How Does a Scene Change a Character’s Emotions?

The most common mistake novices make in writing a screenplay is creating a scene that consists of characters telling the story by reciting details that feel out of place along with being information the characters already know.

Scenes that exist solely to give information to the audience are not only boring, but fail to advance the story in any meaningful way. The reason such scenes fail is because they don’t change the emotional state of any of the characters.

Watch this scene from “Grease” and you’ll see how the scene changes the way Sandy (played by Olivia Newton-John) sees the other girls.

If a scene fails to change the way a main character sees themselves, their world, or the other characters, the scene serves no purpose. Now look at this scene from “Mary Poppins Returns” where Mary Poppins sings and dances, but absolutely nobody is changed in the slightest. The end result is a scene that’s visually interesting but emotionally bankrupt. Cut this scene and the story does not suffer one bit.

When writing your own screenplay, examine every scene. Does it change any of the main characters emotionally? If so, can you rewrite the scene to enhance the emotional change? If not, can you make the scene change a main character’s emotions somehow?

Even the simplest scene must change a main character’s emotions somehow. In the opening scene in “Die Hard,” the hero, John McClane, changes from being terrified of flying to becoming more self-assured when a fellow passenger spots his gun and John McClane admits that he’s a cop.

Just in that short scene, John McClane has changed from being scared to being self-assured. More importantly, that short scene sets up two crucial pieces of information:

  • To relieve jet lag, John McClane will take his fellow passenger’s advice and scrunch his toes in a carpet, which will lead him to be barefoot the rest of the story.
  • By revealing that he has a gun and is a cop, this scene lets us know that John is fully capable of dealing with terrorists.

Study your scenes and look at how it changes a main character’s emotions and how it sets up or pays off a bit of information necessary to tell the story. If your scene doesn’t do this, why not?

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