Reader Question: Do characters “own” a scene?

Ownership is less important than underlying conflict between characters.

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Reader question from Nick Whittle:

I just wanted to gain some clarity here — within a scene, am I right to think that one particular character “owns” the scene, or drives it? Not necessarily the protagonist but certainly only one character at a time in contained within the scene…and in doing so speaks the driving lines?

Perhaps as an appendage to that, if one character does own the scene is it entirely plausible that the ownership can pass to another actor within the scene or should rule of thumb be — “This is X’s scene. X is going to take this scene to where he/she/it wants and Y and Z will follow.”

Nick, I like the language — owning a scene — and there will be times in which one character so dominates an interchange with other characters, it will certainly feel like they own it. Indeed from a narrative standpoint in order to drive the plot, there may very well be scenes in which one character forces the action and in effect owns it.

However, in reflecting on the idea of owning a scene, I think it’s more valuable to think about it as a struggle between two or more characters, each of whom is determined to ‘own’ the moment. When you have a situation like that, the ‘ownership’ of the scene is up for grabs, and that’s great because the script reader will not know what the disposition of the scene will be. That uncertainty, the power play between characters, makes for great drama and great entertainment.

For example, consider the interrogation scene between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight:

Who owns this scene? Certainly Batman is in a power position. Joker is in custody. Batman is stronger than Joker. He uses physical violence to try to extract information from Joker. However Joker is aware that Batman — by his own code — can’t kill him. Moreover Joker knows where Harvey Dent and Rachel are. So even though from the looks of what transpires, it appears as though Batman has the upper hand, in actuality Joker ends up ‘owning’ the scene.

And this example points out a key point: When writing a scene, consider each character and what their respective goals are — in that moment. That is, every character in a scene will have a goal. Some of them are bigger than others, some requiring more action than others, but each character ought to have something in mind — a want — in every scene.

Why is this important? Because it provides dynamism to the scene. If Character A, Character B, and Character C each have their own goal, the writer can explore the tension between their respective goals. And what can naturally arise is something drama requires: Conflict.

Here’s another scene that comes to mind: In The Shawshank Redemption, when Andy meets with Norton, the prison’s warden with information Andy has learned which can prove he is innocent of the murders for which he has been convicted [scene begins 2:37]:

Andy’s goal: Release from prison.
Norton’s goal: Keep Andy in prison.

Diametrically opposed goals.

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Warden Norton is Andy’s Nemesis in ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

Andy conveys the ‘confession’ by Elmo Blatch as related to him by Tommy. In theory, that would suggest he may be able to ‘own’ the scene. After all, the Good Book says, “The truth shall set you free.”

However, Norton uses logic to try to stop Andy in his tracks. When that fails to dissuade Andy, he consigns Andy to solitary confinement. And then this:

With the assassination of Tommy, it would seem that Norton ‘owns’ Andy. However Andy has other things in mind:

Which raises another point: The idea of who owns who is a fluid dynamic. Character A may prevail in one scene, however it may turn out the Character B actually ‘owns’ the situation in the larger scheme of things. In other words, one character may win the battle… but lose the war.

This concept of ‘owning’ a scene summons up a power struggle and that may tend to evoke out and out physicality as the plane on which the ‘battle’ is fought. But what about a battle of wits? We see this type of struggle in comedies all the time.

Here is the second half of a scene from the movie The Goodbye Girl. In the run-up to the excerpt featured below, Paula (Marsha Mason) has laid down some ground rules about sharing the apartment with this stranger. Check out the response by Elliot (Richard Dreyfuss):

She owns the first part of the scene. He owns the second. They end in a draw. And the battle lines are drawn for Act Two and beyond.

By the way, this scene is a perfect example of how ‘ownership’ of a scene can pass from one character to the next as per your second question.

So while there may be scenes in which one character clearly ‘owns’ it, I think the concept is more valuable to a writer when we tether it to conflict, a struggle between characters, each of whom has a goal, and the scene becomes the ‘battleground’ for the playing out of those goals.

GITS readers, what are your thoughts on the matter? Do you find the concept of ‘owning’ a scene helpful? Do you have other good examples of scenes in which characters struggle for ‘ownership’ of the moment? Head to comments and let me know what you think.

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