A memorable screenplay means that every scene and every character must be memorable from page one to the final fade out. So when writing your scenes, focus on characters and location.
The characters are the people in a scene, but they must exist in a specific location and have a reason to be at that particular place. So the first big clue in writing any scene is to ask yourself the following:
- Who are the characters?
- What do they want?
- Why are they at this particular location?
- What is happening around them at this location?
If you isolate every scene in your screenplay, you’ll be forced to look at your characters as if you knew nothing about them. While you don’t want every scene to repeat what we already learned in an early scene, you do want to reinforce certain traits of a character.
Are they impatient? Smart? Hot-headed? Timid? Every scene must paint a picture of a unique character. If you have generic characters who could be any temperament, any appearance, any personality, then you’re missing a chance to paint a visual image in the reader’s mind.
Look at this conversation in an early scene in “The Matrix”:
AGENT SMITH: Lieutenant, you were given specific orders —
LIEUTENANT: I’m just doing my job. You gimme that Juris-my dick-tion and you can cram it up your ass.
AGENT SMITH: The orders were for your protection.
The Lieutenant laughs.
LIEUTENANT: I think we can handle one little girl.
Agent Smith nods to Agent Brown as they start toward the hotel.
LIEUTENANT: I sent two units. They’re bringing her down now.
AGENT SMITH: No, Lieutenant, your men are already dead.
Notice from the dialogue alone you can infer that Agent Smith is sure of himself while the Lieutenant is arrogant and from the way he says “jurisdiction,” he sounds like a street-wise, blue collar type of guy rather than a Ivy League educated professor.
This is the type of distinction you want to make in dialogue so characters are easily identified. Now look at how to describe a scene from this early scene in “The Matrix”:
INT. HEART O’ THE CITY HOTEL – NIGHT
The hotel was abandoned after a fire licked its way across the polyester carpeting, destroying several rooms as it spooled soot up the walls and ceiling, leaving patterns of permanent shadow.
This isn’t just any hotel, but a run-down, shell of a former hotel. The soot forming permanent shadow is a minor detail that simply helps us visualize this hotel room from any ordinary room in an abandoned hotel. The minor details are distinct and visual.
So the goal in writing scenes is to make your characters and location detailed and unique, but just enough to paint a visual image in our mind. Don’t go overboard but don’t omit it and give a generic character in a bland setting.
As a general rule, if your characters and settings can’t be easily visualized on the screen, it’s probably too bland and generic. So add relevant details that enhance conflict and reflect the theme of the overall story. If you do this for every scene, your entire screenplay will wind up memorable, visual, and unique.