4 KEY Tips for Scene Design

4 KEY Tips for Scene Design

Turning Point effects, Setup/Payoffs, Emotional Dynamics and Choice

Scene design

To understand how scenes are built, there are 4 main points that we have to go over:

  • Turning points
  • Setups/Payoffs
  • Emotional Dynamics
  • Choice

These are the main principles inside a scene that a screenwriter should master according to Robert McKee. He explains them in full detail in his book Story Structure: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting.

Turning point effects:

    • Surprise: you can achieve this by surprising the audience with a reaction of character that they weren’t expecting or a situation that surpasses anyone’s imagination. There are a lot of ways of surprising an audience. The key point here is that whatever you do or happens in your story it has to make sense. So a pink elephant shouldn’t kill your main character because he fell down from the sky… no crazy arbitrary things if it isn’t well justified. It doesn’t mean that a pink elephant can fall from the sky and kill your main character, it means that the surprise has to make sense within your story. If the elephant thing works within your story, go ahead and surprise everybody!
    • Increased curiosity: insight adds to curiosity. What this means is that if you have insights inside a scene you will arise curiosity in the audience. But, this means that you have to have an insight not an arbitrary surprise that doesn’t go with your story. To make an insight what you have to do is to have justified surprise. This means that in order to be an insight we as an audience need to have clues along the way before the insight happens. It needs to be justified. If you want to have a moment in your scene where you discover that the girl you were investigating had been raped by his father am still be believable, you need to leave clues along the way in order to justify your insight. And maybe you end up with that last scene in Chinatown where Fitted discovers that Mrs Mullray had been raped by his father and that her daughter is in fact the granddaughter and the daughter of Mr Mullray…
    • New direction: this you can achieve by making your characters take certain actions and decisions that change the direction of the story. It’s when Edward Norton meets Brad Pitt in Fight Club. A whole new direction is created for the story.

Setup/ Payoffs

To set up means to layer in knowledge. To pay off means to close the gap by delivering that knowledge to the audience.

To make this work, you need to have planted before the necessary insights along the story.

The setup for Fight Club when Edward Norton discovers that Tyler  is his double, it’s everywhere along the story. From the mere presence of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) along the whole story, to the apparitions of Tyler in the frame, and the strange tantrums and reactions of Marla and Edward’s and Tyler’s team…

The payoff is obvious once you’ve seen the movie but incredibly effective if it is the first time you watch it and Tyler is sitting in that hotel room and explains to Edward that he is his double…

Emotional Dynamics:

There are two feelings really and a lot of variations of the following:

  • Pleasure
  • Pain

The more you have a feeling the less effect it has.

When we want mood experiences, we go to concerts and museums. When we want meaningful emotional experience, we go to the storyteller. Undramatized exposition is boring in any light.

So the important thing here is that you need to balance between what causes pleasure and what causes pain. You go from positive to negative and viceversa. You can go from negative to negative but the difference between them has to be greater. Example: they have a fight (negative) but in the next scene he kills her (negative but much worse. So it seems that a fight seems “positive”)


The choice between right and wrong is a subjective perception of what we call “good” and what we call “evil”.

When your characters are faced upon true pressure and danger they reveal themselves, they reveal their inner nature and they act accordingly. It’s when all it’s at stake and your characters need to make a decision right here, right now.

So let them reveal themselves for what they truly are and let them speak up their mind and take the necessary decision that need to be taken.

For a more detailed explanation do not hesitate and check out the chapter of McKee’s book, Scene Design!

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