So, a lot of people think that there are three main types of scenes:
- Fight scenes
- Negotiation scenes
- Sexy sexiness scenes
And the important part of every scene is conflict. That’s because when conflict happens, the character is forced to do something.
Readers want to watch characters do things, right?
Except for fans of Waiting for Godot, but to be fair the characters are waiting. That’s an action.
What us writers have to do is make the conflict matter.
For the conflict to matter it has to be about your character wanting something so damn badly, but they aren’t getting it in a way that’s easy.
The biggest, strongest desire is when our character’s want makes them suffer.
Your character arguing about how to hard boil eggs wouldn’t be a meaningful conflict UNLESS it’s somehow connected to her biggest needs and wants and yearnings.
Your character arguing about how to hard boil eggs might be a meaningful conflict IF he has been on the perfect hardboiled egg quest because it’s the only thing he remembers about his dad – his perfect eggs. Or something.
What meaningful conflict does is that it forces the character to do something, to act, to make a choice. The type of conflict relates to that choice in the scene.
This is usually about willpower or strength or determination. You will by beating up your opponent or by dealing with something for a long time, enduring it.
Think Atlas holding up the world.
Think about Captain America being beaten up by the Winter Soldier and he keeps getting up.
That’s a fight scene.
I could probably call this a seduction scene, but I’m not terribly mature.
In these scenes you have one character (or multiple ones) manipulating another character’s desires. It might not always be about the sex.
Darth Vader’s big scene where he tries to get Luke to join him, be part of the dark side, stop fighting. He gives him the possibility to be important and a place to belong.
NEGOTIATE ME SCENES
These are scenes that are a push and pull between solutions. It’s about compromise. It’s about logic. It’s very Ravenclaw.
It’s whenever a gangster convinces people to do something.
Negotiation scenes are all about that logical outcome. And at the end of it, everyone goes, “Ah. That makes sense. Of course, we’ll do it that way.”
Each type of scene requires different responses about the character and tells us different things. I think you should lean into these earlier scenes with the men being either fight or manipulation.
Mike Nichols, this ancient director, really loved to talk about those three types of scenes. He was pretty adamant about them being the only types of scenes that there are and he would always say, “When in doubt, seduce.”
Actually, I think his partner, Elaine May might have said that.
But the truth is that you can have a scene be more than one thing at a time. That intricacy makes them pretty beautiful and so much more poignant. Whenever you can add the character enduring (Fight) to a negotiation, it’s a better scene. Because it’s layered.
Other screenwriters and playwrights (like Pete Peterson) have taken this from Nichols and talked about it on podcasts all over the place. One interesting and possibly helpful insight on this is by Jonathan Rogers of THE HABIT after an interview with Pete Peterson.
To frame every fictional conversation as a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation is to foreground desire. And desire is the engine of storytelling. What do your characters want? There may be other questions at stake in the stories you tell, but that question is ALWAYS in play. It is an unavoidable fact that writers always need to communicate information; sometimes they communicate that information in dialogue. But characters carry on conversations in order to get what they want. If we use dialogue merely to convey information and neglect the interplay of characters’ desires, that dialogue will almost surely be flat, uninteresting, and less than believable.
This may be another way of saying the same thing, but dialogue is something that characters DO to each other. Fighting, seducing, and negotiating are actions, not merely an exchange of information or opinions. And, by the way, in the process of fighting, seducing, and negotiating, your characters will provide information and express opinions that your reader will find most helpful. The point here is not that characters can only fight, seduce, or negotiate, but that whatever else is happening, one of those three things has to be happening.
In real life, not every conversation is a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation. Sometimes people really are just providing information or expressing an opinion. Or talking baby-talk to a baby or asking for directions or ordering French fries. But not everything in real life is raw material for a story. I’m reminded of Steve Martin’s exasperated reminder to John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: “Not everything is an anecdote, you know.” We spend a third of our lives sleeping. I don’t care how realistic your fiction purports to be; it would be a mistake to devote a third of your word-count to people sleeping.
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