Make Sure Every Scene Changes a Character’s Life

Here’s the number one mistake novices make in writing a screenplay. They write scenes that do nothing but explain the story. Watch a mediocre movie and you’ll often find scenes that fail to change or challenge the hero’s life in any meaningful way.

In the opening scene of “Don’t Worry Darling,” the hero is balancing a glass on her head in competition with two other women. While these three women dance, their husbands cheer them on. When one woman drops her glass and accidentally knocks the hero’s glass off her head, she puts to her husband, who kisses her to keep her happy.

Study the opening scene in “Don’t Worry Darling” and you’ll see that nothing meaningful happens. Then look at the opening scene of a far better movie like “The Matrix” where the villain (Agent Smith) is trying to capture or kill a woman hacker named Trinity. Just as the police arrive to arrest Trinity, she suddenly wipes out the entire police squad single-handedly.

The opening scene in “The Matrix” immediately introduces a problem (the police are trying to arrest a hacker) and introduces a mystery (the hacker wipes out the police and escapes). By the end of this opening scene, the hacker has gotten away, but wonders how the police were able to find and nearly corner her.

On the surface, this scene appears to be just about a female hacker escaping the police, but it’s really about how the traitor in their group has nearly gotten the hacker caught. This short scene introduces the danger of this traitor who will play a huge role later in the story.

In comparison, the opening scene in “Don’t Worry Darling” does absolutely nothing. It doesn’t affect the characters in any way, it doesn’t grab our attention by showing the danger to anyone. It just exists to show the hero’s world, which is happy (and boring as a result).

To better see how scenes must change characters, study the songs in musicals. Songs express a character’s emotions and shows how the scene changes a major character’s life. In this video, a character is wondering what she really wants out of life. By the end of the song, she realizes she wants to stay in a video game called Slaughter Race.

In the opening scene in “The Matrix,” the female hacker thinks she’s just performing a simple task. By the end of the scene, she’s wondering how the villain could find her location so easily (because the traitor in her group has been collaborating with the villain).

On the other hand, the opening scene in “Don’t Worry Darling” changes nothing about the hero’s life. Watch numerous scenes in “Don’t Worry Darling” and you’ll find plenty of scenes where nothing changes anyone’s life, which creates a dull story.

The lesson is clear. Every scene must change a major character’s life in somehow, either physically or emotionally. If a scene doesn’t change a major character’s life somehow, that scene probably doesn’t belong. Just watch the deleted scenes from your favorite movies and you’ll see that those deleted scenes fail to change anyone’s life.

So write scenes that don’t the lives of your characters. That’s what keeps a story moving forward.

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