Every scene in a screenplay must serve multiple purposes. First, the scene must advance the plot, but far more importantly, every scene must show change. The more drastic the change, the more memorable the scene. To make a scene memorable, the audience must clearly understand four things:
- What does hero go into scene believing?
- Why does hero believe it?
- What is hero’s goal in scene?
- What does hero expect will happen?
In every scene, the hero must have a belief ahead of time. The reason why the hero needs a belief is to shatter that belief at the end of the scene. Shattering the hero’s belief creates a memorable and emotional scene that the audience will never forget.
In “Zootopia,” there’s a scene where the cunning fox was a child, attending a Boy Scout-like meeting. His initial belief is that he’ll be treated fairly by the other members of the troop. By the end, he learns that the other troop members tease and discriminate against him because he’s a fox. This shattering of his initial belief makes the scene memorable and emotional in ways that massive special effects, explosions and gunfire could never do.
The hero beliefs something and expects something to happen. If that expectation is met, then the scene will likely be boring. That’s why you need to know what the hero believes so you can drastically change the outcome so it’s not what the hero expects.
In “Total Recall,” the hero goes into the Total Recall office, believing he’s going to pay for a virtual trip to Mars. What happens is that the process triggers dormant memories and the Total Recall people suddenly try to get him out of there. The hero expects something routine but something dramatic happens instead.
Knowing the beliefs of a hero entering a scene isn’t enough. You must also clearly explain why the hero believes it. That way the audience understands what’s at stake.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero goes into a scene with her law professor. She believes she earned the right to be part of the law professor’s court case based on her ability, but she’s shocked to learn that the law professor just wants to sleep with her. Not only does this expectation change so drastically to create greater drama, but by understanding why she believes her law professor is honorable, his betrayal becomes more shocking.
In another scene in “Legally Blonde,” the hero goes to meet her boyfriend, believing he’s going to propose to her. She believes this because they’ve been dating for so long and she dreams of becoming the wife of a successful lawyer. Then she’s shocked when he dumps her instead.
Beliefs define the hero’s internal conflict. The hero’s goal defines the external conflict. In “Star Wars,” Luke’s goal in one scene is to just find a safe place to hide while masquerading as stormtroopers. He achieves that goal, but then discovers Princess Leia is imprisoned on the Death Star. Although Luke has achieved his original goal, now he has a new goal to safe Princess Leia.
Without clearly defining the goal of each scene, the audience has no idea of the significance of the hero’s actions or the end result. In “Legally Blonde,” the hero’s goal in the initial scene is to meet her boyfriend and wait for him to propose. That’s her goal so when her boyfriend dumps her instead, that creates dramatic shock because we knew her goal and we can see whether she achieved it or not. In this case, she failed miserably.
So plot each scene with a clear goal (external conflict) and belief (internal conflict) for the hero. Then make sure this goal and belief get shattered or achieved. As a general rule, don’t make it easy for your hero to achieve the goal or the expected belief in what will happen. A dull scene occurs when nothing unexpected happens. Think of someone going to a Christmas party and going home. Boring. Now think of “Die Hard” where the hero goes to a Christmas party and expects nothing more exciting to happen than trying to get back together with his wife. Then terrorists show up and shatter the hero’s expectations. This drastic change in expectations in both the hero and audience is what makes a scene interesting. If you fill every scene with twists and turns, you’ll create a story that constantly grabs and holds the audience’s attention from beginning to end.