There’s a tendency for novice screenwriters to write lots of dull, filler scenes that simply move the plot forward and do nothing else. This is a huge mistake and can turn the most exciting idea into a boring story. The key to writing every scene in your screenplay is to think of two things:
- Focus on your genre
- Make every scene interesting
First, make sure you know your genre. If you’re writing a comedy, then every scene (as much as possible) needs to be comedic somehow. If you’re writing a horror film, then every scene needs to be scary. If you’re writing an action film, then every scene needs to be action -oriented.
Think of opening scene in “The Sixth Sense.” A stranger has intruded into the hero’s bathroom. This immediately sets the mood of the entire film that revolves around horror and the supernatural.
Now think of the opening scene in the original “Ghostbusters.” A librarian is walking through a library when books start floating through the air and cards start flying out of the card catalog. Then the librarian turns in horror when she spots something off camera. That seems to set up a horror film, but then the next scene involves the hero shocking a student so he can flirt with a pretty co-ed. That defines the film as a comedy. Nearly every scene afterwards involves comedy in some way from Sigourney Weaver quietly trying to sneak past an apartment to avoid the man inside who keeps trying to get to know her, to the Ghostbusters tearing apart a hotel conference room to nab a ghost.
Not every scene can reflect the genre of the film, but you’ll find that most scenes in “Ghostbusters” are funny while few scenes are not. Even if the scenes aren’t that funny, they’re still amusing and light-hearted. You never see blood and gore in a comedy film because that detracts from the mood, unless it’s presented in a humorous manner like the Black Knight getting his arms and legs cut off in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
If you focus on writing every scene as a reflection of your story’s genre (horror, comedy, action, romance, etc.) then you’ll likely make every scene consistent so your entire screenplay feels consistent with its genre. Now the next question is how to make scenes interesting.
Some ways to make a scene interesting include:
- Show us something new
- Foreshadow (or payoff an earlier foreshadowed scene)
Audiences want to see a show and that means every scene needs to show us something new. Even if two scenes show the same thing, they need to show it in different ways. In “Alien,” watching people get killed by the alien would get redundant real fast, but people aren’t just getting killed by the alien because they’re standing around but because they’re trying to do something.
First, the crew members are trying to find and capture the alien when the first crew member gets killed. Next, the captain is trying to corner the alien in the air ducts when he gets killed. Third, the next two crew members to die are loading up supplies for the escape pod when the alien gets them. Each time a crew member dies, but the circumstances are different.
In “Dr. Strange,” the hero first enters a strange monastery hidden in a seemingly ordinary building. Nothing seems quite unusual until the hero gets knocked out of his physical body and his astral body goes floating through other dimensions. That’s bizarre and that definitely keeps our attention.
In a later scene in “Dr. Strange,” the hero has been stabbed and returns back to the hospital where he used to work to get his ex-girlfriend to operate on him. That by itself is different, but when a bad guy’s astral body also arrives, the hero and the bad guy’s astral bodies have to fight. That elevates that fight scene from an ordinary fight scene because it’s something we’ve never seen before.
Show us something new and interesting and that will hold our attention. In “Pulp Fiction,” listing to John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talk about fast foods in Europe is seemingly dull, but actually fascinating because it’s an odd discussion we’ve never heard before, and listening how other countries describe American fast food is different.
Besides being different, every scene needs conflict. That conflict can be minor, such as in “Erin Brockovich” where she’s trying to get records from a county clerk, so she leans over the desk to show her breasts. The clerk normally wouldn’t be so helpful but after seeing her breasts, the clerk suddenly cooperates. It’s a minor conflict, but it still elevates the scene from being dull. Imagine if Erin Brockovich simply went into the county office and the clerk cheerfully gave her the records she wanted to see. That would be dull and boring. By adding a little conflict, that necessary scene suddenly becomes more interesting.
Scenes can also add extra spice by foreshadowing (and later paying off) information. In “Hello, My Name is Doris,” an older woman in an office lusts after a younger man. When Doris (the older woman) meets this younger man in an elevator for the first time, she steals a pencil from the man’s backpack. Then later when she thinks she has no chance with this man, she breaks this pencil in half. Later when she realizes she might have a chance with this man, she holds the two broken halves of the pencil together again.
Watching Doris steal a pencil is a strange act and it’s different so it catches our attention. Later when we see her break the pencil in half, that pays off the earlier foreshadowing scene where she steals the man’s pencil. Now we realize the pencil represents her lust for the younger man. From that point own, every time we see this pencil, we know how Doris feels about her chances of getting to know this younger man romantically.
Tension occurs when someone is ignorant but someone else is not. That someone else can be another character or it can be the audience. In “Aliens,” the marines are searching for the missing colonists when they see strange, foreign secretions coating the walls. The audience knows the marines are walking right into the aliens, but they do not. Thus every moment creates tension because we expect the aliens to pop out and attack them at any time.
In “Brooklyn,” the hero has secretly married a man back in the United States but returns to Ireland where another man starts to fall in love with her. The audience knows she’s married but the other characters do not. So now every moment in the scene creates tension because we want to see what happens when the other characters discover she’s actually married.
Finally, make every scene surprising in some way. In “Dr. Strange,” the hero first learns about astro projection and other universes. When he begs to be accepted as a student to learn these secrets, the teacher simply tells him no and throws him out. That’s surprising and makes the scene more interesting.
Later when the hero waits outside the door for hours, begging to be let in, he sits down, dejected. And that’s when the door suddenly opens and someone yanks him in. That’s also surprising and that helps make that short scene more interesting than if someone had just opened the door and invited him to walk in himself.
Put all these elements together in every scene of your screenplay and you could still have a mess, but chances are you’ll write a far more interesting and engaging screenplay than one that plods along with no tension, no conflict, no foreshadowing, and nothing new. Scenes are the building block of every screenplay so make every scene as strong as possible on its own. Then they’ll be much stronger together as a fully formed screenplay.