In every scene, you need emotional change and conflict. Emotional change means that a main character is somehow different from the beginning of a scene than he or she is at the end. Conflict means someone or something is directly opposing the main character from pursuing and achieving a goal.
This emotional change doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. An early scene in “Pulp Fiction” shows John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson riding in a car and talking. The emotional change that Samuel L. Jackson’s character goes through (along with he audience) is learning more about how Europeans eat fast food like hamburgers and french fries.
The conflict is that Samuel L. Jackson’s character can’t believe what John Travolta’s character is telling him. In both cases, the emotional change and conflict is minor, but it’s still present.
Take a scene from a poor movie and you can see where the lack of change and conflict makes a scene dull. In “Mary Poppins Returns,” there’s a scene where Mary Poppins and the children take a broken bowl to a character known as Topsy Turvy to repair.
The characters at the beginning of the scene are no different than they are after the scene ends so there’s no emotional change. There’s also no conflict either. Combine the lack of conflict with the lack of emotional change and this entire scene is pointless. It doesn’t help the story any by setting up an idea or paying off a previous setup idea.
Compare this to the scene in “Mary Poppins” where Mary Poppins takes the children see her uncle, who is laughing hysterically and floating in the air. Initially, the children are still somewhat serious but after this scene, they are more willing to laugh. It’s a minor emotional change but a crucial one because it also sets up how Mr. Banks (the children’s’ father) will tell a joke and learn to laugh himself, which ultimately helps him get his job back at the bank.
There’s conflict in this laughing scene in “Mary Poppins” because the kids want to laugh but Mary Poppins wants them to stay on the ground. She gives up eventually and lets everyone float up to the ceiling to laugh together.
Pick any scene from a good movie and you’ll see how the most memorable scenes are those that create the greatest emotional change in a main character.
In “Star Wars” when Luke sees Princess Leia’s hologram, he’s shocked and entranced. Now he’s far different than he was before he saw the hologram.
In “Back to the Future,” Marty is distraught when he watches the terrorists kill Doc. Then he’s surprised and happy when Doc sits up and says that he followed Marty’s warning to protect his life. Now Marty started the scene scared and ends the scene happy that he helped save Doc’s life.
The most memorable scenes aren’t those that have the most special effects or action, but those that have the greatest emotional change. Strive to make every scene memorable because someone changes emotionally. When characters change emotionally, audiences change emotionally too, and that emotional change is what makes stories great.