Single-use Scenes

How can I tell something is a rough draft or not?

I’ve said more than once when reviewing something that “it feels like a rough draft.” Which is probably confusing to people – how can you tell?

Well one of the things that makes it obvious is the presence of what I’ll call: Single Use Scenes. Scenes which serve a single purpose.

Again, I want to stress that the most important thing is to always write – write your heart out and keep writing. I stress this because I’ve seen too many people (one of them in my own mirror) who get so obsessed with trying to write something perfect on the first try they end up never writing anything at all.

It won’t be perfect, you WILL need to edit, accept it and dive into the ink already!

And once you have done that and got to writing, well about 99% of your resulting scenes are going to be single-use. THAT’S FINE. You’ve got to get the story out first to refine it so you’ll just throw a scene out to keep the plot moving to get a character into place or drop some exposition.

The problem is always leaving the story that way. Editing is when you go back and look for scenes that can be combined, steadily reducing the number of single-use scenes in your story.

Why? Why not just leave your story a long sequence of SUS? Well let’s look at an excellent example from a story that I know for a fact, went through a lot of editing and rewriting and refinement.

Let’s think about everything that is accomplished in this scene.

  • Four different characters are established, each given a distinct personality and belief. One is cautious, one is confident, and Tarkin just wants everyone to shut up and get stuff done. Vader does not tolerate heresy.
  • Worldbuilding in regards to the film’s political structure is told to the audience with mentions of the senate, regional governors, and an Emperor.
  • Worldbuilding in regards to the film’s religious structure is also told to the audience as one of the characters taunts a believer and receives a rebuttal.
  • Finally, the ending to the film is foreshadowed and set up in one of the most brilliant and subtle bits in film history.

All of that in a 2 minute scene.

Rich, packed scenes are what will get your story to stand out in your audience’s mind.

Easy to say, how do you execute it?

Some tips I use for myself, AFTER WRITING, when you have begun to edit:

Lay out your exposition scenes and see if any can be combined. Especially have them around character introductions is a good time. See also if you can have multiple introductions and expositions in one scene unless there’s an in-story need to spread them out.

If a scene’s primary goal is action or a transition, look for places to squeeze in revelations about characters. Anything can be a clue about your character and their feelings, even down to the weapon selected by them during a fight scene can tell the audience something about them. Figure out what hobby one of the characters would have, or a nervous tick. Do they hum, whistle or sing? Are they in tune?

Next consider how you might accomplish worldbuilding. Worldbuilding is always much stronger and more enjoyable when shown, rather than told (hence why war movies always sell more tickets than history lectures). When working in a scene, see if there’s ways you can sneak in clues about the state of the world in your story. Again look at the scene above. One part of the world building is very blunt and delivered straight on, while the other part is delivered purely by how one character talks to and treats another.

Does this mean a finished, polished story has NO single-use scenes? Of course not! But a polished story understands that SUS are to be utilized sparingly. Especially for moments of very intense emotion. When you need the audience’s attention absolutely focused on a key moment or captivated by an emotional scene, THEN you boil that scene down to that single thing you need their focus on.

The polished, perfected stories will have this down to an almost musical rhythm. Rich, full scenes bursting with layers, which drop down into a single focus, only to expand back out again in perfect rhythm.

For an example, watch this sequence from Back to the Future (another movie which was polished and refined to perfection) and notice how the screen fills with information before whittling it down into a single emotional moment of Marty finally connecting with his friend.

3 thoughts on “Single-use Scenes

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