“Why are these characters in this scene?”

November 20th, 2012 by

Another crucial question to ask when writing a scene: “Why are these characters in this scene?”

Who’s in the scene? Or more aptly, what characters should be in the scene? And why? Likewise who should not be in the scene?

These are questions many writers don’t ask – at least consciously – because they approach scene-writing intuitively. Fortunately the average scene makes the answers to this particular set of questions pretty clear because events of the plot often will dictate which characters should be in the scene and which should not.

But even knowing intuitively which characters should participate in a scene does not necessarily translate into that scene being written well. A writer can get the roster of characters for a scene completely right, yet the execution of the scene completely wrong.

One major reason is because a writer should ‘cast’ each scene not based on intuition, but upon the point of the scene: Who does what to whom and why?

Beyond that, you need to know both the structural and emotional goals of the scene to determine the purpose of each character in relation to the Plotline and Themeline.

So right off the top, if you have a character / characters in a scene who do not have a specific function tied to plot, you should more than likely excise them from the scene.

Conversely once you determine what each character’s purpose in the scene is, you are on your way to being able to craft a viable, quality block of narrative.

So with every scene you write, ask this question:

Why are these characters in this scene?

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5 thoughts on ““Why are these characters in this scene?”

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    David Hare addresses one aspect of this in his BAFTA Guru Screenwriters interview when he talks about “Who is the third who always walks beside you?”–one valid function for a character in a scene is to be a third party complicator who makes the scene more difficult for your protagonist.

    1. Scott says:

      Shaula, thanks for setting up another question in the series this week about conflict in scenes.

      Those BAFTA series are great. I’ve featured many of the lectures on the blog.

      1. Shaula Evans says:

        You’re welcome! I love this series of posts, Scott.

        It’s easy for me to look at a scene and fall into the trap of seeing it from the protagonist’s point of view–but sometimes serving the scene and serving the story is about obstructing the protagonist, too. In that way, I find Hare’s question helpful.

        I keep going back and reading those BAFTA lectures–no matter what I’m working on, I find something that speaks to the writing task at hand.

        PS Two other good related links: Bill Martell on writing conflict and Beth Hill on conflict.

      2. Shaula Evans says:

        PS Here’s another good scene question from David Hare, from the same interview: “Are your scenes only about themselves?”

  2. Debbie Moon says:

    One writer I once heard speak was a big fan of having a third character in a two person scene: an observer, someone whose reactions to things provides a model for the audience’s reactions. Which is an interesting idea…

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