Think of a row of dominoes set up on a table. Tip one over and the rest fall over one after another. That’s exactly how a story should work with every scene appearing to lead in one direction but twisting in an unexpected direction. That unexpected direction then leads directly into the next scene.
By making scenes connect together, you constantly end one scene with a cliffhanger and start the next scene with the inevitable result of that cliffhanger. The key to linking scenes together is to make them end differently from what the audience expects.
For example, in “Star Wars” there’s a scene where Luke and Hans disguise themselves as stormtroopers so they can avoid detection. Their initial plan is to hide in a security station and wait until Obi-wan takes down the tractor beams. But once they get into this security station, Luke discovers that Princess Leia is about to be executed so he decides to save her. The expected ending to this scene was that Luke and Hans would sit and wait. The unexpected ending is that now Luke wants to rescue Princess Leia. That desire shoves them into the next scene where they must risk walking through the Death Star to get to the prison where Princess Leia is held.
Another example of a scene leading the audience to expect one thing but seeing something different occurs in the opening scene of “Harold and Maude.” Initially all we see is somebody hanging themselves and that seems to be the end of the scene. Then the hero’s mother walks into the room, stares at the hanging body, and makes a phone call. The expected result is that the mother will scream in horror. The unexpected result is that she calmly talks to her friends on the phone and ignores the hanging body of her son.
Every scene must lead the audience to expect one thing, but actually deliver something completely different. In “Hidden Figures,” there’s a scene where a black woman starts work in a mathematics center filled with white men. When her boss angrily asks where she goes everyday for over half an hour, the boss expects he’ll prove the black woman is lazy or avoiding work. What he doesn’t expect is that the black woman explains she has to spend time away because she’s not allowed to use any of the restrooms nearby and the only restroom approved for black people is on the other side of the campus.
Not only does she state this to her boss, but she does so in front of everyone and cries about it at the same time. Where the boss and all the white co-workers were expecting to discover this black woman was lazy and not fit to work with them, they discover she’s actually being harshly discriminated against, which is not what they expected at all. This causes the boss in the next scene to allow blacks to use any restroom they want in the interest of making NASA more efficient and fair to everyone.
So when writing scenes in a screenplay, always keep in mind what the audience or the characters expect, then deliver something unexpected. This constant trick of fooling the audience or characters to expect one thing but actually get something else will keep every scene interesting and propel the story forward without any wasted scenes.