Make Things Bad, Then Make Them Worse

In every scene, you need escalating conflict. This keeps the audience’s attention because at first, something important is at stake. Then things get much worse to ratchet up the suspense. Without conflict, scenes will feel pointless and directionless. Conflict is the key that gives scenes a purpose.

The first purpose every scene needs is something at stake. That means defining a problem that the characters are trying to solve. In “Star Wars,” Princess Leia leads everyone into a garbage chute to escape from the stormtroopers shooting at them. Now the problem is that they’re trapped in a garbage compactor with no way out.

That by itself is a problem, but suddenly the problem escalates in two ways. First, a strange snake-like creature grabs Luke and pulls him underwater. Second, the walls start moving to crush all the garbage. ┬áNow our attention is riveted on this scene because we want to know how the characters will possibly survive. By escalating the conflict and making the problem worse, this scene first grabs our attention and then makes sure we can’t look away.

Now consider a boring scene in a bad movie or a deleted scene from a good movie and you’ll see how the lack of conflict made that scene useless. In “Aliens,” James Cameron wrote a scene that explains how the little girl knew how to hide in the air ducts to avoid the aliens. In this deleted scene, the little girl’s family is going to explore a new part of their colony. Notice right away there’s no tension or conflict to grab our attention.

Then the father gets the alien latched on to his face. That explains how the girl’s father first found the alien egg. That escalates tension because now the little girl’s family has to deal with the alien on the father’s face. However, the scene ends because it exists to show how the little girl learned to hide in air ducts (she’s playing hide and seek with her brother) and to show where the alien outbreak started.

Yet this problem of the alien latched on to the father’s face is never resolved later. It exists solely to show how the aliens started taking over the colony, but has no relevance beyond that in the story. Imagine adding a scene to “Star Wars” that showed the dearly construction of the Death Star and ending that scene by showing the construction just beginning. No conflict, no problems equals no interest. That’s the formula for a boring scene.

When constructing any scene in your screenplay, ask yourself if it creates a problem right from the start. Then ask yourself if the problem gets worse later in that same scene. If not, then rewrite that scene or dump it. Scenes that fail to hold our attention will contribute to a screenplay that will also fail to hold anyone’s attention. If you can write every scene that holds a reader’s attention, you’ll create a screenplay that will hold a reader’s attention from start to finish, and that’s the first step to getting a screenplay produced.

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