Make Every Scene Unexpected

Imagine a man walking into a bank, depositing a check, and then walking out. Boring. That’s because there’s nothing exciting happening. What most novices do is try to force an exciting idea into a scene.

So rather than have a man walk into a bank and leave again, novices make the mistake of having bank robbers run into a bank, rob the place, and then run away. While this is still more exciting than the dull scene of watching a man walk into a bank and leave again, it’s still not that interesting.

The reason is that scenes are most exciting when they’re unexpected. One way to introduce the unexpected into a scene is to dash a character’s expectations.

In “Legally Blonde,” an early scene shows the hero excited to meet her boyfriend because she thinks he’s going to propose to her. Instead, he dumps her. That’s a huge change because the hero expected a proposal and instead comes home alone and hurt. That makes that scene extremely memorable.

So dash a character’s expectations. If your hero expects to meet his wife for dinner, dash those expectations by having the wife leave just as the man arrives, which is a simple scene in “The Sixth Sense.”

A second way to make a scene unexpected is to dash the audience’s expectations. That means lulling the audience into thinking a scene is going to go in one direction but then have it suddenly move in an entirely different direction.

In “Die Hard,” an early scene shows two well-dressed men entering the skyscraper lobby and approaching a security guard. This appears to be a dull scene right up until one man whirls around and shoots the security guard dead. Suddenly what we expected isn’t what’s going to happen.

An early scene in “Pulp Fiction” also shatters our expectations when we first meet two men talking about fast food in Europe. This appears to be a simple scene that’s interesting mostly because of the odd dialogue. Then the scene abruptly shocks us when they stop the car and pull out guns from the trunk.

To make a scene unexpected, do one of the following:

  • Shatter a character’s expectations
  • Shatter the audience’s expectations

The key is to make sure a scene is never quite what it seems to be. In “The Karate Kid,” a karate teacher goes fishing after giving the hero directions to paint a fence or wax a car a certain way. This seems odd but nothing special until the hero gets fed up and threatens to leave. That’s when the karate instructor has the hero perform his moves to discover that he actually learned karate moves to defend himself. That shocks both the hero and the audience and makes that scene memorable.

Remember, you can’t tell an interesting story if your scenes are flat and dull. You have to make each scene memorable in some way and the best way to do that is to shatter either a character’s expectations or the audience’s expectations. Do that consistently to make every scene interesting and you’ll likely make an entire story interesting as well.

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