Before you start writing, make sure your story structure is solid first. Your story structure acts like a map that details what happens, when, and why. Until you know most of these crucial details, don’t start writing or else you’ll risk writing a mess that goes in all directions and ultimately wastes your time. Some writers like this exploration phase, but it can be a huge time-waster when you could just summarize your ideas on paper first without writing multiple pages in screenplay format only to find that most of your ideas don’t work. For beginners especially, writing themselves into a dead end can be discouraging and frustrating.
So outline your story first so you know where your story is going. Once you know the basic structure of your story, then it’s still not time to write just yet. Put aside the urge to fire up your screenwriting software and just start outlining your major scenes. A great story idea can sink with poorly written scenes, so here are four elements every scene needs to keep your story moving.
- A problem
First, a scene needs to grab our attention by presenting a problem. This problem should be immediately clear to us such as the scene in “Django: Unchained” where the hero is tied by his feet, dangling upside down and completely helpless. That’s a huge problem and it immediately makes us wonder how he’ll possibly survive.
Once we see the problem, we need conflict that makes that problem even worse. In that same scene from “Django: Unchained,” not only is the hero helpless and dangling upside down, but now one of the villains has arrived with a knife and is threatening to castrate him. The hero’s problem has gone from bad to worse and that definitely keeps our attention.
Third, you need foreshadowing to set up a future scene so when that future scene appears, it doesn’t seem to come out of the blue like a deus ex machina, which is a Latin term that describes the ancient plays where the gods would magically appear out of nowhere and solve everything. You don’t want anything to surprise the audience that seems to come out of nowhere. You always want to foreshadow the arrival of the future first so it feels natural.
In “Django: Unchained,” this occurs when a second villain arrives to stop the first villain from castrating the hero. This second villain tells the hero that he’s being sent to work in the mines where he’ll be gradually beaten and worked to death so he’ll suffer longer. This foreshadows the later scene where the hero is being led away to the mines and has a chance to escape.
Finally, a scene needs to end on a cliffhanger that makes us wonder what will happen next. In “Django: Unchained,” the cliffhanger is that the hero has escaped castration, but will now be sent to work in the mines until the mine operators physically break him. One flaw is that working the mines actually seems preferable than castration, so this cliffhanger isn’t as strong as it could be. A better cliffhanger would be to make the hero’s plight even worse so we’ll really want to know what happens next.
So when scenes introduce a problem, you grab the audience’s attention. When you introduce conflict, the audience wants to know who will win. When you foreshadow the future, you’re setting up a later scene. When you leave with a cliffhanger, you pull the audience into the next scene so your story seems to move along quickly and effortlessly.
What happens if you ignore these four elements of a scene? Then you wind up with a meaningless scene like in “Maleficent” where the hero flies around on her wings so we can see all the computer-generated special effects showing the exotic fantasy animals of her world. There’s no problem, no conflict, no foreshadowing, and no cliffhanger. Instead we’re bored watching the hero fly around with a smile on her face and that’s supposed to make us feel bad for her later when she loses her wings.
In “Edge of Tomorrow,” there’s the scene where Tom Cruise wakes up and finds himself forced to join a combat platoon. First he wakes up and realizes that he’s no longer an officer but a private. That’s his initial problem. Then a drill sergeant kicks him awake and yells at him to get up so now there’s conflict. As Tom Cruise takes in his surroundings, he spots a sign showing his eventual mentor, Rita, as a war hero. Now the cliffhanger leaves us wondering how Tom Cruise will get out of being a private as he tries to convince the drill sergeant that he’s really an officer and shouldn’t be going into combat.
Study good movies and you’ll see these four elements of a scene grabbing your attention. Then watch bad or mediocre movies and when scenes start to drag, you can notice which elements that scene is missing: a problem, conflict, foreshadowing, or a cliffhanger. Bad movies often parade pointless scenes because the screenwriter got lazy and resorts to telling us the story instead of letting us emotionally experience that story vicariously instead.
Don’t tell, show. Give us problems, conflict, foreshadowing, and cliffhangers and each scene will pull us along from start to finish, and that’s the key to good screenwriting.