What movies, comic books & songs teach us about writing powerful scenes

Scenes are the building blocks of dramatic storytelling and narrative nonfiction.

As Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark explains in "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer": “From childhood, we inhale scenes. We experience them from literatures and news reports, from comic strips and comic books, from movies and television, from advertising and public service announcements, from our memories and dreams.”

Why do scenes hook us into stories? Because scenes transport us out of our known worlds and into others. We get to visit people and places we’re less familiar with. “What we gain from the scene,” Clark writes, “is not information, but experience.”

Journalists can bring the power of the scene -- always based on strong reporting of the facts -- to nonfiction stories both long and short. Here are six key ingredients to writing powerful scenes, based on lessons drawn from a movie, a comic book and a song.

A movie

When I was a teenager, one of my favorite movies was "The Empire Strikes Back." (Well, OK, it’s still one of my favorites.) Even though I liked the original "Star Wars," the series’ second installment was darker and more troubling -- all the more reason to love it. Of course, the pivotal scene, which you can watch here, is when Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker what their relationship is really about.

At that instant, Vader’s sword comes down across Luke’s right forearm, cutting off his hand and sending his sword flying. In great pain, Luke squeezes his forearm under his left armpit and moves back along the gantry to its extreme end. Vader follows. The wind subsides. Luke holds on. There is nowhere else to go. Here's their exchange:

VADER: There is no escape. Don’t make me destroy you. You do not yet realize your importance. You have only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

LUKE: I’ll never join you!

VADER: If you only knew the power of the dark side. Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.

LUKE: He told me enough! He told me you killed him.

VADER: No. I am your father.

There’s a lot to take away from this climactic scene, but two key ingredients immediately come to mind:

  • Conflict. You want to write scenes that reveal what your protagonist is in conflict with, whether it’s external or internal or both. No, your story is not always going to have an intergalactic villain like Lord Vader. But as you’re reporting your story, think carefully about the dilemmas, obstacles and opponents that your protagonist faces on his journey. How does your central character overcome these roadblocks, and what is driving him to do so? Identify and report on scenes that show the protagonist waging this fight.
  • Revelation. Toward the end of your story, you’ll want at least one scene that shows your protagonist discovering something important about herself. She's not always going to be discovering that she is the offspring of an intergalactic villain and that together they can rule the universe. It’s more likely that she discovers something about herself -- her resilience, her cowardice, her capacity to love and hate -- as she seeks to reach her goals.

A comic book

As a kid, I fell in love with stories when I started reading comic books. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that many of these comics weren’t just about characters with super powers and utility belts; these comics dealt with deeper themes, including the dark side of vengeance. These two quick scenes (or three comic book panels) explain how young Bruce Wayne decides to become Batman.

Two key ingredients here:

  • Motive. Don’t be afraid to use a flashback in your story -- a scene that shows a significant moment in the protagonist’s past that helps explain what her motives are, why she is the way he is, and how she got to where she is. Bruce Wayne is driven to fight crime because of the murder of his parents. Maybe you’re writing about a first-time teacher. Is there a scene that shows how and why she became a teacher? Maybe you’re profiling a politician who is sponsoring a certain law. Is there anything in her past that led her to feel strongly about such a law?
  • Decision points. As you follow your protagonist on her journey -- getting through the first day of school, the first week of the legislative session, the first month of rehabilitation -- think ahead of time about the important decisions she will have to make. Then do your best to be present when she makes those decisions. You’ll want some of your scenes to revolve around those decisions.

A song

When I was in graduate school, I listened a lot to a young songwriter named Suzanne Vega. I loved her melodies, but I also liked seeing in my mind’s eye the scenes that she painted in her songs. You can hear a short passage from her song, “Tom’s Diner,” here.

The song’s narrator is seated alone in a New York diner, reading the paper and watching strangers interact with one another:

There’s a woman
On the outside
Looking inside
Does she see me?

No she does not
Really see me
’Cause she sees
Her own reflection

And I’m trying
Not to notice
That she’s hitching
Up her skirt

And while she’s
Straightening her stockings
Her hair
Has gotten wet

Oh, this rain
It will continue
Through the morning
As I’m listening

To the bells
Of the cathedral
I am thinking
Of your voice...

And of the midnight picnic
Once upon a time
Before the rain began...

I finish up my coffee
It’s time to catch the train

Two key ingredients here:

  • Details. Notice how Vega uses details to transport us to Tom’s Diner. We see the woman outside looking at her reflection; we see her straightening her skirt; her hair is wet in the rain. We hear the cathedral bells. As you’re reporting your scenes, allow yourself to be a fly on the wall. Use all your senses to soak up details. Observe the people around you and how they move, how they interact with one another. Part of good reporting requires that you be quiet and watchful, rather than feeling compelled to interview people constantly.
  • Emotion. Whenever I listen to “Tom’s Diner,” I feel the narrator’s detachment, sadness and loneliness. Maybe that’s just me, but I think that’s what Vega wanted her listeners to feel. Still, she didn’t explicitly use words like “detachment,” “sadness” or “loneliness.” Instead, she probably gave some thought to specific details that made her experience those emotions. Then she built her scene around those details. For me, that’s the key to writing emotional scenes. Don’t use adjectives or adverbs to try to describe or hype the emotions. Just write with spare language, and use details to put readers there. They will likely experience some of the emotions you felt as you observed the scene.

There are many other ingredients to powerful scenes, but this is a good start: Conflict. Revelation. Motive. Decision points. Details. Emotion. I’d encourage you to think of your favorite scenes from TV, radio, plays, the opera. What ingredients make these scenes compelling to you, and how can you bring these ingredients to the scenes in your stories?

If you want to learn more on how to write powerful scenes, check out my upcoming News University Webinar.

  • Tom Huang

    Tom Huang is Sunday & Enterprise Editor at The Dallas Morning News and Adjunct Faculty member of The Poynter Institute, where he oversees the school’s writing program.


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