The number one mistake most novice screenwriters make is that they try to tell a story. Now you may think telling a story is what screenplays are supposed to do, and you’re right. However, nobody cares about your story if it’s boring.
When screenwriters try to tell stories, they write scenes loaded with exposition that explains the setting or the characters. What they fail to do is give us a reason to care about the setting or the characters. Rather than worry about providing information to the audience, focus instead on grabbing attention.
Three ways to grab attention are:
- Show a fight
- Hint at a problem
- End with a cliffhanger
Ideally, you want to do all three techniques. First, show a fight. When we see two people fighting, that’s inherently interesting whether we care about them or not. Then during the fight, that’s the time to slip in exposition and information audiences need to know about the story.
Without conflict, information is easily forgotten, which makes the entire scene that provides that information completely useless. However, with conflict, you grab the audience’s attention and slip exposition in that is far more memorable because it appeared in the context of a fight.
Fights can be physical such as in the opening scene in “Rocky” where Rocky is fighting a boxer in a dumpy arena and the other boxer cheats by head butting Rocky. That infuriates Rocky so he winds up beating the other boxer.
That short scene, with no dialogue, tells us that Rocky’s a down and out boxer, and that he has strength but needs motivation to use it.
Compare this with a novice screenwriter’s scene where Rocky might just tell someone he’s a down and out boxer and that he won’t fight hard unless motivated to do so. Boring. Nobody would care and nobody would remember this.
Conflict doesn’t have to be physical. It can be emotional. In “Star Wars,” there’s a scene where Luke is in Obi-wan’s home and Obi-wan is trying to convince Luke to come with him, but Luke says he needs to stay on his uncle’s farm. That’s a simple conflict but it’s still engaging and it reveals more of Luke’s character at the same time.
Fighting is crucial in a scene. A second key ingredient is to hint at a larger problem. In that “Star Wars” scene, the larger problem is that Luke finally has a chance to leave his uncle’s farm but he turns it down. In the opening scene in “Rocky,” Rocky’s larger problem is that he’s living a seedy life and needs to create a better life for himself.
When a scene hints at a larger problem, it makes us want to know if the character will be able to solve this larger problem.
Finally, end with a cliffhanger. That cliffhanger makes us want to know more. In the case of “Rocky,” the initial fighting scene makes us wonder who Rocky is and what he’ll do about his squalid life. In “Star Wars,” we want to know if Luke will ever get away from his uncle’s farm and why R2D2 wanted to reach Obi-wan so badly.
So make sure every scene you write is a fight, hints at a larger problem, and ends with a cliffhanger. Do that and your scene will likely grab an audience’s attention. Fail to do that and just try to shove information at the audience and you’ll wind up boring the audience.
Don’t tell a story. Try to grab attention. That’s the key to writing a compelling and engaging scene in a screenplay.