Technically a scene takes place in a single location, but for our purposes, a scene is a mini-story that can be made up of multiple locations. Just like any story, a scene needs a structure. First, a scene needs to open with an intriguing event that immediately grabs our attention. In “Star Wars,” the opening scene shows a giant spaceship being chased by another one. Suddenly the trailing spaceship shoots laser beams at the fleeing spaceship. Right away, this battle scene grabs our attention although we don’t quite know what’s going on yet.
In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the opening scene shows a cartoon with the hero providing the voice characterizations of the cartoon characters. Seeing the cartoon is interesting, but seeing the hero doing the voices for all the characters is even more intriguing.
Structure #1: Start with an interesting visual grabber that catches our attention.
While the opening scene gets us involved, the second part is to reveal the conflict. We have to know that there’s a good guy and a bad guy so we know what’s going on. In “Star Wars” the rebel troops wait in ambush for the stormtroopers to arrive. Then the stormtroopers bust through the wall and a firefight occurs. We still don’t know what’s going on, but we’re getting a clearer idea of the two sides fighting.
In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the opening scene shows the hero objecting to a cigarette in a kid’s cartoon. He makes negative comments about the cigarette in the cartoon while the people around him (all smokers) just want him to ignore the cigarette and stick to doing the voices.
Structure #2: Show the conflict.
Once we understand the conflict, we need to know who wins and loses. In “Star Wars,” the stormtroopers gradually overwhelm the rebels and take over the spaceship. In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the hero refuses to budge from his stand on cigarettes. The studio boss tells him to complain on his own time. The hero refuses and the studio boss gives him an ultimatum to get paid or get out.
Structure #3: Show who wins.
Once we know who who wins, we need to know the resolution. Unless this is the last scene in your screenplay, this resolution needs to be a cliffhanger. In “Star Wars,” the cliffhanger is that Darth Vader captures Princess Leia so now we want to know what happens to her. In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the hero quits his job and we want to know what will happen to him. Cliffhangers are vitally important because they pull the audience into the next scene, even if that next scene has nothing to do with the previous scene. By leaving us hanging, the cliffhanger ending keeps us interested in the rest of the story.
Structure #4: End with a cliffhanger.
Most importantly, every scene should contain either set ups for future scenes or pay offs to past scenes. Early scenes in your screenplay need to be loaded with set ups. In “Star Wars,” one set up is what Princess Leia hid in R2D2. A second set up is why Darth Vader is trying to capture Princess Leia in the first place.
In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the set ups are the hero’s ability to do voices and his inability to keep a job. Set ups are often repeated in multiple scenes to remind us of their importance so when the pay off occurs, we remember the set ups. In “Star Wars,” we gradually learn why Darth Vader was trying to capture Princess Leia and what Princess Leia hid in R2D2.
In “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the hero picks up his kids and we get one set up that shows he loves his kids and they love him. The repetitive set up is that the kids aren’t surprised that he lost another job again, which repeats the set up of the first scene and further imprints in our minds that the hero’s unreliable in a job.
Structure #5: Fill each scene with either new set ups, repetitive set ups, or pay offs.
Create scenes that grab our attention at the start, show us conflict, show us who wins, and leaves us with a cliffhanger will go a long way towards creating interesting scenes. With enough interesting scenes, you’ll likely create an interesting screenplay. Load each scene with set ups and pay offs, and every scene will support your story while being intriguing to make us want to know how it turns out.
Scenes are critical building blocks, so don’t neglect them. Write short, informative, interesting scenes and any action or special effects added later will just make that scene far stronger in the end.