Lesson: Scene Dynamics and Outcomes

Audio Version

Over the past several lessons, we've discussed story and WOARO as a linear path.


A character wants something, but something stands in their way. They take action, get responses, and eventually get what they want or don't.

In this lesson, we will make more complex stories, looking at reversals, raising the stakes, and revisiting try/fail cycles.


Reversals occur when the expected outcome of a story changes. We think our hero is lost and they discover the answer, or we think they've almost won and then suddenly lose.

Reversals can occur for a few reasons:

  1. Recognition
  2. Hidden actions
  3. Unexpected responses
  4. Unexpected outcomes
  5. More than one outcome


Recognition is when a character comes to a sudden realization or understanding.

An obvious example is The Sixth Sense, where Bruce Willis discovers that he is a ghost and didn't survive the encounter with the patient from the start of the story.

If you want to apply recognition to WOARO, the character's want is to solve the mystery, the actions move toward solving it, and the outcome is an unexpected recognition.

Aristotle believed there was a hierarchy of recognition, moving from least to most artistic:

  1. Signs (scars, tokens, etc...)
  2. Being told (I am the killer.)
  3. Forgotten memories.
  4. The process of reasoning through the facts and actions of the story.

Hidden Actions

In most scenes and stories, we understand who controls the action at the beginning. One character wants something and takes action to achieve it.

However, an alternate is that another character has an ulterior motive and is waiting to act upon it. It could be:

  • A False Action: their major action seems to be one thing when it is something else.
  • A Withheld Action: kept in reserve, to be revealed later.
  • A Sleeper Action: seems not to pay attention to a character—until they do.
  • A "Letting Out Line" Action: letting the other characters tire themselves out.
  • A "Treading Water" Action: conserving energy, waiting to heal or recharge.

Each of these creates reversals because one character works against another one at an unexpected moment.

Also, hidden actions are a good reminder that every character has their own wants, obstacles, and, of course, actions.

Unexpected responses

A story can often shift when a character's response differs from what is expected. This shift is different from a character with a hidden intention and action.

For example, it could be a character who always says yes but suddenly says no. Or someone who's fought for a long time and suddenly gives up.

These moments reveal characters who dig deep within themselves and ask Who am I? and aren't happy with what they see.

On the other hand, some stories—often tragedies—have characters that face this question and accept their dark side, leading to further problems. Shakespeare was the king of this.

Unexpected responses and stimuli can also lead to moments of recognition. A character who responds unexpectedly could trigger a moment of a fresh understanding of the situation within another character.

Either way, the result is the same—a moment that changes the line of action and sometimes shifts who controls the action from one character to another.

Unexpected outcomes

Of course, with all scenes, the outcome is about the character getting what they want—or not. But as I mentioned previously, outcomes can also be mixed. It is a success/fail, where they achieve one thing, but lose something else.

However, there are two other possibilities:

  • fail/fail - characters don't get what they want and they lose something else as well.
  • success/success - characters get what they want and something more.

The first type you'll often see in action or horror films. Characters fight through a scene to get something they want but fail to achieve it—but also someone close to them will be taken or killed by the enemy unexpectedly.

The success/success outcome often comes in comedies or children's films, where a character succeeds in their struggle and is gifted with additional rewards.

Unexpected outcomes can also be moments of recognition. A character either achieves or loses something, as well as discovering a new piece of information.

More than one outcome

As I said at the start, we've discussed story as a single unit of action called WOARO. When WOARO comes to an end, so does the story.

However, in our second lesson, I said that WOARO can not only shape a script but also scenes, sequences, and story beats.

Think of them in terms of containers:

A story as containers

This approach allows us to nest stories inside other stories or create episodic connections. Once we understand the basic structure of WOARO, we can play with its form.

One of those forms, of course, is reversals. A story seems resolved, only for a whole new storyline to burst onto the scene. As well, you can use to dig deeper into a character's story.

Ernest Hemingway often used this strategy in his short stories. For example, "A Cat in the Rain" is about a woman who looks for a cat in a rainstorm, but when she comes back empty-handed, she reveals her real motives. "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" is about two bartenders kicking an old man out of their bar, only for it to follow the older bartender and his own more profound struggle. Both stories are structured so they pivot at the midpoint.

As you grow stories, this strategy of linking WOARO units of action together builds out a story. Next time you watch a movie or a TV show, notice how one act or scene leads into the next.

Raising the Stakes with Unwanted Outcomes

Another way to add complexity is by raising the stakes. Stakes are what's at risk within your story and creates tension. They can be either what a character can possibly gain, but often it is what they can lose.

For example, an action hero may want the treasure and defeat the enemy, but they certainly do not want to put their loved ones' lives at stake. Or in a romantic comedy, the hero may want love but doesn't want to lose their job and best friend in the process of pursuing it.

But how do we show it in our scripts?

At its heart, stakes are the threat to positive outcomes (the character's hopes and dreams), as well as the threat of negative ones (their fears and worries). Put another way, it is what the character wants or doesn't want.

There are multiple ways to raise the stakes:

  1. Establish the stakes in the want/obstacle—they want this, but must avoid this. It's best to treat unwanted outcomes as an obstacle.
  2. Split the protagonist's attention during the action and response section of your story, so that they must struggle to achieve their want as well as avoid the obstacle.
  3. Eventually, you need to deliver an outcome. Outcomes lower the tension but can be used to lead to future action beats.

One last thing about understanding positive and negative outcomes: they can be tied to unexpected outcomes. Knowing the hopes, dreams, fear, and worries of your characters can lead to surprising reversals.

Try/Fail Cycles

As you consider the different types of reversals and raising the stakes, a handy tactic to build these stories is to use try/fail cycles, which I discussed in a previous lesson.

With all stories, your character has a problem/want they need to resolve. As your character moves towards it, they encounter try/fail cycles. Your character will try different actions to solve their problem, but they must continually fail.

Fails come in two forms:

  • yes/but - yes, their action succeeds, but a new problem occurs.
  • no/and - no, their action doesn't succeed, and further complications occur.

Each time you complete a cycle, you progress the story forward (and possibly raise the stakes).

The story ends when your character either resolves the problem with a try/success cycle or a try/final fail cycle.

A try/success cycle can happen in two ways:

  1. yes/and - yes, their action succeeds, and another thing happens.
  2. no/but - no, they fail, but something occurs to move the story forward.

A try/final fail cycle is similar to no/and: no, they fail, and the possibility for further action is ended. The treasure is destroyed, the person they seek to save is killed, etc. It's not a happy ending but it is an ending.

Notice how the addition of and or but to these statements adds the possibility for many types of reversals, raising the stakes, and multiple outcomes.


Write a 2-3 page script that contains two characters in opposition that shows a reversal, or links two units of WOARO together.

This shift can happen from another character's recognition, hidden actions, unexpected responses, unexpected outcomes, or more than one outcome.

Also, consider using try/fail cycles to help build your action, and resolve the story.

You are free to raise the stakes if you wish.

Marking Criteria

  • Written in the active, present tense.
  • Proper screenplay format (including sluglines, parenthesis, and ALL CAPS on the introduction of characters).
  • Proper use of descriptions.
  • Includes a title page that uses the proper format.
  • Only five errors are allowed on each script.

❗ This assignment is due: Sunday, Oct. 29, at midnight. ( Saskatchewan time ).