Raising the Stakes: How to Lay Down a Scene
Sometimes what makes a scene memorable is not what first comes to mind — it can even elude the readers. Laying out the details can be the most difficult but the most crucial part of the job.
Some people still believe that all you have to do to write proper fiction is to sit in front of your computer and start typing. You know that old Hemingway quote: ‘All you have to do is sit in front of your typewriter and bleed’? Well, I love that quote, but it makes it well easier than it is. Much of my writing is done away from any writing device. It’s done in bed, sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, or in the shower, or as I drive, or as I walk on the beach or take a cup of coffee. Because even after you outlined the shit out of your narrative, even though you know your characters by heart and you are absolutely certain what needs to come next, you still need to lay down the scene. You still need to figure out what’s happening in a scene, the details, the breathing of the scene. Most of the time I won’t be able to start writing before I know exactly how the scene will play out. This is what I’ll be speaking about today.
Brian De Palma is not one of my favorite directors. He directed a few good movies but there is always a thing or two that will bother me in them. In particular, I think he tries hard to do the same things that Hitchcock did and the old master was way better than he ever will be. Still, THE UNTOUCHABLES is a movie I already watched many times and it does not turn me away. Kevin Costner is good in it, and both Sean Connery and Robert DeNiro are superb. And it has a good script. Last night I saw it again and it made me want to write about a particular scene. They say a good movie always has a Watercooler Moment, that moment you will be talking about the next day with your co-workers by the watercooler on the coffee break. In THE UNTOUCHABLES it is definitely the 9-minute-long Train Station Shootout Scene at the end.
First of all, the basics. A good scene should have the same structure as the story itself, meaning: Act One — the beginning; Act Two — the development; Act Three — the conclusion. And if it is really a good scene, it will have a build-up and a payoff, where the tension is increased until it is released. The whole emotional boost you get from a scene comes from this game of building expectations before you fulfill them.
So let’s look at the scene. Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and his man George Stone (Andy Garcia), are going to capture Al Capone’s bookkeeper as he boards a train at 12:05. Both men are well-armed as they enter the train station. Ness will be guarding the main entrance while Stone goes across the hall to guard the South entrance. The writer knows this will be the most important confrontation in the movie — if the lawmen can capture the bookkeeper and make him testify, Capone will go to jail. The outline will say something like: ‘Ness and Stone go to the Train Station and capture the bookkeeper.’ But now the writer must make the scene memorable. It must be a shootout that will put the people on the edge of their seats. So he decides Eliot Ness’s position — the hero will be at the top of the staircase, overlooking the most of the train station he can. As soon as Ness is in that position, the scene will play out from his POV: the camera gives you that effect, but it could be done with words in a text.
Now, should the enemy gunmen just come in and everybody shoot? Not good enough. Let’s do Act One, let’s build up the tension. Ness sees Stone crossing the train station — he will be too far away to be of sudden help, we gather. There are two janitors cleaning the floor, minding their businesses. What are they talking about? What kind of foul stain are they cleaning on their knees? The clock shows the time: 11:56. A baby cries downstairs. Ness looks down. A lady comes pushing a baby cart with a crying baby towards the steps. She also carries two heavy suitcases. She puts the suitcases down so she can calm the baby down.
Through this, we are waiting, just like Eliot Ness is. We are feeling the tension rising as he is.
The loudspeaker warns passengers to board the train. The baby is still crying as the woman is having trouble calming him down. The main doors open. Who is coming? A couple with their suitcases. They go downstairs and around the baby cart, moving away. Nothing here is important, seemingly. There are no plot-points, nothing major going on. But every detail is important notwithstanding. The way the doors open and we don’t know who will enter. The way the loudspeaker urges people towards the train — we know the time is running out. The fact that the mother and the baby are in a dangerous place without knowing, without having a chance to escape… All of this is well thought and plays a part in the building up.
Then Ness takes notice of a well-dressed man stopping by a pillar. By Ness’s reaction, he must be a gangster. Is he? Slowly, the lady turns the cart around and starts pulling it up the stairs. She puts one suitcase on a step behind her, and then the other, and then she pulls the cart one step. Then she begins again: one case, then another, then pulling the cart one more step. It is a painfully slow process. Ness is becoming more and more nervous. More people come in, the clock keeps moving, the main doors open, the speaker warns. A woman comes downstairs and kisses the suspicious man by the pillar and they go away. He wasn’t a gangster after all. Finally, a plot-point: Ness decides he must do something about the woman and the child and he abandons his position to help them. As he starts pulling the cart up, the first gangsters arrive. And the Second Act begins. The whole First Act served its essential purpose: it raised the tension.
The Second Act begins as, one after the other, several gangsters come into the station and go down the stairs. Ness just wants to drag the baby cart to safety but he knows everything is about to happen. He starts pulling it more urgently. But as he is on the final steps another gangster comes in and recognizes him. And the shootout begins. As he shoots the first gunman, he inadvertently pushes the baby cart and it slides down the steps. And suddenly Ness has two conflicting purposes: he must shoot the bad guys to survive and he must get hold of the baby cart before it crashes on the bottom of the stairs. De Palma shoots all this in slow-motion or the whole thing wouldn’t work, there are too many moving parts. But it works: bad guys and bystanders die, and at the last moment Stone comes running from the other end of the station and is able to catch the baby cart before it crashes. Break into the Third Act.
In the Third Act of the scene, there’s a hostage situation. The last gangster holds the bookkeeper at gunpoint and threatens to kill him. The bookkeeper, on the other hand, promises to spill all the beans as long as the lawmen save him. Maintaining his coolness, Ness orders Stone to take the shot and it’s perfect.
The Second and Third Acts of this scene might be evident, and you would not be surprised to find something similar in any common action movie. But what makes this such a great action scene is the First Act. The set-up. De Palma confessed he took inspiration for the baby cart from this scene of Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN. Was it necessary? Was the baby cart important for the overall story? No. But it was important for the inner story of this scene. It raised the stakes. It made it different. It created tension. And this can be done in a thriller, an action sequence or even a drama. How does tension build-up before a fight about betrayal between husband and wife?
Can you manage the tension and the energy of your scenes like this? Can you make complex but structured scenes? I try to do it all the time and I’m always excited when it works. I hope you do too. If not, give it a try — you’ll be surprised.