Creating Scenes for Classwork

Whose Scene is it?

It is a challenge to write a scene where two characters carry the storyline equally.

In longer plays, a scene will often be driven by one of the characters, whose goals and tactics drive the action – or plot – while the other character provides obstacles. However, a scene should (as a rule) not be a monologue with a nodding head, or a monologue and an echo. 

Drama = Conflict

The characters should have conflicting desires. And they both need to expect to get what they want. They both need to LISTEN to their partner to see if they have achieved their goal, and if not, why – and how will they try again?

Even if the scene’s action is driven by one of the characters – the other character should be equally motivated to achieve their own goal. 

For example:

Take a comic scene where our protagonist has been asked to hold his friend’s engagement ring a few days. He has the box in a brown back on his coffee table when his girlfriend comes to visit. He is afraid she will see it and think it is for her. That would be awkward, since he wants to break up with her.

His goal is to grab and hide the box without her noticing it. 

Her goal needs to be designed to create conflict, though her motivations have nothing to do with his goal. Maybe she had been in his apartment earlier and she had a cookie with her. She really likes cookies.  She had it in a brown bag, and now can’t find the bag. She’s too embarrassed to tell him she really wants the cookie. She really wants the cookie!

You can up the stakes by her having left a love letter to someone else in the bag. 

You can create dramatic irony if the audience knows they both want to break up but neither dares… 

Adding Dialogue to Desire: Don’t Be Too Obvious

(For our purposes) Always create a scenario first:

What do the character’s want? Why do they want it? How will they get it? 

Never let the character’s speak the subtext. We very rarely say exactly what we mean. If your characters do that: 1. There is little for the actors to do. 2. There is little for the audience to discover on their own. And audiences love to figure things out on their own. 

For example: 

A young man is visiting his mother and they are in the kitchen talking. The young man opens the refrigerator and pulls out a slice of cake…

Mother’ line: “You know, I’ve been thinking you are really looking so handsome lately. Quite fit and trim.” (Subtext: Oh, Honey you are getting fat – don’t eat that. Desire: The mother wants to make sure her son stays thin. The actor can decide why she wants this: is she worried about him being overweight will reflect on her mothering in other people’s opinion? Is she worried about his health?)

Mother’ line: “We missed you last night. I made a cake for your father, but the two of us weren’t able to eat the whole thing in one sitting. Isn’t it delicious? Your father has been looking forward to finishing it off tonight.” (Subtext: You selfish child. You forgot your father’s birthday and how dare you drop by and eat the cake… Desire: Make him feel guilty. The actor can decide why: does she want him to have a better relationship with his father? Does she want him to be a better person in general?)

An exercise to create lines from subtext improvisation: 

In groups of 3.  A and B are in a monogamous relationship. A and C are in a very intimate moment when B walks in.

Play the scene using only colors as dialogue.
For example A says “Pink”. Be says “Red.” etc. Use only vegetables. Dog breeds…

Once you know what the subtext is, create lines that are appropriate to the scenario but are NOT the subtext.

For example if the scenario is the park:

B: “Oh, I didn’t know you were in town.” (Subtext: “What the #$%&! are you doing here with my girlfriend?”. Desire: Threaten C so C will leave.)
A: “I didn’t know either. I just ran into her here out of the blue.” (Subtext: “Calm down. You are imagining things.” Desire: Pull the wool over B’s eyes.)

The Beats

A scene is made up of several beats – the characters change tactics to get what they what. They might “win” a beat, then lose the next. How much time and effort (“dynamics”) the characters use for each beat will determine the tempo of the scene.

Remember to vary the length of each beat: some being easy “wins”, som more intense struggles.

Beats require good partner play! Stay in character! Listen (in character – do NOT wait for your next line while the other person talks*)! Focus! Stay in the moment, but sharpen the edges of your physical actions so your work is expressive.

A TIP: *If you are writing a scene, remember that your characters are both on stage and are both acting. The character listening should be part of the subtext you, as the playwright are using as a basis for your script.