Imagine a scene where the hero doesn’t know what to do so he does nothing. Not a very exciting scene, is it? Scenes are exciting only when something happens, but not just anything can happen. You can have mindless action where buildings blow up and helicopters crash into skyscrapers, but that’s completely pointless. Action is only interesting when we see characters making decisions that’s irreversible.
Imagine a scene in a coffee shop where two characters are wondering what they should order for breakfast. One person orders coffee and the other orders orange juice. Suddenly the first person cancels their coffee order and orders orange juice too. Not very exciting because any decision about ordering drinks can be easily reversed with no consequences. Because there are no consequences, there’s nothing at stake.
Now imagine the same coffee shop scene where two people discuss robbing the coffee shop. They agree to do it and jump up and pull out their guns (“Pulp Fiction”). Now they’ve just made an irreversible decision. They can’t put their guns away and tell everyone to forget what they just did. Now they’re on a new path that can’t be reversed like changing their order from coffee to orange juice with no consequences whatsoever.
Every scene in your story must involve characters making decisions that lead to irreversible actions. If an action can be reversed, there’s no drama, tension, or suspense just like there’s no tension when someone changes their order from coffee to orange juice. However, there is a huge consequence when someone decides to pull out a gun and rob a coffee shop and that’s what makes that particular scene interesting because we want to know the outcome of that irreversible action.
The best scenes in any movie are irreversible actions. In “Edge of Tomorrow,” Tom Cruise plays a military officer ordered to join the military on a raid. Tom Cruise tries to get out of it but the general refuses to hear his excuses. At this point, nothing is irreversible.
Suddenly, Tom Cruise tries to blackmail the general. Now Tom Cruise has crossed a one-way door and he can’t take back his action. The general retaliates by ordering soldiers to force Tom Cruise to go on the dangerous mission. At this point, Tom Cruise makes another irreversible decision by trying to run away. Now the soldiers knock him out. In that one scene, Tom Cruise made two irreversible decisions and he could not possibly back away from them.
In “Die Hard,” the hero has just killed a terrorist. That could be an irreversible decision, but he decides to send the dead terrorist’s body down in the elevator with a Santa cap on his head along with a sign saying, “Ho, ho , ho. Now I have a machine gun.” This irreversible action alerts the villain of the hero’s existence and taunts the dead terrorist’s brother to get revenge. A reversible decision would be to hide the dead terrorist body and not upset the living terrorists below, but that would be boring. You always want irreversible decisions because that makes the character committed and we want to see what happens as a result.
In “Grand Torino,” Clint Eastwood plays a racist old man who confronts a gang at the end of the story. He taunts the gang members and deliberately reaches inside his jacket so they’ll shoot him. Only later do we find out that Clint Eastwood didn’t have a gun at all. Even more interesting was that Clint Eastwood knew he was dying of a disease with no hope of recovery, so he deliberately sacrificed himself to save his friend who was being tormented by the gang. By letting the gang kill him in front of witnesses, the gang would be sent to prison and Clint Eastwood’s friend would be saved from the gang. Sacrificing yourself is a huge irreversible decision and that’s what makes it interesting.
Even in minor scenes, irreversible decisions can be interesting. In “Star Wars,” Luke decides to go with Obi-wan after seeing his dead aunt and uncle. That makes us wonder what Luke will do next. Earlier, R2D2 escaped and Luke has to go after him. that’s an irreversible decision because Luke can’t just let R2D2 wander away.
So when creating scenes, make them irreversible decisions and they’ll likely be far more interesting than if they can reverse their decisions. With irreversible decisions, the story is forced to go nowhere but forward to an inevitable conclusion.