Elements of a Great Scene – Part I

The other day I read a screenplay by a friend that spent five pages describing an airplane taxiing towards the terminal so the hero could arrive at a city to get the story started. So here’s the first rule of screenwriting. Make every scene as short as possible. Did we need to see five minutes of a plane taxiing to the terminal? Unless it’s important to set up information later in the story, the answer is a resounding NO!

Here’s how “Die Hard” lets us know the hero is arriving in a new city. First we see an airplane landing. Next we see the hero inside the airplane talking to a passenger and being frightened of flying. The quick shot of the airplane landing tells us all we need to know that the hero has landed at a new city. We don’t need five minutes of a watching a plane taxi on the runway.

The general rule of writing is to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. In screenwriting, that means cutting and trimming your scenes as much as possible until there’s only the important information left that can’t be cut. When your entire screenplay consists of nothing but important information, you’ll create a far more interesting screenplay than one padded with irrelevant information.

Rule #1: Keep your scenes as short as possible.

Keeping scenes as short as possible doesn’t mean brief scenes. What it means is that your scenes only contain important information. A scene can consist of five pages if all five pages constantly reveal something new to the audience. If you’re just showing trivial information, then your scene will drag. Watch a bad movie and when you notice scenes dragging, it’s usually because the scenes aren’t revealing anything new or is just repeating information we already know.

Rule #2: Show something new all the time that either sets up the future or pays off a previous set up.

In “Die Hard,” the opening scene in the airplane reveals several crucial bits of information. First, the hero is frightened of flying. Second, his fellow passenger tells him how to unwind by bunching his toes up in the carpet. This sets up the hero’s handicap of being bare foot later. Third, the passenger discovers that the hero has a gun, but is a cop, which sets up the hero’s ability to fight the terrorists later. Fourth, the hero explains he flew into Los Angeles to see his wife.

In that opening scene, we get loads of new information that sets up later parts of the story. Where most novices go wrong is that their scenes aren’t packed with information that sets up future scenes. Instead, bad scenes simply waste our time with trivial information that’s not necessary.

Early scenes always plant seeds of set ups for later in the movie. Later scenes always pay off earlier set ups and rarely provide new set ups. Think of the first half of your screenplay as consisting mostly of set ups and the last half of your screenplay as consisting mostly of payoffs.

Rule #3: Make sure there’s conflict.

What makes scenes drag is the lack of conflict. Watching a plane taxi on the runway for five minutes is extremely boring because there’s no conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s nothing of interest to watch. Novices typically write scenes completely absent of anyone. Instead, they write a scene that shows the hero’s bedroom to reveal the hero’s character. However, there’s no conflict so there’s nothing of interest.

Scenes need conflict. Even in “WALL-E,” where WALL-E is all alone in a garbage dump, there’s conflict as he discovers odd objects and plays with them, such as the paddle ball game or the fire extinguisher that sets up the use of the fire extinguisher later while also revealing WALL-E’s curiosity.

  • Rule #1: Keep your scenes as short as possible.
  • Rule #2: Show something new all the time that either sets up the future or pays off a previous set up.
  • Rule #3: Make sure there’s conflict.

Follow these rules and you can make your scenes far more interesting and useful. Interesting scenes are pointless if they don’t also contribute to your story somehow. “Terminator 3″ is loaded with lots of action, but most of it doesn’t set up future scenes so it’s just a lot of mindless, meaningless action. Scenes are the building blocks of your screenplay so if you create information-packed scenes, you’ll likely create an interesting screenplay in the process.

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