Monday, October 30, 2006

How I brainstorm a scene

Sometimes the writing of a scene just flows – every line clicks into place; it’s easy to visualise the action – and that is awesome.

Other times, not so easy. That’s when I have to get a bit mechanical. I roughly outline the beats that I know will be in a scene, and then I B20 (brainstorm 20 options) for each character in the scene – for their overall motivation, all their reactions, and every line of dialogue.

When I do that, I’m looking to find truth about the characters, insight into them, and either originality or authenticity.

Every time I go through the B20 process, I tend to got through the same emotions and reactions. What I’m trying to do here is describe that pattern and then (hopefully) isolate some key questions to ask, that’ll speed up the whole thing up.


  1. First off, the obvious lines are the ones I write down.
  2. Then variations (sometimes very slight) on those obvious lines.
  3. Random lines, as they occur to me.
  4. Come up with a few arbitrary lines, that don’t really fit with what the beat’s trying to do.
  5. Write a line that hits the mark. Experience satisfaction, then slack off / consider giving up or settling. This (and every point here) can happen multiple times during a B20.
  6. Spell out the subtext behind the line.
  7. Play around with that.
  8. Try another subtext. Every subtext I find is a different area to explore and mine for possibilities.
  9. Realise that the line doesn’t exist in isolation and link it back to the previous one(s), so it flows.
  10. Imagine the actor who’s saying the line.
  11. I get exhausted towards the end, and struggle to come up with lines.
  12. That’s when I re-read it all and jot down any lines that occur to me from reading all the others.
  13. Towards the end, I almost always get a fresh insight (or two) into what’s really going on.
  14. And I usually write down some crazy, usually rude or sociopathic stuff just to get the thing finished off.

So, what can I distil from that?

Before I begin:
Bear in mind that the line doesn’t exist in isolation. It needs to flow from what has come before.
Imagine the actor who’s saying the line.

Then:
  1. First off, write down the obvious lines.
  2. Then spell out the subtext behind the beat, and play around with that.
  3. Once those lines dry up, try another subtext. Feel free to write down random lines, as they occur to me.
  4. Then re-read it all. Jot down any lines that occur to me from that.
  5. I always get a fresh insight (or two) towards the end.
  6. Finish off with some arbitrary stuff.

Then I go through the list of 20 options, circling the ones that appeal to me. Create a separate list of those options and choose the one that most appeals. The point is not to get it perfect; it’s to get it done. This is the point to rust my instinct and save ‘perfection’ for the rewrite, once I see how the line plays in the context of the whole show.

If, at any point, the scene just completely tries up for me, I use the Brian Johnson trick of tracking back a few lines or a page and seeing where it all started to go wrong. It’s usually quite obvious in hindsight.

I don’t get the scenes completely right using this process, but so far every time I’ve re-read one it’s been obvious where it works and where it doesn’t.
Filed in:
Post a Comment