A story is about change. The most basic element of a story is a scene, yet even in a single scene, there’s always an intriguing opening, conflict, foreshadowing, and a cliffhanger. The intriguing opening grabs our attention right away. The conflict defines a problem that a character is trying to solve. Foreshadowing hints at the future either in the existing scene or in a later scene. A cliffhanger leaves us wanting to know more. Both foreshadowing and the cliffhanger help pull the audience’s attention into future scenes.
Without knowing anything about the following scene from the musical “Hair,” watch the following clip and you can immediately detect a problem and a conflict along with a final resolution. Although you may not fully understand what’s going on, you can tell something is wrong and the characters are trying to fix that problem, which creates an interesting scene.
This represents one of the last scenes in “Hair” where the hero has snuck off the military base and left his friend to take his place. Unfortunately before the hero can get back to the base, the army has shipped out all the men, including the hero’s friend, to Vietnam. So the intriguing opening is why is this soldier so uneasy? (It’s because he’s not really a soldier.) The conflict is whether the hero can get back to the base in time to save his friend or not. (He fails.) The foreshadowing is the risk of possible death being sent to fight in Vietnam. (Later we see the tombstone of the hero\’s dead friend.)
Despite this scene from “Hair” being so short, you can already see the structure of a problem, conflict, and a resolution. Now examine the following scene from the flop musical “Grease 2.”
This short scene from “Grease 2” shows no conflict, no problem, and ultimately no interest so it’s a waste of time. The whole purpose of this scene is simply to sing a silly song about reproduction, but the main characters do nothing more than stare at each other. There’s no conflict or interaction between the main characters while the extras get all the attention. As a result, you can see that this “Grease 2” scene is ultimately pointless because it fails to tell a story.
Just watch any of your favorite scenes in a movie and you’ll notice that each scene always tells a mini-story. When a scene fails to tell a mini-story, it should be cut because it fails to hold the audience’s interest. Scenes are building blocks for every story so make sure every scene (yes, every scene) tells an interesting mini-story of some kind.