|This topic sheet was originally
devised for the Exciting
Writing for Theatre course. There is a table
of links to other teaching resources towards the bottom
of this page.
Let us consider theatrical scenes in the sense
of chapters in a book: a single scene tells a self-contained part
of the bigger story that is the plot.
This is loose definition, insofar as it may be
argued that some scenes contain sub-scenes that are, in effect,
scenes in their own right. However itt is sufficient definition
for our present aim, which is to consider the main components
Broadly speaking, scenes serve one or more of
several purposes, including:
- to expose characters and conflicts
between or within the characters;
- to mark a step in one or more character
- to bring about a shift in the balance
of power between or among characters;
- to heighten or resolve a conflict.
Note the strong verbs, which are indicative of the fact that
scenes are essentially about change. A scene is not a scene unless
it moves the plot forward, or at least assists the plot
in some way.
Arguably the weakest of these verbs, from the perspective of
strong theatrical writing, is the first: expose.
Exposition is obviously crucial, insofar as the audience must
understand something of the characters and their situation if
they are to be persuaded to take an interest in the play. Nevertheless,
exposition alone does not make a play. Once the audience has grasped
the idea of what the characters are about, they immediately begin
to want to see things happen: the conflicts, the events, the steps,
the shifts, etc.
Accordingly, writers are encouraged to think of exposition as
something necessary, to be achieved as quickly and painlessly
as possible from the point of view of the audience. Ideally, no
scene of the play should be devoted exclusively to exposition.
The best writing gets straight down to the business of plot development,
combining exposition of character with forward movement within
the first few lines.
The advice for radio writers — begin with a crisis —
is equally apt for theatre writers. Having paid for their tickets,
theatregoers may be more committed than radio listeners who happen
to tune in at the start of a play, but they are equally inclined
to switch off if their interest is not immediately engaged.
Journeys and Outcomes
Every scene must have an outcome. The outcome of a purely expository
scene is that the audience now knows something about the characters
on stage. In all other scenes, the outcome is the result of some
change among, between and/or within the characters on stage.
A scene is therefore a journey in itself. Like all (comprehensible)
journeys, it must be susceptible to description in a few simple
sentences (The ghost of Hamlet's father informs Hamlet that
he was murdered by Claudius and tells Hamlet to avenge the murder...),
while the fuller version demands action and dialogue. If the writer
cannot describe the scene in this way or if the description does
not imply some change in the state of the characters, the most
likely reason is that the scene does not conform to the principles
Accordingly, there is much to be said for writing a description
of the scene, encapsulating the (mini-)journey and the outcome,
before embarking on the writing of the scene itself.
In much the same way as the playwright can save effort by trying
to write the theatre flier before starting to draft the play (Click
here for the topic sheet that considers this: Generating Plot
Ideas), pre-writing scene descriptions helps to ensure
that every scene is both necessary and purposeful.
This practice is also helpful in charting complex plots that
cannot readily be overviewed at their full length.
Scenes are invariably powered by characters' motivations. Theatre
is essentially about characters' intentions and actions being
thwarted by events and/or coming into conflict with the intentions
and actions of other characters. When planning a scene, it is
always useful to think about what each character is trying to
achieve and why, and to exploit this information for the good
of the play.
Even the lowliest characters have their motivations: the servant
whose role is simply to admit guests to the drawing room of the
principal characters probably wants to impress his/her employer.
Such characters can take on a new importance when their motivations
encounter conflict. What will happen to the butler who trips on
the carpet, spilling wine down the duchess' back?