When writers start with what is external -- what a character looks like, a description of action or environment -- they risk starting or ending a scene at a moment of no or low tension. When every scene starts with this type of introduction or ending, it creates a sense of the writer needing time to get to the point, then time to leave it behind. While that’s fine when writing a first draft, it creates a problem when those scenes aren’t revised. Even one extra exchange of dialogue in every scene, or two extra action lines, adds up to pages that dull the overall effect of a story.
To discover the heart of a scene, start with an understanding of the dramatic moment of change for the scene’s main character. That moment will often be rooted in what is dramatically true for a character being challenged or affirmed. Work back to what heightens the effect of that moment, what line of dialogue or action. Use that understanding to heighten a scene’s visual effect. This is writing from the inside out. In this way what is most true, most dramatic, most deeply felt, most visually unique in a scene will not be buried under the ordinary details of what I call stage building. Like a building scaffold, stage building has its place, but it often serves no dramatic purpose in a finished script.
Another way to find get inside the inner life of a character is to ask, what moral dilemma does a character face as a story starts? And how can the opening action of a story heighten the impact of that dilemma? Make it visible to a story’s audience? A character confronting a dilemma also faces making a choice, and by their action, they dramatically define themselves. A character with a comfortable inner world is difficult to convey (with the exception of characters who are comfortable in an uncomfortable world, a choice that still dramatically defines them). Such characters can come across as passive, simply reacting to events, instead of actively trying to shape the outcome of a scene.
When characters pass through a scene without some shift in feeling or of understanding, the risk is that the story’s audience will also pass through that scene without some shift in feeling or understanding of the scene’s dramatic purpose.
One way for a storyteller to fully experience the heart of a scene is a process I call dreaming. Let yourself relax and imagine a scene through the POV of a main character. Let yourself feel the emotions of the scene, internalize them, let the heart of the scene beat in your chest. Then use the words that most visually embody that feeling, that act it out. You can do the same for the other characters in a scene. Let yourself inside a character to feel the truth a character embodies. Consider what action would most confound a character, what moral dilemma would compel them to speak or act out.
I often dream scenes when I’m hired to do a rewrite. I use the process to build on the plot and characters already in place.
Another way to get to the heart of a character is to speak to them. Ask them what event would compel them to act, to speak out. Then use that information to strike at your characters.
Whatever method a writer uses to get inside a story’s characters to learn what drives them can help give scenes a quality of having different dimensions.
A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.