A screenplay is only as good as its weakest scene so it’s crucial that you make every scene important. Two critical elements of every scene are conflict and foreshadowing.
In every scene, a character needs a goal, but conflict keeps that character from getting that goal. The pursuit of a goal and the conflict that gets in the way of that goal creates an interesting scene.
One way to study scenes is to watch musicals because each singing number represents a distinct scene. In “Beauty and the Beast,” the goal is clear. Belle, the hero, yearns to leave her provincial town and live a more adventurous life that she can only get through reading books. Watch this song and you should easily see the goal Belle wants and the conflict that occurs because all the townspeople are indirectly keeping her from getting to her goal. Then to make matters worse, an arrogant hunter (Gaston) wants to marry Belle, which creates greater conflict.
The introduction of Gaston near the end of the song not only introduces more conflict but also foreshadows greater danger to Belle in the future. So this scene grabs and holds our attention as we watch Belle strive for her goal but constantly surrounded by townspeople who indirectly get in her way.
Now watch any song from “Mary Poppins Returns” and you’ll notice a huge difference. Nobody has a goal and because nobody has a goal, there’s no conflict. Without conflict, the entire scene is completely uninteresting despite the fancy costumes, dance numbers, and music. None of that matters because the lack of conflict is the heart of every scene and “Mary Poppins Returns” constantly forgets this simple idea.
In the following scene from “Mary Poppins Returns,” there’s no goal, no conflict, and no foreshadowing of any problems in the future. This makes the entire song and dance scene utterly pointless. The characters are all happy, which means no conflict or tension.
Now study this scene from “The Greatest Showman” where a man woos a woman who his parents disapprove of because she doesn’t come from the same high society background as he does. In this scene, the man and woman both have a goal of being together but the man thinks they have a chance but the woman does not. This conflict makes this scene interesting because we want to know who will win in the end.
So make sure every scene you write has a character pursuing a goal, getting blocked to create conflict, and then end with some type of resolution that will keep the story moving forward.
In “Beauty and the Beast,” the scene ends with Gaston stalking Belle. In “The Greatest Showman,” the scene ends with the man and woman wanting to be together but the woman feels they have no chance.
In “Mary Poppins Returns,” the scene fails to end with any type of direction or foreshadowing. There’s no conflict so the entire scene is dull from start to finish.
Don’t make the mistake of “Mary Poppins Returns” and you’ll already be far ahead in writing your own screenplay.