Anatomy of a Good and Bad Scene

Scenes aren’t individual items but part of a whole. Every scene must be part of the overall story or else there’s no point in having that scene. Watch deleted scenes of movies and you’ll see that the deleted scene adds nothing to the story. Just watch this deleted scene from Disney’s “Pinocchio” that explains where the wood came from to make the puppet. This scene adds information that the audience doesn’t really need so it detracts from the story.

A good scene is not only interesting in itself, but also sets up the future or pays off an earlier set up. In “Wind River,” the opening scene shows a bunch of wolves circling a bunch of helpless sheep. Just when it looks like the wolves are going to slaughter the sheep, a gunshot rings out and a wolf gets hit and dies. The gunshot scares off the other wolves and we see the hero emerge from his camouflaged position, holding a rifle.

This initial scene is interesting because we’re led to think the wolves are going to slaughter the sheep and there’s nothing that can save them. Then we see the hero pop up and kill a wolf. That by itself sets up the theme of the story where the hero protects the helpless from predators.

Later near the end of “Wind River,” the bad guys have just gunned down a bunch of police officers, leaving only a helpless female FBI agent at their mercy. Suddenly the hero saves the day, which was foreshadowed by the earlier wolf and sheep scene. The hero essentially saves the helpless from predators.

Now watch a bad movie like “The Layover.” There’s a scene where two women and two men are driving to Florida. To pass the time, they play a word game. One person rattles off words and phrases and the other people have to guess what they’re talking about. After the first person does this, a second person rattles off different words and phrases and people guess. Then it’s the third person’s turn and she just says, “I hate this f-ing game,” and that’s the end of the scene.

“The Layover” is supposed to be a comedy, yet there’s nothing funny about this scene. The information int he scene plays no role in any future scenes, nor does it pay off any earlier set ups in previous scenes. It’s essentially a mini-story isolated from the rest of the story so it has no point and it’s not funny. Therefore it’s a wasted scene and does nothing to help the story. Scenes like this is the reason why “The Layover” has a 0% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes because it’s truly so awful and a laugh-free comedy filled mostly with profanity and gross out attempts at humor that are not funny.

Scenes are connected like building blocks. More importantly, scenes must be interesting in themselves and reflect the story genre. In “Wind River,” the genre is a mystery thriller so every scene supports this mystery as the characters try to figure out what’s going on in a violent and isolated part of the country. In “The Layover,” the genre is comedy, yet few scenes are funny and few scenes set up later scenes or pay off information planted in earlier scenes.

“Wind River” is a great movie. “The Layover” is a great movie to study to see how badly Hollywood can botch a movie.

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