The Anatomy of a Scene

Every scene tells a story. First, a scene has to grab our attention. In the above scene from “Pale Rider,” the villain has arrived to confront the hero (Clint Eastwood). Right away the villain has a goal to drive the hero away. Since the villain has a goal, he first tries to achieve this goal the easy way by subtly hinting that the hero should leave. The hero fails to be convinced and has a goal of his own to stay.

Since the villain didn’t get what he wants, he tries another approach. This time he lets his henchman show his strength by physically threatening the hero by breaking a rock with one blow that the hero had been working on. Now that the rock is broken, the villain asks if the hero’s work is done. However, the hero still fails to be moved, increasing the tension and conflict.

Finally the henchman attacks the hero but the hero defeats the henchman and sends him on his way. The villain has lost and the hero has won.

The structure of this scene is clear. First, introduce a compelling problem and identify the goals of the villain and hero in the scene. Second, show both the villain and hero trying to achieve their goals. Finally, show us who wins.

In the process of showing a scene, introduce foreshadowing. The above “Pale Rider” scene provides two elements of foreshadowing. When the tall henchman breaks the rock with one blow, that’s foreshadowing his strength and what he’ll do to the hero if the hero doesn’t leave. Now the threat to the hero is clear and ramps up the tension as we know what fate awaits the hero if he should lose.

When the hero defeats the henchman, the villain reaches for his gun, but thinks better of it and leaves with his wounded henchman. This glimpse of the villain’s gun foreshadows the final showdown when the hero has to face a group of armed men alone.

Every scene needs to show us characters in conflict with opposing goals. Then we need to know what Horrible Consequences await the hero if he should lose. The stakes should get higher as both the villain and hero struggle to achieve their goals. In “Pale Rider,” the villain wants the hero to leave but the hero wants to stay. With opposing goals, the scene creates tension because we want to see who wins and how, but we also know that only one person can win. Finally, we need to see who wins. In the process, we need foreshadowing to link a scene to future scenes.

Take any favorite movie and study a scene. Chances are good you’ll recognize this mini-story in action with foreshadowing and a cliffhanger (unresolved issue) linking the scene to future scenes. In this example, the hero has won, but the cliffhanger is that we know the villain won’t give up and the foreshadowing of the villain reaching for his gun hints what the final result will be in the end with a gunfight to finally drive the hero away for good or not.

Scenes must be interesting but also unexpected. We expect the hero to win, but how he does it is unexpected and that’s where your creativity as a screenwriter comes in. Make a scene tell a story, make it interesting, make it foreshadow the future and leave us with a cliffhanger to pull us into the rest of your story. Do this in every scene and your entire story will be interesting and compelling so your story will grab an audience and never let go from start to finish.

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