There’s a tendency for novice screenwriters to pad their screenplay with meaningless, dull scenes such as spending a minute watching someone walk through an airport terminal or seeing someone walk to their parked car on the street. Such scenes can be useful and interesting if they contain tension and suspense.
In “Patriot Games,” the hero (Harrison Ford) is walking down the street. Normally that would be a dull scene, but earlier we saw a terrorist dressing up as a college student and stalking the hero. Then as the hero walks down the street, he happens to notice the terrorist following him by peeking into a side mirror on a car parked along the street. What might seem like a dull scene (a man walking down the sidewalk) suddenly becomes far more exciting because there’s danger at stake.
When writing scenes, play the following mental game with yourself. Try and write every scene as if it were going to be played as part of the film’s trailer. That means the scene must be attention-grabbing in some way.
In horror movies, the trailer scenes typically show the hero in danger so you can immediately see the dangerous environment. In “Don’t Breathe,” the trailer shows a character standing still while the blind villain walks by him in the hallway. That immediately causes tension because we want to know how the hero will get trapped and how the villain will try to defeat the hero.
In action movies, the trailer scenes typically show the most action. In comedies, the trailer scenes typically show the outrageous setup that starts the entire comedy going. Even though every scene can’t be trailer worthy, try and make it so. Make each scene so interesting that it could compel someone to want to watch the entire movie.
In “Hello, My Name is Doris,” there’s a scene where the hero, a dumpy old woman, dresses up in outrageous neon clothes and poses for a photographer. That contrast between an old woman and a hip photographer immediately grabs your attention because of we expect a young person to dress like that, but not a much older woman.
In “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” there’s a scene where the villain (a woman from social services) confronts the hero (an adopted boy) and claims that she’s going to get him because she’s like the Terminator. The boy says he’s like the Terminator but the villain says the boy is more like Sarah Connor from the first movie. Before she could do chin ups. That scene is so odd and funny that it immediately reflects the tone of the entire movie and makes you want to know more.
Essentially, every scene must reflect the overall goal of your story. If your story is a horror movie, then every scene must create tension. In “Don’t Breathe,” the opening scene shows the hero and her friends breaking into a home and running away after deliberately setting off the burglar alarm. That immediately makes us wonder why they set the alarm on purpose, which will get answered later in the story.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” every scene is about comedy because the whole story is a comedy about dysfunctional people in a family trying to get along. In “Fury,” every scene is about war because the whole story is about the horror of war.
So make sure every scene reflects the main genre of your story, and make every scene interesting on its own so someone will want to know more. That’s not easy, but if you can do those two things in every scene, you’ll wind up with a much stronger screenplay than if you fill it with dull scenes just to get your characters from one place to another.