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.
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