Watch a bad movie and your mind will start to drift away because you don’t know what’s going on or you don’t care. Either way, once a movie loses the audience, it’s hard to reel them back in again. To keep your scenes from dragging, you need to view them as mini-stories.
First, let’s define a scene. A scene isn’t just a single shot in a fixed location. Instead, the definition we’ll use here is that a scene tells a mini-story that can include one or more different locations. The beginning of every scene must kick off this mini-story right away by immediate conflict or just an unusual visual image that grabs our attention right away.
In “The Matrix,” the beginning shows Trinity hacking in a room where swarms of cops rush in to arrest her. That’s an interesting visual that immediately grabs our attention, promises conflict, and makes us wonder, “What’s going to happen now?”
In “Star Wars,” Luke has just rescued Princess Leia when stormtroopers trap them. That’s also grabs our attention, promises conflict, and makes us wonder, “What’s going to happen next?”
The middle of the scene is where the hero has a problem and needs to overcome obstacles to find a solution. In “The Matrix,” Trinity has a problem being surrounded by multiple cops. Her solutioin is to karate chop her way out of there. Then Agent Smith tries to get her and she runs away.
In “Star Wars,” Luke and everyone winds up in a garbage chute. Suddenly, the walls start closing in on them and Luke has to call R2D2 for help. Now we’re left in suspense whether Luke will get crushed or whether R2D2 can stop the trash compactor walls from moving in.
The middle of a scene needs a goal, obstacles, and the hero overcoming those goals.
Finally the end of the scene needs a cliffhanger. In “The Matrix,” Trinity escapes from Agent Smith and rushes towards a ringing phone in a phone booth while Agent Smith crashes the car into the phone booth. That’s a cliffhanger that leads us forward to the rest of the story.
In “Star Wars,” R2D2 successful stops the compactor walls and Luke and everyone else can get out of the garbage chute. Now they start looking for a way to get back to the Millennium Falcon, which is a cliffhanger that leads us into the next scene.
Scenes grab our attention, hold it, and leave us hanging so we’ll want to see the next scene. Think of each scene as a link that connects to the previous scene. Keep that link between scenes and you’ll create a coherent story. Show a scene that has no connection to the previous scene and you’ll immediately risk losing the audience. Bad movies show disconnected scenes. Good movies always show linked, connected scenes that flow naturally from one to the other, and that’s how you create scenes that ultimately create an interesting screenplay.