Read most novice’s screenplays and they tend to write lots of boring scenes where nothing happens. The way to avoid this problem is to identify what your story is about. Then make sure every scene embodies your story.
For example, “Rocky” is about a down and out boxer who wants to prove to himself and the world that he’s not a bum. Study every scene and you’ll find that Rocky is constantly trying to prove he’s not a bum in different ways.
In one scene, Rocky goes to visit Apollo Creed’s people and thinks he’s being offered a job as a sparring partner. Right away, Rocky tries to convince them that he’ll work hard and be a good sparring partner. That scene ends when Rocky learns that they want him to fight Apollo Creed for the heavyweight championship of the world. Yet throughout this scene, Rocky is trying to prove that he’s a good guy who can be trusted.
In another scene, Rocky goes to visit Adrian in the pet store and tries to talk to her, but she avoids his friendly efforts of conversation. In this scene, Rocky is trying to convince Adrian that he’s friendly and a nice guy.
In the opening scene, Rocky is getting beaten by another boxer in a fight, but when this boxer cheats and head butts Rocky, Rocky gets mad and starts fighting back until he wins. This is yet another way Rocky is trying to prove to himself and the world that he’s a good guy.
When every scene reflects your story’s main overall theme, then you’ll likely write more tightly focused scenes. Basically scenes can contain one or more of the following:
Action is the simplest type of scene where two characters are fighting for something, either physically or through dialogue. In “Kill Bill,” there’s the action scene where the hero is fighting her enemies, but there’s also another scene where the hero and Bill (the man she’s sworn she will kill), are talking outside of a chapel where the hero is about to be married.
Action scenes are necessary, but by themselves they simply parade an endless amount of movement with no context. That’s why pure action scenes cannot carry an entire story. You also need scenes that contain emotion to help you identify and learn what the story is about.
In the opening scene of “Inglorious Basterds,” a Nazi known as the Jew Hunter, is interrogating a French farmer to find the location of Jewish refugees. The Jew Hunter constantly probes with his insight and cheerful demeanor until the French farmer finally breaks down and points out where the Jewish refugees are hiding. At that point, the Jew Hunter has won.
Although this scene ends with violence, the bulk of the scene tells the overall story in miniature where Nazis are hunting Jews to kill them. Through dialogue alone, the Jew Hunter slowly breaks down the French farmer emotionally, which is far more interesting because we get insight into the deadly mind of the Jew Hunter.
Good movies focus on both Action and Emotion in every scene. Great movies go one step further and include Theme as well.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” every scene is echoes the theme of how your life reflects on others. There’s a scene where George Bailey and his newly married wife are about to leave on their honeymoon, but they see a run on the savings and loan so they stop and use their honeymoon money to save the savings and loan.
Then the following scene shows how George Bailey’s friends get together and help make his honeymoon memorable by helping him spend an evening in an old house that he’ll eventually buy and live in himself. This scene shows how friendship is far more important than money, which is the theme of the entire movie.
So when writing scenes in your screenplay, focus on Action, Emotion, and Theme. Action alone is rarely enough, so look for ways to add Emotion and Theme to every scene as well. It may not always be possible, but the more each scene reflects Action, Emotion, and Theme, the more likely you’ll wind up with a great screenplay.