Mike Nichols defined a scene as either a fight, a negotiation, or a seduction. In other words, every scene needs a goal and every scene needs characters struggling to achieve those goals.
What far too many novices do is they write scenes that serve no purpose other than provide exposition. Those scenes are not only dull and slow the story down, but they’re also irrelevant despite providing useful information. That’s because scenes that simply provide exposition are the first to get cut out of a movie because nothing seems to happen. It’s often far better to provide that exposition somewhere else to keep the story moving.
Read screenplays by James Cameron and you’ll find that he overwrites his stories. This helps create a far richer and deeper story when he cuts out scenes that serve no purpose other than provide exposition.
In “Aliens,” the sequel to “Alien,” there’s an early scene in the screenplay about a family of colonists that first find the alien egg and the alien latches on the father’s face. The daughter of that father eventually turns out to be the little girl that Ripley saves later in the story.
This scene served two purposes. First, it introduced the idea of colonists living on the planet where the alien eggs were found. Second, it also introduced the little girl and how she played in the ventilation ducts with her brother, which later explains how she survived the aliens afterwards.
Yet that scene has no fight, no negotiation, and no seduction. In other words, there’s no goal the character in that scene are striving for. So it makes sense to cut that scene completely out. In the final movie, Ripley is shocked when she learns that colonists are on the planet where the alien eggs were found. Later when she finds the little girl, it’s not necessary to know that this little girl played int he ventilation ducts. It’s only necessary that she knew how to use them to survive.
Another James Cameron script that’s overwritten is “Terminator 2” where the liquid metal Terminator has killed John Connor’s step mother and is impersonating her over the phone When the step father starts complaining, the liquid metal Terminator stabs him in the head to get him to shut up.
A deleted scene afterwards shows the liquid metal Terminator walking past the bathroom where the step mother lies dead in the shower. Then the liquid metal Terminator goes into John Connor’s room and finds a letter from Sarah Connor, revealing her location in the mental asylum. That’s when the liquid metal Terminator decides to go after Sarah Connor.
That whole scene got deleted because once again, watching the liquid metal Terminator walk through the house has no fight, no negotiation, and no seduction. That scene served to show that the step mother is dead (which we could infer when her arms turns into a spear to impale the step father), and to show how the liquid metal Terminator learned of Sarah Connor’s location.
With that scene deleted, the good Terminator simply warns John Connor not to rescue Sarah Connor since the liquid metal Terminator will already know to go there. That one line completely eliminates the need for that scene that got cut.
Now look at why the scene with the liquid metal Terminator impersonating the step mother stayed in. Because he’s trying to convince John Connor to come home, the liquid metal Terminator is negotiating with John to convince him that everything’s okay and that she’s worried about him. It’s a negotiation and a fight, especially when the good Terminator impersonates John Connor’s voice and asks about the dog, using a fake name, which the liquid metal Terminator doesn’t recognize. That convinces the good Terminator that the liquid metal Terminator is already in the home, waiting for John Connor.
Study every scene in a good movie and look for signs of a fight, negotiation, or seduction. That’s the elements of a good scene. Then watch deleted scenes from a good movie and you’ll notice that they often lack any signs of a fight, negotiation, or seduction.
By just using these three words to define each scene in your screenplay, you can vastly improve the quality of your overall script.