Scenes Need Urgency. Here’s How To Get It.


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by Naomi Write + Co. in screenwriting

Urgency is a tool that’s already in your toolkit, but we usually talk about it at the story or act level. Today, let’s talk about how to apply urgency to scenes, and why you definitely want to.

Each scene in your screenplay has a story purpose to fulfill, but it also has to be an entertaining couple of minutes of movie, too. If each scene simply conveyed information without any thought to the dramatization of it, the movie would be a series of flat, boring scenes.

Writers sometimes assume that if they’ve thought about all of the big story elements, that’s enough – their work is done. But that’s really only half the battle. The other half is finding a way to express those story elements through individual scenes that compel an audience to keep watching.

A screenplay has 100 or so pages, and you have to get your reader to turn every one

Even if the audience (or reader) is intrigued by the big picture ‘what if?’ or the main conflict, or even invested in the protagonist, what he wants, and what he stands to lose… that may not be enough to get the audience to stick around. Not if what’s intriguing is only on the global level (story), and hasn’t been translated to the local level (scenes). The audience may be curious to know how it all turns out, but if that payoff is still far in the distance, they may not have quite enough curiosity to hold out for it.

“What happens next?” is a much more immediate question. It keeps the audience leaning in moment-to-moment.

A good scene doesn’t just accomplish its overall story purpose. It has to do that and entertain us. It must provide important story information, as well as an engaging experience that compels the audience to keep watching. To want to know what happens next.

Give your scenes some urgency

When something is urgent it “requires swift action,” which is great for your screenplay. We want characters who want things badly, and who go after them despite the obstacles in their way. Urgency contributes nicely to those conditions by forcing action.

And urgency is just as useful at the scene level as it is at the story level. Maybe even more so because I’m not sure you can really have urgency at the story level without expressing it at the scene level.

How to create urgency

Scene-specific urgency can be created by a literal ticking clock, or by any other constraint on time. Anything that would force a character to “act swiftly.”

What else could create urgency? How about:

  • The arrival or departure of a subway train, bus, plane, elevator, etc.
  • The arrival or departure of another person. (And mentally “leaving” counts, too – like if that person is about to get too drunk, or lose consciousness, or will be mentally unavailable for some other reason.)
  • A baby’s finite naptime.
  • The time until a bathroom break can no longer be avoided.
  • Any other urgent or important task demanding the character’s attention at the same time.
  • A change in physical circumstances that forces immediate action, like the impending loss of access or a new threat. (Things like the tide coming in, or a K-9 unit being deployed.)

That’s just off the top of my head and I’d bet you can come up with many more.

Essentially, establishing that something is going to happen (either in a specific time frame, or simply very soon) and that it’s going to stop the character from achieving their scene objective, tells us that the character has to take action quickly despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. And because we hope for the best but fear the worst, this helps keep us hooked as we watch the scene play out.

Creating urgency right now, in the moment, not only energizes the scene, it also adds to the tension over the course of the story. If characters are constantly up against new struggles and unable to easily achieve their in-scene objectives, that uncertainty keeps the audience leaning in from one scene to the next.

Fun urgency in True Story

In the 2015 movie True Story, there’s a scene early on where we’re really meeting protagonist Mike Finkel, an investigative journalist for the New York Times. We’ve seen him in one scene before, but this is where we get more of a sense of who he is as a character.

He’s just returned from the Ivory Coast where he’s been investigating a big story. And now, in the Times offices, he’s being urged by his editor to finish writing it and turn it in. He has ten minutes, she tells him. And she pops up every few seconds to remind him of it.

Though the editor seems stressed about the deadline, and maybe even a little dubious that he’ll make it, Mike takes it in stride – even playing a poker game on the side while he finishes the write-up.

The ticking clock ads urgency to the scene, and Mike’s handling of it tells us something about his character (and makes the scene a lot more fun).

Intense urgency in She Said

Here’s another example, from the 2022 movie She Said. Even though both of these examples are about journalists (and from the New York Times, no less) I swear you can find ticking clocks and urgency in plenty of other types of movies; these just happen to be two movies I watched this week.

So, in She Said, there’s a scene where we see Jodi, one of the journalists investigating the Harvey Weinstein story, and she is deep into a long, difficult investigation. Here, she’s just gotten an important source to agree to meet with her for the first time.

Irwin, the source, is nervous, even fearing for his safety, and reluctant to speak out about Harvey (as pretty much everyone was). At the beginning of their meeting he tells Jodi, “I reserve the right to leave after five minutes.”

This immediately creates a sense of urgency in the scene. Irwin may have shown up, that’s something, but Jodi still needs to win him over and convince him to actually help her, and she has about five minutes to do it.

(Here’s the whole scene if you’d like to read it.)​

Adding this time constraint creates needed tension to what could easily be a boring scene (two people talking in a diner). Now Jodi knows she has a limited amount of time to get Irwin to help her, but she can’t show it. She can’t appear frantic or spook him in any way, or she’ll lose her shot. She’s walking a tightrope.

Urgency for all occasions

Urgency is useful at the story or scene level, or anything in between. And, while I can’t think of a specific example of a movie over-using urgency, it’s probably happened — so remember to also give your characters those still moments to react to and process what’s happened. This also gives your audience the occasional breather. Sometimes we need a re-set, so we can pile on the tension again.

What it ultimately comes down to is thinking about how to convey what you need to convey for the story, while maintaining the audience’s interest. In other words, keeping them entertained.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.