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3 Examples of Great Scenes and How to Write Them

There’s no one way to write a good scene–every screenwriter has their own approach for how to showcase the action, and a big part of finding your unique screenwriting “voice” is through reading screenplays and trial and error. Not sure where to get started? Check out our FREE course Writing the Scene.

So, what makes for a good scene? Once you’ve determined the location, time of day, and the dramatic purpose for the scene, it’s time to figure out how to unfold the story in the most visually appealing and compelling way. Let’s take a look at a few great scenes from existing screenplays and what we can learn from them.

  1. Booksmart – Molly learns she’s not better than her classmates

Read the screenplay or just the scene.

This scene on page 15 of the hilarious Booksmart is a great example of revealing character and subverting expectations. We begin the movie with our protagonist Molly, an intense teenager who has spent all of high school focused solely on getting into Yale. 

The scene begins with Molly in a bathroom stall correcting the grammar of the graffiti on the wall. Classic. Then, some of her classmates enter the bathroom and start talking crap about her, not realizing she can hear them.

Molly bursts out of the stall, ready to lecture them about how she is going to be so much more successful than them because she spent all of high school studying, and they’ll be nowhere… Except, they each reveal they’ve all either gotten into Ivy League schools, too, or already have a promising job offer. She’s not better than them.

This sets Molly off, because in this moment she feels like she’s wasted all of high school being the focused kid, and not living her wild like everyone else. This pushes Molly into her emotional arc: she needs to be a teenager for one night before she graduates high school and never has the chance again.

Other elements from this scene:

  1. The scene is mostly dialog. The only action lines are what absolutely needs to be there.

  2. The dialog reveals a lot about Molly’s character without being expository. This is achieved by having the other students making fun of Molly in increasingly funny ways.

  3. The structure of the scene carries its own narrative function: Molly is faced with a conflict (students talking crap about her), she tries to fight back (telling them she is better than them), and is defeated (they all have promising futures). 

  1. Gone Girl – Nick talks to his sister Go

Read the screenplay or just the scene.

This is a very early scene that gives us some context about who Nick is, and introduces his sister Go. What’s great about this scene is that is showcases that Nick and Go are siblings without either of them saying “bro”, or “sis”, which is a common cheat to showcase this relationship.

Instead, Nick brings Go a game they played as kids, Mastermind, and they briefly discuss who loved it back then. This is an interesting way to show the audience the relationship without being too heavy handed about it.

This scene is also great with subtext. In this scene, the dramatic purpose is to show that Nick is struggling with this marriage, but is being tight-lipped about it. Another version could have had Nick sitting down, sighing, and Go immediately asking what’s wrong. Instead, they banter with each other in a realistic fashion, and he orders a drink at 11:09am. They delay the inevitable before Go finally pushes him to reveal what’s on his mind. We leave the scene early with Nick only revealing it’s his and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary upcoming. This teases the audience with a bit of suspense: what is it about the anniversary that’s got him so anxious?

Flynn, who adapted her own novel (not an easy feat), includes some action lines that are technically “unshootables”, but give excellent context to the actors. An example of this is on page 3: “He smiles. This is an old, reliable routine.” That isn’t something that can technically be shown on the screen, but the actor can use it to shape the choices they make while filming. 

  1. Arrival – The Kangaroo story

Read the screenplay or just the scene.

Every scene should have some type of central conflict or obstacle the protagonist needs to overcome, and in this scene from Arrival, Louise is presented with the military’s hesitation from the way she wants to develop communication with the aliens.

When the Commander protests her dual process, she parries with a story about how the word kangaroo was misinterpreted by the original colonizers of Australia. The point of the story is enough to get the Commander to agree to let her do her job her way, for now. She then reveals to Ian that she made up the story completely in order to get her way.

This is an interesting way to approach the conflict, and gives the audience something to chew on. The subtext of what Louise is trying to say is “I know how to do my job, and if you don’t let me do it my way, we could fail.” The Kangaroo story is so much more compelling than watching the textual conversation play out.

It also reveals more of Louise’s character–she’s willing to do anything, even lie, to get the job done right. This lends to her obsessive personality in a subtle way, along with building out her world of linguistics.

The next time you sit down to write a scene, think about how you can hone in on the dramatic purpose and utilize the tools of story to create a dynamic and compelling experience. And remember, sometimes you need to write the textual scene before you can find the subtext! 

What are your favorite scenes?

Hungry for more screenwriting education? Young Screenwriters has a range of courses for every writer on each step of their journey! Get started with our FREE Writing the Short and Writing the Scene courses to learn the basics. 

When you’re ready to take the next step, sign up for Writing the Feature and learn NYU Professor John Warren’s complete writing process, including generating powerful film ideas, forming dynamic character arcs, creating beat sheets and outlines, and finishing that screenplay with proper formatting and a plan for what’s next. Writing the Feature is the perfect way to work on that screenplay from start to finish, and our Discord community will lift you up every step of the way!



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