Every story is about change. Without change, action by itself is meaningless. Action is only important when we can see characters changing over time. To show change, screenplays need at least two scenes that work together as a pair. The first scene shows the initial state of a character and the second scene shows the final state of the character. By seeing at least two paired scenes, audiences can understand how a character changes.
In “Searching,” a man loses his wife to cancer. One early scene shows her jogging ahead of her husband to show how strong she is. A later scene shows the couple jogging the same area but the wife suddenly doubles over in pain while the husband races ahead, unaware that she’s fallen behind. These two paired scenes show how the wife has gone from healthy and strong to weak and sick as the cancer gradually sickens and finally kills her.
No scene should exist in isolation. If a scene can’t be paired with another scene to show change, then the isolated scene likely has no purpose and should be cut or combined with another scene.
Every good movie starts with an opening scene that poses an initial question. Then a final scene answers that question. In “Die Hard,” this initial question is whether the hero will get back with his wife or not. By the end, that question is answered when we see the hero does get back with his wife.
In “The Shape of Water,” the hero is a lonely, deaf woman who wants love. By the end of the story, she finally finds someone to love, who turns out to be an amphibian man.
Every story needs a paired scene that poses an initial question and then answers it. However, every scene needs to be paired to show change within the story too. In “Back to the Future,” the hero tells his girlfriend he doesn’t think he’s good enough to be a musician, which is his dream. In a later scene, the hero runs into his father back in the past, who wants to be a writer but complains that he doesn’t think he’s good enough. This paired scene lets the audience see how the hero thinks he’s not good enough, then shows how the hero changes when he learns his father doesn’t think he’s good enough either. This helps convince the hero that if he doesn’t at least try, he’ll wind up never realizing his dream. Now the hero is far more motivated to at least try pursuing his dream, which he wasn’t going to do before.
In “Titanic,” the hero goes to the front of the ship to throw herself off and kill herself. That’s when she meets Jack, a man who has her close her eyes and spread her arms out so she can feel the wind rushing past. These two paired scenes show how Rose, the hero, goes from wanting to kill herself to becoming friends with Jack.
No scenes works by itself. Watch a bad movie and you’ll find plenty of scenes that exist without any connection to any other scene in the rest of the story. In “The Layover,” which has a 0% Rotten Tomatoes score, two women vie for the affection of a single man after their flight gets delayed and they wind up staying in a hotel together. Yet every scene fails to show change within the characters. Instead, each scene tries to be humorous, but fails miserably.
One scene shows the two women trying to show their competitive diving skills to impress the man. Yet the two women remain the same before and after the scene, so the scene fails to show any change at all. Not only is this single scene not funny, but because it has no connection to any other scene in the story, it serves no purpose. The entire structure of “The Layover” is flawed because its initial question is simply whether two women will fight over the same man. Throughout the story, the two women constantly fight over the same man and by the end, they’re friends again. There’s a reason why “The Layover” got a 0% Rotten Tomatoes score because it’s such a poorly structured story.
So watch a good movie and notice how scenes pair up with other scenes. Then watch a really bad movie and notice how scenes don’t always pair up with other scenes. Scenes need to work like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that fit together. Any piece that doesn’t fit with any other parts simply doesn’t belong. By eliminating scenes that don’t work with any other scenes, you can go a long way towards writing a better story.