Watch a bunch of strangers in a public place like a restaurant or a coffee shop. Why are some people boring and others fascinating to watch? Beyond their surface appearance, it all has to do with change. The next time you go to a restaurant, watch some people at random and note whether their actions are interesting to you or not. Chances are good that they won’t be because nothing happens. In other words, there’s no change.
A couple in a restaurant may arrive being happy with each other, eat their meal chatting happily with each other, and then leave arm in arm happy in each other’s company. While this might be great for that lucky couple, it’s boring for everyone else to watch.
Now picture this same couple showing up happy in the restaurant but suddenly leaving mad or sad. That’s suddenly interesting because something happened and being the nosey, curious people that we are, we won’t to know what happened. The key is that something changed.
Reverse the emotions and imagine that couple arriving sad or mad at the restaurant, but leaving happy. Again, something changed and we want to know what happened. Change is the key to making an interesting scene.
In your own screenplay, do you have scenes where nothing much happens? Even if you have car crashes, gunfire, TNT explosions, and special effects whizzing by our heads, that all means nothing if the characters in your scene don’t change.
Change can be discovering something. Remember how powerful a scene “The Sixth Sense” had at the end when Bruce Willis realized that he had been dead the whole time? Even though his physical actions were relatively minor, the emotional change of discovery changed the whole tone of the story and grabbed our interest.
Think of the old man in “Up” when he reaches the end of his once happy life when his wife dies. There he sits at her funeral, alone, and he finally discovers how empty his life suddenly feels. No big action on the screen there. Just a change in the character’s emotional state, but that grabs us more than all the special effects generated by a computer could ever do.
Now think of the lack of change. In “Tron Legacy,” the hero finds himself trapped into playing deadly games against programs personified as humans. Lots of computer-generated, whiz bang special effects here, but the hero doesn’t change emotionally. He discovers nothing about his surroundings or himself. It’s a flat, dull scene despite the millions of dollars that went into the special effects.
Discovering something is one element of change. Deciding something is another big change. Think of Bruce Willis in “Die Hard as he’s trapped in the bathroom, plucking glass from his feet. He feels defeated, but then he realizes what the terrorists are planning to do with the dynamite as they lead the hostages to the roof. That causes Bruce nWillis to make a decision to act once more. That bathroom scene starts on a melancholy note, then ends with a re-energized Bruce Willis all because he discovered something (the terrorists are going to blow up the hostages) and he decided something (he’s going to act).
In “WALL-E,” WALL-E is trying to revive Eve to no avail. Suddenly the retrieving rocketship returns and plucks Eve off the ground. WALL-E panics and makes the decision to grab on to the rocket to follow Eve. That decision changes the scene and keeps our interest up.
Every scene should have some element of change through discovery or decision in some way. Even expository scenes have some element of change as the hero realizes what a dead end life he’s stuck in such as Luke does in “Star Wars” in the early scene when he’s arguing with his uncle about leaving the farm.
If your scenes don’t have any element of change in them that comes from your main characters discovering something or deciding something, your scenes might be flat and dull, which can kill even the best story. Find a way to punch up your scenes with change and you’ll punch up your story as a result.
(This idea about a scene relying on a character discovering or deciding something came from the book “Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect” by Claudia H. Johnson.)