Many people have great ideas for screenplays. The problem is turning that great idea into a compelling page turner for the next 110-120 pages. That’s where most people fall apart because their scenes are dreadfully dull. Rather than get us excited, they simply move the story along until we get to the exciting parts. The trouble is, if each scene can’t keep us interested, then we’ll never get to the good parts.
Think of every scene like a mini-story that has to grab the audience’s attention from start to finish. In the beginning, a scene needs to show us something different. An early scene in “Frozen” shows the hero and her sister happily playing until the sister starts using her cold-making powers to create snow inside the house. That’s something new.
Then the second part of this scene shows the happy result as the two sisters laugh and play in the snow.
The third part of this scene shows the problem when the sister accidentally hits the hero with the cold and nearly kills her.
The fourth part of this scene concludes with the parents finding out and taking the hero to be saved while the sister looks on in horror at what she had done by mistake.
Each scene needs to follow the four-part story structure like this:
- Act I – Introduce a problem and the hero’s solution. In “Frozen,” this is about the hero and sister wanting to play.
- Act IIa – Show the happy results of the hero’s solution. In this case, the sister shows off her cold-making powers to the audience and the two sisters happily play.
- Act IIb – Show the negative consequences of the hero’s solution. Here the cold-making powers of the sister knocks the hero out.
- Act III – End with a cliffhanger. In this case, the hero may die as the sister looks on in misery.
A poor scene would eliminate one or more of these elements. Think of a bad movie like “The Expendables” where some terrorists are holding people hostage, the Expendables show up, a gun battle takes place, and the hero wins. Despite the action, it’s a boring scene because there’s no problem that makes us think something horrible has gone wrong and how will the hero deal with this problem?
Scenes are mini-stories. You could have the greatest story idea in the world, but if each scene doesn’t grab a reader and tell a mini-story of its own, your entire screenplay will fall apart. Study the scenes in your favorite movies and you’ll see how they open with something interesting and conclude with a cliffhanger with an initial happy part in the middle followed immediately by something sinister near the end.
In the famous “Pulp Fiction” scene where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson drive together, the opening grabs our interest as they start talking about hash bars in Amsterdam. Then the conversation suddenly turns to fast food restaurants in Amsterdam. Finally, the scene gets serious when we see them both open the trunk of the car and pull out guns. The cliffhanger is when they mention not knowing how many guys they could face.
Simple, short, but it grabs your attention with something new (talking about hash bars) and ends with a cliffhanger (who are they going to meet with their guns?). That’s what every scene must do.
Study the screenplays of your favorite movies and you’ll see this structure in every scene. That’s what makes a great movie. It isn’t a great idea and it isn’t a great scene. It’s a collection of great scenes strung together to tell a great story that fulfills the promise of a great idea, but it all starts with a scene as the basic building block for your entire screenplay.