Nothing should be ordinary or normal in your story. Even a simple trip to a restaurant should be interesting and supportive of your story’s main theme. In “Hell or High Water,” the main theme is that banks are ripping people off so two brothers decide to rob banks and rip them off in return. To demonstrate the sorry state of this story world of Texas, the movie constantly shows signs offering loans and debt relief posted among areas that look like a Third World country with boarded up buildings and decrepit homes.
To further highlight the desperate nature of this world, the hero (a Texas Ranger) and his partner enter a restaurant where they encounter a vicious old lady who’s their waitress. This woman bitches that she’s been working there for 40 years and demands that the hero and his partner tell her what they don’t want on their food because their choices are limited anyway.
This odd scene with the waitress that the characters describe as a rattlesnake is hilarious, different, compelling, and demonstrative of the conditions of the world in that story all at the same time. A boring scene would just have the hero and his partner enter a restaurant, order a meal, and talk among themselves, but in “Hell or High Water,” this potentially boring scene gets spiced up with a cranky old waitress.
Every scene must demonstrate conflict of some kind. The bar scene in “Star Wars” is famous for being odd but also dangerous as two characters confront Luke and threaten him before Obi-wan cuts them in half with a light saber. The most telling part about this scene is that the bar is full of rough characters, Obi-wan knows how to use a light saber, and the other people in the bar simply go about their business even after seeing two characters get cut in half by Obi-wan.
In other words, watching someone get killed before their eyes is just a normal occurrence for these characters in the bar. The scene isn’t just about Luke and Obi-wan looking for a pilot. It’s also about showing us Obi-wan’s skill and how rough and scary that bar really is.
Every scene needs a purpose. In “Hell or High Water,” the restaurant scene exists to show the hero watching the bank across the street. The cranky waitress just makes that scene more memorable. In “Star Wars,” the bar scene is meant to show Obi-wan looking for a pilot, but the fight in the bar shows the danger and the type of people in that bar.
Every scene has a single purpose but must go beyond that single purpose to help color the rest of the story background as well. If a scene simply serves a single purpose, it’s not doing enough, so make sure every scene in your screenplay does at least two of the following:
- Advances the story (mandatory)
- Shows a different side of the main characters
- Reflects the story theme
- Increases conflict danger to the hero
Make every scene do more than just tell a story and your screenplay will seem richer and deeper in fewer pages. When you make every scene serve multiple purposes, you can tell a story with tighter focus and that just makes the story far more interesting than one that meanders about and bores you to death in the process.