Monday, 16 July 2012

Writing A Bottle Scene

There are times in a story when not much is going on. Your character is isolated or apart from everyone else, away from activity or the main plot.

Readers may find this sort of scene dull or pedestrian and the suggestion will be to zhoosh it up somehow. This advice will most times be right. However, sometimes you want a scene to be low key or concentrated down to a few ingredients.

There’s nothing wrong with this, often the strongest character moments come in the quieter moments. But that doesn’t mean you should have long scenes over a cup of coffee and endless banter, nor does it mean you need a bomb on a bus and SWAT teams flying in through windows to make it exciting.

One of the best ways to see how to make the most of a limited situation is to take a look at what TV shows call a ‘bottle episode’.

A television series has a fixed budget. Let’s say it’s $20 million for twenty episodes. That means $1 million dollars per episode. But it doesn’t.

Some episodes will cost much more than others. Some will have expensive stunts, maybe special effects, maybe exotic locations. So if one episode costs a lot more, it means somewhere down the line they have to make an episode for a lot less to make the budget balance.

This is why you often find shows like Star Trek have a huge space battle one week, and then the next week it's all about two of the cast stuck in a lift for the entire episode.

The thing is though, those ‘bottle episodes’ (where people are trapped in conveniently low-budget settings) are often considered the best written episodes. Why?

The first thing that is apparent is that bottle episodes are very restricted in what you can do. But rather than limit the writer, this pushes writers to come up with unusual ways to keep things interesting. This is a useful thing to bear in mind.

Lesson One: The more limitations you impose, the better the drama.

The reason the characters are in the situation that they’re in is beyond their control. There’s no point making it voluntary where they can just walk away. Character's are much more able to express themselves when there's no getting away.

Lesson Two: No easy way out.

Often a problem with small, intimate scenes is that they’re too on-the-nose. You can’t just have one person ask what’s up, and the other start confessing. They need stuff to do, namely sorting out the thing that’s got them stuck. So, if two guys are trapped in a lift, you can’t just have them sit around waiting for help, they need to be trying to get out themselves, and for that to feel real, there has to be a reason why they’re not prepared to wait.

Lesson Three: Keep them busy.

These sorts of scenes are about getting to know the characters. In order to do this you — the writer — need to know the characters really well, and you need them to be interesting. They have to have stuff they either need to say or need to hear. People without issues aren’t going to be much use to you.

Lesson Four: Choose people with issues.

Bottle episodes tend to have far greater tension that’s extended over long periods. Usually this is done with secrets, revelations, emotional recriminations and the like. Having the audience be aware of things one or more characters aren’t, can really make a simple scene come alive. It helps if the characters are well established enough by this point so the audience has a strong idea who they are. An idea you can then reinforce or subvert.

Lesson Five: Have the audience know what’s coming.

People who want to avoid each other (for whatever reason) generally will find a way to do so. Once you force them into a position where they’re stuck, they can still be evasive and not want to face the thing they're trying to avoid, but when they’re in close proximity with no escape route, the tension will rise by itself. Even if the issues are never fully dealt with, just the possibility can be enough to keep things bubbling.   

A simplified setting also makes it much more obvious when things get boring. It requires greater inventiveness to enable things to happen when you have no exterior elements that can be thrown in whenever you need them. Even if you don’t wish to have a scene like this in your story, it’s a great exercise to see if you really know your characters and if their problems really are worth reading about.
 If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

And since I just wrote a scene like that this past weekend, I know exactly what you mean! Think it was one of the best I've ever written as well. I'm sure that will change, but I'm really happy with the tension and interaction right now.

Christina M. McKnight said...

This is exactly the information I needed right now! My FMC and MMC (historical romance) are worlds apart. Things are happening with my MMC but my FMC is stuck at her father's country estate. Thanks for helping me work through this bottle chapter :)

Brent Wescott said...

Seriously, these really are some of the best episodes on TV. The best Friends episodes were the ones that took place in one apartment during 30 minutes of the character's lives, like when Joey wore all of Chandler's clothes and Ross was going to drink the fat for Rachel. And just in case I just lamed myself out of existence, I'll refer to one of the best episodes of Community (and there're plenty to choose from) when Abed himself called it the "bottle episode" and the group was locked in the study room together.

Rena McGee said...

For a moment I thought the title said "battle scene."

I have nothing really intelligent to add except one of my favorite "bottle scenes" is in Babylon 5 where Londo and G'kar end up stuck in the same very small space for much too long and G'kar does not want to cooperate with Londo because he really, really hates him. :D

Jack Durish said...

I came here for a good laugh at your expense. "Bottle" [sic] scene, I was prepared to write. They you up and hit me with some good information. Well, thanks. I've going to have to keep an eye on you.

mooderino said...

@Alex-I think restrictions often bring out the best in a writer.

@Christina-I'd like to meet a girl whose father owns a country estate. Does she have a sister?

@Brent-go watch some football immediately.

@Rena-if i had any idea who those people were I'm sure I would agree.

mooderino said...

@Jack-I see no reason not to have a laugh at me expense anyway.

Grace Robinson said...

I agree with Rena - the Londo and G'Kar Babylon 5 bottle scenes were awesome. :-)

And this entire post was also awesome. Many of my favorite TV eps were "bottle episodes," and I can think of several books scenes that would fit the description well, too. A good writer with good characters can do amazing things with the "folks stuck on the lift" type setting. :)

Jason Runnels said...

Great post, I will certainly retweet this!

I'm not sure the studio was trying to save money but the movie Phone Booth with Colin Farrell fits your criteria. The sniper makes things interesting, otherwise it's just a guy yammering away on the phone.

mooderino said...

@Grace-i had no idea Babylon 5 was still so popular.


Diane Carlisle said...

You got me thinking about Whoopi Goldberg in "The Telephone" :D

mooderino said...

@Diane-I apologise.

Scribbles From Jenn said...

Well, that explains why some episodes are full of action and others are the characters trapped in a bank vault. It all stems back to $$$. Thanks for the clarification and the insight on how to make those scenes better.

mooderino said...

@Jen-I'm on a mission to enlighten.

Jay Noel said...

A bottle scene is VERY difficult to write. I've read some that just seemed like filler pages. But if done right, it can help the reader get more intimate with the character(s).

Daisy Carter said...

What an excellent post! I'd never really thought of "bottle scenes" like this before - but it makes perfect sense.

I don't tweet, but I will be linking to this in my post tomorrow. For now, I think my manuscript needs a bottle scene - so glad I read this!

Anonymous said...

Reading my mind, baby. Love this. My MC took the bottle with her for a soak in hot bath after a long journey. Draining and refilling the tub, draining and refilling the glass. High drama. We both nearly fell asleep. But it was a great way to release tension and show how she dealt with a fright the scene before.

PS- grammar nazi hat on- can you correct the "their" in the penultimate sentence?

Tweeting foward as I write!

Anonymous said...

This was a timely post. I was just sitting down to write one of these scenes, and was procrastinating when I clicked on your article because I wasn't sure how to go about it. I guess I no longer have an excuse not to get started on it. ;) Thanks!

Karla Gomez said...

Great post! I am in the same boat as meganpaasch. Glad I read this :)

Vero said...

Awesome advice, as usual!

Drama is not in the setting and the special effects, in the big bangs and the commotion. Drama is in the silent implosions, in the collisions between characters that desperately try not to collide. Bottle scenes like the ones you described are gems in a story!

Thanks, mood!

mooderino said...

@Jay-small intense scenes rock.


@chalk-thanks for the correction.

@megan-get set, go!

@Karla-glad to be of help.


Candilynn Fite said...

Perfect timing! I just drafted a "bottle scene" in my wip. There was no explosive action, but the simmering scene allowed me to introduce building conflict. I'm glad to have found your post, as I was contemplating deleting the scene, until now. :)

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

It didn't pay off for M. Night Shyamalan. His movie "Devil" is terrible and takes place in an elevator. But it definitely paid off for Clerks.

mooderino said...

@Candilynn-it's all about timing.

@Michael-I don't think very much has paid off M. Night since Sixth Sense. Certainly hasn't for the audience.

John Wiswell said...

I agree on choosing to bottle characters with issues. Such episodes, chapters and scenes are typically dialogue-driven, and the dialogue is always more interesting when characters bring more to the scenario.

mooderino said...

@John-and who doesn't have issues?

Adam Gaylord said...

Very interesting and insightful. I'll be sure to keep this in mind. Thanks!

nutschell said...

Great post! NEver heard of a bottle episode til now. Good to know these things;)

Fairchild said...

Excellent! I learned something new here. You're going on my blog sidebar links.

mooderino said...

@Adam-you're welcome.

@nutschell-knowledge is power.


Jolene Louise said...

Thank you so much for this! VERY helpful!

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