I’m working on scenes right now. So I’m thinking about scenes as discrete units, like jokes. A mentor taught me this, and a showrunner he worked for taught it to him.
A good scene is pithy like a good joke. It takes leaps and accomplishes its mission in shorter than expected time and distance. It doesn’t explain itself, doesn’t tip its hand — it leaves its most important points unsaid, to the imagination, to be completed by the audience. Any time you let the audience step in to fill in the space you’ve supplied between Set-Up A and Punchline B, they’ll love you for it. Because you’ve let them become the heroes of the telling.
Whether you’re writing a joke or a scene — you wanna get in there as late as possible, get out early. But not too late, not too early. Finding those right moments to jump in and out of scenes (or jokes) is an art. A great scene will have a beginning, a middle and an end, turned like a little three-act play, as will a great joke (even a one-liner, if you look hard enough).
Think of the beginning of the scene (Act 1) as the set-up of the joke: Why does this person need something, here, right now? The set-up builds expectations.
Middle of the scene (Act 2): a reversal happens, a set-back. The twist in the joke. The moment we realize all is not right in joke-world.
End of the scene (Act 3): the character is thwarted or spun a new direction. Surprise! Punchline.
The punchline is the most important part of the joke. Your punchline lands your joke and lands your scene. Scenes finish with a twist, a turn, another obstacle for the character — they finish dramatically, and whatever you go out on is your punchline. The body of your scene was the setup, so you made it pithy and tight and turned it, then you killed with your punchline. Maybe it’s the hero’s final line as he blows out, maybe it’s what the hero does, maybe it’s what you reveal, maybe it’s an explosion. Whatever it is, it’s a punchline, something we lock onto, digest, understand what’s being turned or thwarted or revealed and then wonder what happens next.
Set ’em up. Knock ’em down. Always leave ’em wanting more.
Because in both joke-telling and scene-writing, the business we’re really in is keeping them wondering what happens next.