Duncan won two Bruntwood Awards (2005) for his play MONSTER (Royal Exchange). Other plays include LUNGS (Paines Plough/Sheffield Theatres and Studio Theatre Washington DC), REISE DURCH DIE NACHT (Schauspielhaus Koln, Avignon Festival) and THE MOST HUMANE WAY TO KILL A LOBSTER (Theatre 503). He has been Writer-in-Residence at the Royal Exchange, Paines Plough and Studio Theatre Washington DC. He has written extensively for BBC Radio.
Questions to ask of your scenes:
Here’s a checklist you can use when writing a scene. It can be used while planning a scene or when rewriting.
- DRAMA is about LIVE DECISION MAKING. Character is only truly revealed by the decisions they make when under pressure, and the decisions they make further the plot. Plot IS character. At the heart of the scene your characters should be confronted with a decision, the outcome of which will affect the course of the story.
- DRAMA TAKES PLACE IN THE PRESENT TENSE. Information is not dramatic. Avoid characters describing events from the past unless they’re doing so tactically to achieve something in the present. EXPOSITION is dramatically inert. Concentrate on characters pursuing immediate objectives.
- What do your characters WANT? This should be as concrete and specific as possible so avoid abstractions or generalisations like ‘respect’, ‘love’, ‘forgiveness’ and go for things like ‘to get his wedding ring back’, ‘to see her tattoo’ or ‘to destroy the letter’.
- What are they DOING to get it? What TACTICS are they using? Do they charm, threaten, seduce, deceive, beg?
- Are their actions SURPRISING? The most interesting characters behave in unpredictable ways; the dullest do exactly what we expect.
- Do any characters take a RISK? Is there tangible JEOPARDY?
- What is at STAKE? What is to be gained and lost for each character? What is to be gained should be the same size as what is to be lost – it should be a difficult position for the character to be in.
- Are your characters outward actions betraying their internal desires?
- Are there frequent and surprising REVERSALS? When a tactic doesn’t work what new tactic do they employ? What happens when a character does get something they want? What if they definitively fail to get something?
- What OBSTACLES are in their way? Not just external obstacles but internal/psychological, and inter-personal.
- TIME PRESSURE. What is about to happen? Every scene should be a window of opportunity in which time is running out to make a decision. If they have all the time in the world, there’s no drama.
- ENVIRONMENTAL PRESSURE. How does the setting of the scene impact on the behaviour of the characters? Is it loud? Cold? Late? Are the characters in close proximity? Make the SETTING interesting and make sure it affects their behaviour. Is the scene PUBLIC OR PRIVATE? How does this affect the behaviour of the characters?
- How is each character AFFECTED by the outcome of the decision?
- What is the RITUAL and how is it SUBVERTED and DISRUPTED? The best scenes have an immediately recognisable structure which is then disrupted – wedding/funeral/driving test/first date/visit to the vets etc. What are our expectations and how are we surprised?
- When is the EVENT of the scene? Does it happen at the beginning, middle or end?
- What CHANGES? Is the change REVERSIBLE or IRREVERSIBLE?
- What is the CAUSAL impact from the last scene and what is the impact of this scene on the next? Each scene should be like a domino knocking on to the next and creating dramatic momentum.
- Is this scene NECESSARY TO THE PLOT? Every scene must earn its place.
- Is there a VALUE CHANGE for the characters? How are they different at the end of the scene to how they began it?
- What new INFORMATION is revealed about the characters and their situation?
- What can we SEE? How does the physical action/visual picture of the scene tell the story?
- Should there be ANOTHER CHARACTER in this scene? – Terrence Rattigan advised putting a third character into scenes that weren’t working, a character who shouldn’t really be there.
- How is this scene DIFFERENT to what went before and what comes after?
- What is the TONE of this scene? Tone is one of the hardest things to get right and one of the most important.
- Is it THEATRICAL? Why is this scene on stage rather than on the page or screen? How is the audience positioned in relation to it?