What happens when most people write a scene? Ideally, the scene should contain two characters in conflict. One character wants one thing and the other character wants something else. This conflict can be as drastic as James Bond trying to kill the villain (and the villain trying to kill James Bond), or it can be as subtle as one character trying to convince another that Europeans eat fast food differently than Americans while the other character listens in disbelief (“Pulp Fiction”).
A scene without conflict is nothing more than a waste of time, but what happens with most scenes is that they’re too complete. In other words, they don’t create a promise of something more to come. That’s why when you write a scene in a screenplay, think in terms of triangles.
A triangle has three points so every scene you write should also have three points. One point should be a character trying to get something. A second point should be another character opposing this first character.
Think of the scene in “Star Wars” when Obi-wan is stopped by storm troopers outside of the spaceport. Obi-wan wants to get into the spaceport while the storm troopers want to capture the droids holding the Death Star plans. So the conflict boils down to who will win? Obi-wan or the storm troopers?
What makes this scene interesting isn’t just the conflict alone, but the third point, and that’s the use of the Force. This use of the Force foreshadows its use later by Luke, but it proves short and interesting enough to stick in our memory while also being logical within the “Star Wars” world at the same time.
So when writing scenes, make sure you have three points. The first two points involve the opposing characters while the third point involves a link to a future scene.
What happens if a scene lacks this third point? Then you wind up with dull scenes that can have all the special effects, stunts, and explosions in the world, but it still remains boring because it lacks a setup to a future scene.
In the opening scene in “Die Hard,” John McClane is terrified of flying while his fellow passenger is amused. A minor conflict occurs when the passenger discovers that John McClane is carrying a gun, but that fear goes away immediately when John McClane says he’s a cop.
Point one: John McClane is terrified of flying.
Point two: The fellow passenger wants to help him.
Point three: The passenger learns John McClane’s a cop and has a gun (which foreshadows its use later) and also gives John McClain the idea of scrunching his toes on a carpet to relieve tension (which foreshadows why he’s barefoot later).
In the opening scene of the musical “Chicago,” Velma rushes into a nightclub barely on time while the stage manager frantically searches for her. When he finally finds Velma, he’s shocked to find she’s alone and without her sister who she normally performs with. Velma insists she can perform alone.
Point one. Velma is late and insists she can perform a duo act by herself.
Point two. The stage manager wants to find Velma and her sister.
Point three. Velma has actually killed her sister, which foreshadows her being sent to prison later.
So don’t write a scene with just conflict between two characters. Add a third point that foreshadows the future. Each scene should foreshadow the future because that provides greater suspense. If a scene fails to foreshadow the future, it risks being nothing more than just a meaningless conflict that doesn’t help future scenes one bit, and that leads to a poorly structured screenplay.