At first glance, a scene might appear to do nothing more than move the story forward, yet if that’s all a scene does, it’s likely a waste. Every scene must serve multiple purposes. Not only must a scene move the story forward, but it must also reveal character motivation and goals because that’s what moves the story forward. So every scene needs conflict for drama, a problem to grab our attention, and a solution that ends in a cliffhanger moment.
There’s an opening scene in “The Princess and the Frog” that introduces the villain. First, we see a sign advertising voodoo. Next we see the villain talking to a bald man who wants hair. The bald man pays the villain money and the villain uses voodoo to make the man grow hair. The man seems happy in meeting a woman, but then more hair starts growing out of his body, frightening off the woman he’s trying to woo.
Now the villain laughs and enjoys his money he took from the bald man. Then the villain spots a wealthy man and a newspaper headline that talks about a prince coming to town. In that short scene, we know the villain uses voodoo, has no problems fooling people for his advantage, and wants money.
Try to make every scene as short as possible and tell a mini-story in as little space as possible. The only reason you need a long scene is because the scene requires cramming in as much information as possible, not because you need to drag out a scene to fill time.
Comedians Bob and Ray often did comedy skits mocking the radio soap operas of their day. In one comedy skit, two space cadets get their assignments and are unhappy about it so they decide to talk to the commander to ask why they got such poor assignments. Instead of cutting right to the scene of the two space cadets confronting their commander, Bob and Ray had the two space cadets walk to the commander’s office and get lost on the campus along the way. So they wind up walking up and down stairs, walking down hallways, and wasting time. That creates such a poor dramatic story that it’s hilarious as a comedy spoof. Yet that highlights the importance of a real story cutting out all unnecessary information and focusing solely on the interesting parts.
Imagine if someone only read one scene of your screenplay. Would that one scene grab their interest and convince them to keep reading? If not, then the scene needs to be dumped or reworked.
Every scene needs conflict and a goal while also revealing the characters involved in that scene. In “Die Hard,” the opening scene focuses on revealing the hero as both fearful (he’s afraid of flying) and tough because he’s a cop, which we learn about when a fellow passenger spots the hero’s gun and the hero says he’s a cop. The conflict in this opening scene is that the hero is afraid of flying and a fellow passenger is trying to calm him down. the goal for the hero is to relax.
Notice that the hero only gets information on how to relax but doesn’t actually resolve his goal of relaxing until much later. Scenes are never self-contained stories. Instead, they connect to other scenes like building blocks. If a scene offers a goal and resolves it, then there’s no momentum to carry the audience into the next scene.
In “Thelma and Louise,” the two women are packing to go on a trip, but they haven’t told the men in their lives that they’re going off together. Their goal is to leave, but that early scene only shows them leaving but not arriving at their destination, and it also hints that the men in their lives will eventually find out and the women will suffer the consequences as a result.
To make a scene work, think of it this way:
- What character trait can that scene reveal for the first time?
- What goal does the character want?
- How does the character move closer to that goal but not completely achieve it?
In the cartoon “101 Dalmations,” there’s a scene where the villain (Cruella da Ville) arrives at the family’s home. Her character trait is that others don’t like her and she’s obnoxious. Her goal is to see the puppies, but they don’t want to see her. What we don’t know is why she wants to see the puppies because her eventual goal is to turn them into a fur coat.
Study every scene in a good movie and you’ll notice that each scene by itself is interesting but incomplete. Only when a scene is interesting and compelling can it work as a building block to create a great screenplay. Write great scenes and you’ll write a great screenplay. Write mediocre scenes and no matter how good your idea, your overall screenplay will be much weaker as a result.
Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Likewise, a screenplay is only as good as its weakest scene so make every scene as strong as possible.