Pick out every important scene in a good movie and there’s always an initial anticipation by one of the characters of what’s supposed to happen. Then the character (and the audience) learns of something that surprises and shatters that initial anticipation. This is what makes scenes memorable and keeps a story moving.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero goes into an early scene thinking her boyfriend is going to propose to her. Instead he dumps her. The scene starts off with anticipation and we as the audience want to see how that anticipation plays out. Then a surprise occurs (to use and the hero) when the boyfriends dumps the hero instead.
That set up of what’s expected vs. what actually happens is how every scene keeps the story moving forward.
In “”Pulp Fiction,” an early scene seems to be about two guys talking about Burger King fast food in Europe. That scene seems harmless until the end when we realize both men are hit men who are going to threaten and possibly kill someone. That’s a major reversal of our expectations.
In “Star Wars,” Luke rushes back to his uncle’s farm, expecting to find his aunt and uncle alive. Instead, he finds their charred bodies and the burnt out remains of the farm. The initial anticipation is finding his aunt and uncle alive. The reversal is finding them dead.
In general, every scene should start with an initial anticipation of what the scene is about. Then the reversal surprises us by completely upsetting the anticipation.
In “The Lion King,” Simba follows his evil uncle with the expectation that his uncle will show him something interesting. The reversal occurs when his uncle plots for Simba to get trapped and have his father try to save him, only to get killed in the process.
In “The Crying Game,” the hero thinks he’s getting seduced by a woman. The huge reversal is when he finds out this woman is actually a man pretending to be a woman.
There are two ways a scene can fail. First is if there isn’t any initial anticipation for what should happen. When this occurs, a scene seems pointless because we don’t understand it’s purpose. This risks killing audience interest so make sure every scene clearly defines the initial anticipation of a main character (and the audience).
Then a second way a scene can fail is by not reversing the anticipation. If the scene simply plays out as expected, it will be boring. Imagine two characters planning to rob a bank. They get to the bank, rob it, and get away. That’s what they expect and that’s boring. It’s far more interesting to make that bank robbery scene surprise the characters and the audience. In “Baby Driver,” the characters go to rob a post office, but when the hero spots a woman teller he met before, he tries to warn her away. Then everything falls apart as the hero kills one of the robbers who threatens him. This wrecks their getaway car so now the hero and his fellow robbers must escape on foot.
The hero expected to go into a robbery and get away. The surprise is that his getaway car gets wrecked and now he must escape on foot.
Set up a scene with clear anticipation for what should happen. Then reverse that anticipation and show us what really happens, which causes problems and keeps the story interesting and moving forward.