How do I keep scenes from sagging?
In theatrical writing, every scene must add something to the show. Unlike a novel or a television show, both of which are designed to have a little bit of filler, plays need to keep the audience in focus. If you feel like a scene you wrote doesn't make the mark, and you can't quite figure out why, there's probably one thing missing that keeps it from being truly fantastic. This is conflict.
Now, this may seem like a bit of a no-brainer. What's a story without conflict? Well, the thing is, just because your broader story has conflict doesn't mean your scene does. Take this for example:
Robert: Jane, I think I'm going to leave you. Jane: You know what? Go right ahead. (Robert leaves)
Now, let us analyze that little interaction. We know what Robert wants, to leave, and we can infer what Jane wants too. However, the dialogue seems very low-stake. That doesn't mean the scene has to be conflict ridden and aggressive, just that the audience should feel like there is something pushing the scene forward. Let's modify this a bit:
Robert: Jane, I think I'm going to leave you. Jane: You know what, Robert? Go right ahead. Go head out that door. Get out of here! (Robert leaves)
What does that show us? Well, now Jane is making a defensive move against Robert. She is expressing her want. This is no longer a character moving aside and letting another go, but a character telling another to leave. A director and an actor can now play this anyway that they want. Jane can now be sarcastic, or genuine, or very happy. Regardless of how the lines are expressed, there is conflict. The scene will always be moving forward.
But how do I apply this to my own work?
When looking for dry moments in your own scenes, I have devised a simple test.
- Split the troubling scene into blocks. If its two characters having a conversation, break it up into blocks of two lines for example.
- Look at these blocks and figure out where the block is going. Where is it's specific point A and point B? Who is winning? What does each character want?
- Ask yourself "Is every line in this scene revealing something new or adding to the event at hand?
- Rewrite it separately, in a different document for example, where every single line pushes the point of the block forward
- Compare this rewritten scene to your original scene and fuse them together. Make sure that every block at the least pushes forward, though now not every line has to.
But what if it is still not working?
If you've added conflict to ever little block in your scene, it might be worth it to then look at the scene as a whole. Find the point of the entire scene, where does it start and where does it end? If you can't figure out that, cut the scene. Maybe you can return to it later, but if the scene doesn't need to exist and it isn't working, then simply toss it out.
If you do have that larger reason for that scene to exist, but it still feels slow and clunky, maybe take that scene out for the time being. Stew on the scene and consider it and then rewrite it separately in it's entirety. Approach the scene from a new angle, a new idea. Maybe send it to a friend and ask for feedback. Then compare and fuse with your original scene, or replace it all together.
As with all writing though, I never recommend entirely deleting old scenes and bits of dialogue. Paste them in a document somewhere else, or jot them down on a sticky note. But you shouldn't just entirely erase things you've written just because they're not working. You never know if you will someday want to reuse bits and pieces, or if someday you'll wake up and have the perfect epiphany on how to fix something you cut. Plus, having records of things that didn't work will help you figure out what goes wrong next time. Writing is a series of trials and errors, and to throw out the failures while holding onto the successes is to ignore your own hard work. You need to acknowledge, respect, and covet both parts of the artistic process, that's how you improve as a playwright and as a creator in general.