What’s exciting to watch? Two people sitting at a table doing nothing or two people sitting at a table, arguing, then making up and leaving with smiles on their faces?
The whole purpose of a scene is to change someone’s life. That change can be dramatic such as Marty fleeing from terrorists and getting sent back in time in “Back to the Future.” Or a scene can be more subtle such as Rose wanting to fling herself over the side of the Titanic when Jack suddenly comes up and befriends her in “Titanic.”
Scenes are best when more than one character’s life changes. Scenes are dull when nobody’s life changes, despite any amount of explosions, gunfire, or car crashes. Action is never a replacement for emotional change.
Watch this scene from “The Greatest Showman” and you’ll see multiple lives changing in just a few minutes. P.T. Barnum’s life changes when he realizes even his harshest critic is enjoying his latest promotion of a European singer.
P.T. Barnum’s wife’s life changes when she realizes that the European singer is starting to flirt with her husband.
P.T. Barnum’s partner’s life changes when he first holds hands with a circus performer, but lets go when his parents disapprove. This circus performer’s life changes when she thinks this man loves her, but then she’s hurt when he lets go of her hand so she leaves him.
With so many emotional changes occurring in this scene from “The Greatest Showman,” the few minutes of this scene is interesting because so much is going on.
What happens when a scene fails to change the lives of any of the characters in that scene? Then that scene is pointless. It may still be visually interesting, but it fails to advance the story in any way and should either be cut or rewritten to make that scene emotionally meaningful to a major character somehow.
Watch this scene from “Mary Poppins Returns” to see a visually interesting scene, but notice absolutely nobody’s life is changed by the end of this scene, and that’s the biggest fault. When every major character is essentially the same at the beginning of the scene as at the end, then that scene serves no purpose beyond visual entertainment.
Watch scenes from the original “Mary Poppins” and you’ll see how each song changes a character’s life somehow, and that’s what makes “Mary Poppins” such a great movie while “Mary Poppins Returns” is simply a visually interesting movie largely empty of emotional change.
When writing a scene, make sure someone’s life is not the same as before. Think of a simple scene like “Legally Blonde” where the hero expects to get married to her boyfriend, only for her boyfriend to dump her. That’s a huge change.
In “Thelma and Louise,” there’s a simple scene where Thelma is in a hotel room with a hitchhiker, who tells her how he robs convenience stores. Initially this scene may seem pointless but Thelma later uses this information to rob a gas station when they need money, so sometimes change occurs later.
A scene should show a major character changing. Failing that, a scene should set up the character’s change later. Without change, a scene has no purpose at all.