Create Greater Drama in Scenes Through Contrast and Reversals

Most people write boring scenes where characters get along and nothing changes from the beginning of the scene to the end. So the solution is to write scenes where characters do not get along and something changes from the beginning of the scene to the end. To do this, create greater contrast.

Think of every scene as a battle. Some scenes might be physical battles but most scenes are verbal battles where two different characters are trying to get their way using words as weapons. Conflict is far more interesting to watch than characters who get along, but reversals make conflict even more interesting.

A reversal occurs when a character starts a scene seemingly in control but winds up weak and out of control in the end. Likewise, a character who starts a scene weak and helpless reverses their position to become strong and in control in the end. This contrast that reverses the state of two opposing characters creates greater drama.

In the following scene from “Ford vs. Ferrari,” the two opposing characters are Henry Ford II (strong and in control at the start of the scene) and Shelby, played by Matt Damon, who appears weak and helpless at the start of the scene. If the state of both characters remained the same, even after conflict, the scene would feel pointless. However what happens is that the states of each character reverse 180 degrees. By the end of the scene, Henry Ford II appears weak and helpless while Shelby appears strong and in control. That reversal creates drama and makes the story move forward.

The basic structure of the scene works like this:

  • The scene begins with a huge problem where Henry Ford II wants to fire Shelby for the dismal results in their last race
  • Shelby indirectly answers Henry Ford II by talking about their car’s multiple failures
  • Then Shelby gets to the point: the Ford car is faster than any Ferrari
  • The scene ends with Shelby in control and Henry Ford II no longer in control

By reversing the states of the two opposing characters, the scene grabs and holds our attention because we want to see what will happen. If Henry Ford II remained in control, the scene wouldn’t feel as dramatic. Watch scenes from your favorite movies and you should see how this dramatic reversal works in every scene.

In the following scene from “Liar Liar,” Jim Carrey plays a lawyer whose son made a magical wish where he cannot lie for an entire day. A co-worker discovers this flaw and leads him into a conference room filled with the law firm’s top executives. This co-worker starts the scene in control and hopes that Jim Carrey will ruin his future by telling all the law firm’s executives what he really thinks of them.

What happens instead is that everyone thinks Jim Carrey is joking and they love him for making them laugh. By the end of the scene, Jim Carrey winds up in control while his co-worker is helpless.

When writing scenes in your own screenplay, create the greatest drama possible through conflict and reversals. When you combine conflict with reversals, your scenes will feel far more important than scenes where nothing happens with no conflict. Remember, happy characters don’t make interesting drama. Characters who want something and are willing to do practically anything to get it make interesting drama.

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