The biggest mistake in writing a screenplay is to write boring scenes. What makes a scene boring is when nothing happens, such as two characters stopping at a gas station to buy water or looking for a parking spot.
That type of information can be useful if it’s relevant to the story, but too often, novices simply write trivial dialogue and action where nothing happens. To make something happen, one technique is to shatter the expectations of the audience and/or the characters in the scene.
In “Pulp Fiction,” there’s a scene between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson where they’re driving in a car and talking about fast food differences in Europe. From the audience’s point of view, that information seems tame and trivial. However, the end of that scene shatters our expectations by suddenly revealing the two men are hit men.
Once we know the two men are hit men, that seemingly trivial scene takes on a whole new meaning because their dialogue sets up future action. While they were talking about fast food in the car, Samuel L. Jackson’s character confronts a roomful of young men in an apartment and starts eating their fast food burger. That helps tie in the discussion about fast food.
During that same car scene, the two hit men also discussed the dangers of taking the boss’s wife out and getting too friendly with her where one man gave her a foot massage and got killed as a result.
So the entire discussion about fast food in Europe foreshadows future scenes. The sudden revelation that the two men are hit men makes that scene far more memorable than if it was just about two men talking about fast food in Europe.
In a scene from “Erin Brockovich,” the hero (Erin Brockovich) is in a conference room when a new lawyer enters the room. The hero’s expectation is that this lawyer will help her. However, it turns out this lawyer thinks little of Erin Brockovich and the work she’s done so far. The lawyer’s expectation is that she’ll have to take charge because Erin Brockovich didn’t collect the evidence correctly. Erin Brockovich’s expectations are shattered because she thought this lawyer was going to be an ally but instead turns out to be dismissing her and all the hard work she’s done so far. You can watch how this scene plays out below:
Shattering expectations means when characters enter a scene, they expect one thing to happen but something else happens instead. It can also mean that as an audience, we watch a scene expecting one thing to happen, only to be surprised at something else occurring instead.
The bottom line is that by shattering expectations, you can make any scene far more interesting and useful in moving a story forward.