Every scene must grab the audience’s attention right from the start and give a hint on what the conflict will be about. The best way to grab the audience’s attention is to show something unusual. In the movie “Kelly’s Heroes,” that unusual item is a war setting with German soldiers walking all over the place. That alone is interesting because it’s different, but what makes the scene even more unusual is the fact that a German officer sits in a jeep with an American soldier pointing a rifle at his head, all while the American jeep is parked in the middle of the German Army.
This odd setting immediately makes us wonder, “What’s going on?” That’s what each scene needs to start with, a moment where the audience asks, “What’s going on?” Then the rest of the scene partially answers that question by showing us conflict and resolution without completely explaining everything. By withholding information, each scene forces the audience to wait for a future scene that provides the answers.
In the “Kelly’s Heroes” example, the unusual sight of an American jeep in the middle of a German Army catches our attention along with the fact that the American soldier points a rifle at the German officer’s head. Now another German officer suddenly notices the American soldiers in the American jeep and is about to alert everyone. That starts the conflict. Can the Americans get away without being caught?
As we watch this scene, we can see the Americans trying to get away until they finally succeed. The scene answers its immediate conflict of whether the Americans will get away or not, but we still don’t quite know what’s going on. Who are these American soldiers? Who is the German officer? Why did the Americans kidnap the German officer? These questions set up the future that later scenes will pay off by giving us the answer.
By withholding information, each scene pulls the audience along to the next scene. When you write scenes, make sure each scene provides a set up that plants a future answer in a later scene that pays off this answer. The combination of setups and payoffs is what keeps scenes integrated to form a complete story.
Without an intriguing beginning, there’s no reason to watch the rest of a scene. Without conflict, there’s no reason to care. Without setups that create unanswered questions, there’s no reason to follow the rest of the story.
To maintain interest, scenes need:
- An unusual beginning that defines the structure of the whole scene
- Conflict to make us wonder how it will end
- Setups that leave us with unanswered questions that later scenes will answer
When you create tightly-structured scenes, you’ll eventually create tightly-structured screenplays that grab an audience and never let their attention wander for a second. When you can do that, your screenplay will tell an intriguing story.