Every scene exists solely to change a character’s life. Without this emotional change, the scene is pointless. Consider the scene in “Star Wars” when Luke rushes back to his uncle’s farm only to find the burned bodies of his aunt and uncle. After seeing those burned bodies, Luke’s life is changed forever more. He can never stay on his uncle’s farm any more after that scene is done.
If you saw “The Crying Game,” you’ll remember another memorable scene that changes a character’s life. This man falls in love with a woman but when the woman takes off her clothes, he discovers she’s not a woman after all.
Scenes don’t have to be earth-shattering to change a character’s life. In “Up,” the old man flips open his scrapbook and sees a note that his wife had left for him a long time ago that he had never seen. In that note, his wife urges him to go out and live another adventure. Just seeing this simple note gives the old man the motivation to leave his house and help a young boy find and protect a rare bird.
What happens if a scene fails to emotionally change a character’s life? Then the scene will feel pointless. While “Pulp Fiction” is crammed with memorable scenes, one particular scene is completely forgettable. A boxer (Bruce Willis) leaves a boxing match after winning when he had agreed to lose. Now he’s on the run from the mob that wants to kill him for not deliberately losing.
To escape, this boxer hops in a cab driven by a woman. Everyone remembers other scenes in “Pulp Fiction,” but how many people remember this taxi cab scene? Hardly anyone because it’s not that interesting.
Despite being an attractive woman, the cab driver comes out of nowhere and disappears afterwards so there’s no setup or payoff. The whole scene exists to show the boxer escaping from the boxing arena and has no connection with the rest of the movie. As a result, that taxi cab scene is entirely forgettable.
That’s what happens when a scene fails to include a setup or payoff. The scene simply exists on its own and becomes completely forgettable as soon as it ends. When the boxer leaves the taxi cab, there’s no cliffhanger that makes us wonder what will happen because nothing has changed for the boxer.
In the beginning of the scene, the boxer is trying to escape before the mob can find him. By the end of the taxi cab scene, the boxer is still trying to escape. Without any change in the boxer’s situation, nothing happens and that “Pulp Fiction” scene is entirely forgettable and pointless.
Analyze the scenes of your favorite movie and you’ll notice that every scene changes a character’s life emotionally after the scene completes. Without an emotional change, a scene has no reason to exist, so make sure every scene changes a character’s life because that’s what makes a story great.