I jump, remember? I can’t walk away without knowing you’ll be all right. That’s all I want.”


“Well I’m fine. I’ll be fine. Really”


“Really? I’m not so sure. They’ve got you trapped Rose. And you’re gonna die if you don’t break free. Maybe not right away because you’re strong. But sooner or later that fire that I love about you, Rose, that fire is going to burn out.”


“It’s not up to you to save me, Jack.”


“You’re right. Only you can do that.”


We can tell by her shaky voice, by her teary eyes that she’s struggling to make this decision of staying with Cal and doing her duty so her mother can continue to live her cushy life. She feels compelled to take one road, while her heart wants another. That’s conflict. Jack is standing in the way of her goal in this scene—which is to turn him away. Because she doesn’t want to turn him away, especially given his moving speech.


So what about the “I’m flying” scene? If you watch that one, there isn’t a fight, or even much dialogue. Literally, all that’s said is, “Hello, Jack. I changed my mind.” Then “Do you trust me?” then a couple lines as he instructs her up onto the railing, and then he sings Come Josephine in my flying machine in her ear. That’s it. So where’s the conflict?


I see it in a couple of places. First, thanks to the previous scenes, we understand what her telling him “I changed my mind” means to her. It means she’s giving up her life of luxury—and her fiancé—to be with this 3rdclass boy. And that choice likely means there will be some kind of fallout later, likely from her fiancé, Cal. So there’s innate—or residual—story conflict. But there’s also a little bit of tension when Jack shushes her and asks her for her hand, and whether she trusts him. The first time any of us saw that scene, we had no idea what he was planning, especially as he leads her onto the railing. Given the music and the setting and their relationship it wasn’t likely that he was going to throw her overboard, but there is tension in uncertainty. We want to know what characters are going to do next. There’s also romantic tension, right? They’re pressed close together, there’s touching…all of which was probably quite scandalous in 1912. There’s also the will-they-won’t-they-get-together tension thrumming through the scene. The buildup to the kiss. All the good stuff, in other words.


Remember, in novels, you can (and should!) dive really deep into the internal struggle that your character is facing. In both of the Titanic scenes Rose’s struggle can only be expressed by her expressions and voice…but were we writing the scene, we might see her thoughts as she wrestles with the action in the scenes.


You cannot have a compelling scene without conflict/tension. Those tense moments are what forces the character to change…to make choices/decisions that keep the story moving forward. So, what happens that stands in your characters’ way? Do you have internal and external conflict/tension?


Action

This one sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised how many writers don’t quite get it right. When I say “action” I don’t mean your typical action-movie action…guns blazing, explosions, car chases, etc. I don’t even mean the type of action we see later in Titanic—the ship sinking, people screaming, Cal chasing Rose and Jack with the pistol, etc., though that’s of course all there. When I say every scene needs action, I mean that something needs to happen.


A conversation. An accident. An event. A discovery. And we need to see it happen in real time. So, for our two Titanic scenes, what happens? In the “gym” scene: Jack pulls Rose aside and they talk. He tells her he wants to be with her and why, she tells him she can’t. In other words: dialogue, here, is the action. It’s a conversation that kind of turns Rose’s world on its head. And the “I’m flying” scene…the action in this is the flying and the kiss. The characters are doing something. Something happens in each of these scenes that moves the story forward…that changes the character.


That leads me to the final component of a great scene…


Change/Meaning

Remember above, when I said that scenes are mini story arcs? Well, since stories are about change and transformation, it makes sense that change is one of the key components of great scenes. In every scene, something must shift for the character. What might this look like? They might learn something, lose something, gain something, or choose something. Is there a shift in knowledge or worldview? A shift in circumstances? A shift in a relationship? Or is there an event that pulls the rug out from under them? What does the event/scene mean to the character. It must matter to them in some profound way that something changes for them, sliding them forward or backwards on their internal numberline.


What do I mean by internal numberline? Imagine your whole book is a numberline and your character is moving from one emotional/internal reality to another emotional/internal reality. Like greedy to selfless. Or afraid of love to in-love. Or untrusting to trusting. You get the picture. In each scene, your character should move forwards or backwards—toward, or away from—their end reality.


Let’s look at Rose, for example, who is the protagonist of Titanic. Her internal journey of the movie is moving from unfulfilled porcelain doll to someone who lives on her own terms, freely. For Titanic’s “gym” scene, what changes for her? She is trying to move backward—toward her starting point—but Jack’s persuasions are forcing her to see things differently. She wants to follow her heart, but doesn’t feel like she can. Then in the “I’m flying” scene, she literally says “I changed my mind.” She has made a different decision that will drastically alter the course of her life going forward: she chooses Jack. Something has indeed shifted on her internal numberline.


In a novel, your scenes should be doing this as well. Each scene must have a point, or meaning, for your character. Readers must understand what has changed and why it matters to your protagonist. There is change and meaning in each scene.


Secret Sauce

I’ve given you the essential components for a killer scene—setting, motivation, conflict/tension, action, change/meaning, but there’s one thing I want you to understand about scene writing:

Each individual scene matters, but the secret sauce to a book that rocks readers’ souls, is how the scenes build one upon the other.

Pretend the “gym” scene in Titanic wasn’t there. We’d see henchman Lovejoy ushering Jack away, keeping them apart. We’d see Rose’s mom reminding her that the money is all gone, then we’d see Rose watching the little girl take tea with her mom, then we’d move to the “I’m flying” scene.


My question to you is this: would the “I’m flying” scene have mattered so much to audiences without the “gym” scene? Would it resonate? Would it be as memorable? Or would it seem kind of out-of-the-blue? I think that the “I’m flying” scene works so well because of the “gym” scene.


So, as you’re writing your novel, use the Southpark creators’ tip for determining whether your scenes are actually building upon one another. Make a list of all of your scenes, one after the other. Then see whether you can use the words “but” or “therefore” between them. If so, there’s cause-and-effect, and you have good building blocks. If you can only use the words “and then” between scenes, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and check your scenes for forward motion.


Phew! That’s it for this week! I hope this was helpful. If anything, I hope it makes you appreciate Titanic even more, and reminded you that so much story analysis can be done by watching a great movie.


And I hope this helped you avoid some icebergs in your own writing. 😜


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