Grab Audiences at the Start of Every Scene with a Question

Almost everyone can come up with a great idea for a screenplay. The hard part is turning that great idea into a collection of great scenes that will make up a great screenplay.

What far too many novices do is simply write a scene that’s empty of drama. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so a screenplay is only as strong as it’s weakest scene. What makes a good scene is one that tells a mini-story and grabs the audience right from the start so they want to know what happens next.

One way to grab the audiences attention at the beginning of a scene is to start with a question. That question can be implied such as a scene in “Fargo” where the woman police officer goes to the car dealer to talk to Jerry, the man who has hired two men to kidnap his wife.

In this scene, we know Jerry is guilty but the police officer does not. Thus the scene already starts by making us wonder what will happen next because the big question right from the start is “Will the police officer learn that Jerry is the man she’s looking for?”

That scene from “Fargo” replies on the audience knowing information that the police officer does not. In most cases, it’s not always possible to give the audience information that one of the characters lacks. A far more common technique is to simply give two characters a clear goal and then see which character “wins” but he end of the scene.

In the opening scene of “Harold and Maude,” Harold walks into a room and hangs himself. At this point, we don’t know that Harold’s goal is to torment his mother. Then his mother walks into the room, stares at Harold’s body dangling from a noose, and proceeds to calmly talk on the telephone.

The goal of Harold is to torment his mother but the goal of his mother is to ignore Harold’s various suicide attempts. Then by the end of the scene, we see that the mother “wins” by failing to get upset at Harold’s fake suicide attempt.

In every scene, there’s a goal for that scene that must be met or lost by the end of the scene. Any scene that fails to define a question or goal at the start will fail to hold the audience’s attention. By the time the scene ends, audiences won’t care because they don’t know what’s at stake in the beginning.

So make sure every scene starts out with a question or goal to grab the audience right from the start. Then make sure the scene shows the conflict between two characters, each trying to achieve their goal. Finally, make sure the scene ends with a clear “winner”.

Scenes that lack an intriguing beginning, interesting conflict in the middle, and a definite conclusion in the end will feel like a scene that goes nowhere, and that will be the weakest link in even the best written screenplay.

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