I met M at our “Welcome to the Writers Guild!” meeting earlier this year. I don’t know if he would mark it earlier, but I would put it at the conversation in the parking garage that night that I felt like I understood him and him me – I felt connected to him, which for me is very rare.
M and I are both TV writers. Because we want to keep our skills tight, we started a new scene-writing exercise, just the two of us. Every day we’re creating a scene assignment for each other, to be completed in less than 30 minutes, no online research. It’s just as much fun to make the assignments as it is to write the scenes – because in my mind, they don’t exist in a vacuum. The assignments, the scenes, communicate with each other and with our lives outside the project, creating a story with a life of its own.
So because I’ve got scenes on the brain, I’m going to share my cheat sheet with you. This is what I bust out when I find myself staring into space for 20 minutes – a file I have on my computer called “Drama Questions.” It’s a list of questions cobbled together from a variety of sources — David Mamet, John August, others I can’t remember. I gathered them from all over into one Break In Case Of Emergency File.
Here They Are:
- Who wants what?
- What happens if they don’t get it?
- Why now?
- What is the hero’s problem that starts the scene?
- In the end, how are the characters thwarted or turned in another direction?
- What are we left wondering?
- What’s the silent movie version?
- How does the scene advance the story?
- How does the scene reveal character?
- How does the scene expand on an idea? What theme does it explore?
- How does the scene build an image? What does this image mean?
- What’s funny in this scene?
- What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in this scene?
- Where could this scene take place?
- What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?
- Who absolutely needs to be in this scene?
- Where could this scene possibly take place?
- What’s the next thing this character would realistically do?
- What’s the most interesting thing this character could do?
- Where do I want the story to go next?
- Where do I want the story to end up eventually?
- Does this scene stand up on its own merit, or is it just setting stuff up for later?
- What are the later repercussions of this scene? How could I maximize them?
I want to be clear that I didn’t write these questions. But this is pretty basic drama stuff, and I don’t want to keep it from you just because I can’t source it properly. If I’m really stuck, I actually write out the answers for the scene I’m working on. Or I just read them over to give myself a kick start. Most of the time I don’t need them – but sometimes I do. And that’s what they’re there for, like a map or a wooden stretcher to stretch a canvas painting over.
If you go through and answer all these questions for the scene you’re in, guarantee it’ll get better. And as for what to do next, the next scene is a conversation with the scene you’re in – the way M and my scenes and assignments speak to each other, asking and answering questions.