The biggest mistake you can make in writing a scene is making it one-dimensional and focused on performing a single task. For example, many novices write a scene that serves no purpose other than to move their hero from one place to another. Because that scene has no conflict, tension, or drama whatsoever, it turns out to be deadly dull.
Sometimes screenwriters will write a scene solely to provide information to another character or to the audience. Once again, those scenes are deathly dull because they exist to serve one purpose and that’s it. Fill an entire screenplay with scenes that serve a single purpose and you wind up not only with boring scenes, but a complete and boring screenplay as well.
The solution is two-fold. First, make every scene a mini-story in itself with drama, problems, conflict, and resolution. Second, make every scene serve as many purposes as possible. The more information you can cram into a scene, the more important that scene will be and the more interesting it will likely be.
Opening scenes are especially important because they need to foreshadow the rest of the story. Initially they may appear harmless and innocent, but in hindsight you can see their importance.
In “Ready or Not,” the opening scenes show the hero getting ready for her wedding in a mansion where she is about to get married. This early opening scene foreshadows the following information:
- The bride’s future brother-in-law likes the bride and even tells her she doesn’t belong in their family, but he says this is a compliment, which foreshadows how awful the family really is.
- The bride’s fiancé warns her that she can back at at any moment. She doesn’t understand why and says she’s not backing out. Later we’ll understand that her fiancé was warning her of the danger about to come.
- The family is wealthy because they run a game empire. This theme of games will later nearly kill the hero in the rest of the story.
- The bride’s future in-laws range from friendly to outright hostility. This hostility foreshadows the future conflict where the in-laws will try to kill the bride.
Notice how much information is packed in this early scene? Initially, none of this information seems related or logical, but as the story progresses, it all starts making sense.
“Ready or Not” could have filled this opening scene with irrelevant information, but that would have simply distracted audiences and diluted the focus of the story.
Every scene must stay focused on the main story. The more each scene can echo the main story in some small way, the stronger your overall story will be. The more meaningless information scenes contain, the less focused your overall story will be, and the weaker your entire screenplay will be.
Want to know why movies never show characters going to the bathroom? It’s because it’s irrelevant, unless it serves some purpose such as in “Pulp Fiction” where the bathroom is constantly a place where people are hiding or getting killed.
Keep your scenes focused on your overall story. If you don’t know your overall story, figure it out before writing your screenplay. Rather than write your scene in screenplay format, just jot down a rough idea what you want that scene to convey. It’s far easier to figure out things later than to rewrite a scene already written in screenplay format.
If you know anything about fractals, they’re mathematical models that repeat endlessly. Look at an entire fractal and it looks identical to examining just a part of that fractal. That’s what screenplays need to do where every scene is a miniature version of your overall story in terms of theme, tone, and plot.
When every scene fits together, your entire story will fit together. Like a chain, a screenplay is only as strong as its weakest scene.