Every scene is one of many building blocks to create your overall story. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a screenplay will only be as strong as your weakest scene. When rewriting, always look at each scene individually and find ways to make it stronger.
First, look at the purpose of each scene. Think of each scene as a one-way door. As soon as the scene ends, there’s no way to go back. In other words, in each scene someone makes a major decision about their life, even if they might change their minds later on.
In “Django: Unchained,” there’s an early scene where Django first learns what a bounty hunter does. This occurs when the German bounty hunter appears to shoot the town’s sheriff in cold blood. Django (and the audience) is initially horrified at the actions of the German, only to learn later on the German bounty hunter’s true motive, which was to kill a wanted criminal masquerading as a sheriff.
In “Star Wars,” Luke makes a decision not to leave with Obi-wan so he can stay on his uncle’s farm. Then on the way to taking Obi-wan to the space port, Luke learns that the stormtroopers killed his aunt and uncle. Now Luke makes another decision to go with Obi-wan after all.
Once you know how each scene forces a major character to make a decision, the next step is to ignore the dialogue and focus solely on the character’s action. Make the action interesting. In “Django: Unchained,” the Germany bounty hunter could have just told Django that they were going to kill a man, but that would have created a boring scene.
Instead the German bounty hunter appears to cause trouble in a bar, gun down a sheriff, and endanger his life along with Django’s life for no reason. Only later do we realize his real goal was to collect the bounty on the sheriff.
Once you know the purpose of each scene, ignore the dialogue and focus on making the action interesting just like that sheriff killing scene in “Django: Unchained.” If the scenes in your own screenplay aren’t interesting to watch, then rewrite that scene to make it more mysterious, more intriguing, and more memorable. That alone will vastly improve each scene of your screenplay.
Finally, focus on your dialogue. Every scene needs two characters with a conflict. In most cases the conflict won’t be physical but verbal, and that means each character needs a goal that they want to achieve. To achieve that goal, they need to use dialogue.
The trick to dialogue is state exactly what each character wants. This will likely create a boring dialogue, but the point is simply to understand what each character wants.
In “Star Wars,” the scene between Obi-wan and Luke might be as short as this:
OBI-WAN: Want to come with me?
Boring, right? Instead, Obi-wan talks about Luke’s father to indirectly convince Luke to come with him. Luke doesn’t just say no, he also explains himself by saying he needs to help on his uncle’s farm. Obi-wan doesn’t give up easily either. Instead he says Luke’s words sound more like his uncle talking than him.
A dialogue is a verbal sparring battle between two characters who are each thing to get something from the other person. The more your dialogue reflects this, the stronger your scene will be.
So the three steps to strengthening a scene is to understand the purpose of each scene where a character makes a decision, make the action interesting, and make the dialogue indirect as each character tries to get what they want from the other.
If you do this for every scene, each scene will be stronger and that will just make your overall screenplay much stronger.