Too often novice screenwriters write a scene that does nothing but fill pages with empty conversation. A slightly better screenwriter might write a scene that advances the plot, but doesn’t reveal anything about the characters and doesn’t provide some kind of conflict to make the scene interesting to watch. If you want to write compelling scenes, think about the following:
- Show conflict. Nothing’s more interesting than watching two characters fight whether it’s a physical battle or an emotional one.
- Advance the plot. If a scene doesn’t move the plot forward, dump the scene or combine it with another one.
- Foreshadow the future. Each scene should include elements that will later pay off in a future scene.
- Pay off a previous foreshadowed scene. Show the results of previous foreshadowing.
- Make a scene meaningful in hindsight.
What does it mean to make a scene meaningful in hindsight? That means the first time we see a scene, it appears harmless. However later on, that scene takes on a whole new meaning that we didn’t catch earlier.
Think of “The Sixth Sense” where every scene led us to believe the hero was alive, when in hindsight we missed clues that he was really dead. In “Munich,” there’s a scene where the hero is an assassin, hunting down the planners of the Munich Olympic massacre. He’s getting tired of the constant killing and longs for home. That’s when he meets an attractive woman in a bar who’s also drinking. She tells him that she’s drinking because of her job. The hero responds that she must have the same job as his own.
Later he discovers that she really does have the same job as his own because she’s also an assassin, hired to hunt him and his team down. That’s how you make a seemingly innocent scene suddenly more memorable.
Initially, the tension seems to revolve solely around the hero’s desire for the attractive woman and his loyalty to his wife. Only later do we discover that the attractive woman is an assassin who kills one of the hero’s team members. Suddenly the scene where he met this attractive assassin reminds us of the many hazards he faces and must overcome.
“A Clockwork Orange” is loaded with simple scenes at the beginning where the hero leads his gang on a violent spree beating up bums, fighting with rival gangs, and raping women. Later those same scenes come to haunt the hero as he the bums beat him up, his old gang now works as police officers and beats him up, and he winds up at the house of the man who’s wife he raped. Suddenly all those previous scenes take on more meaning when they were used to foreshadow the future.
Not every scene can suddenly reveal a new way to look at it later, but scenes that do this can make your overall movie more interesting. You don’t want to tell a flat, linear story that makes the audience a mere spectator. You want to engage the audience so they’re trying to figure out hints of what’s happening and suddenly realize what’s going on at the end. Only after you’ve satisfied and answered the audience’s curiosity about your story can you finally display nothing but action as the hero confronts the villain in the end.
If your story depends on action alone to hold an audience, it gets boring like “Terminator 3” or “Battle: Los Angeles.” If your story provides an intellectual puzzle and curiosity for audiences to figure out, that makes your story far more interesting from beginning to end.