The Elements of Scene Structure

A scene represents a building block that tells part of your overall story. That means the first element of a scene is to move the story forward. To do that, a scene must move towards a specific goal. The achievement (or failure to achieve) this goal then moves the story forward.

In “Star Wars” there’s a simple scene where Luke and Han take over a guard station after sneaking out of the Millennium Falcon. The scene goal is that they want to find a safe place to hide until Obi-wan can turn off the tractor beams.

Without a goal, a scene has no reason to exist. In “The Flash,” there’s an early scene where the Flash saves a bunch of babies falling out of a crumbling hospital building. Yet saving babies plays no part in the overall story. The person responsible for destroying the hospital plays no part in the overall story. Thus this scene is totally useless because it fails to support the overall story.

Besides focusing towards a goal, a scene must also involve conflict where nothing comes easy for anyone. Struggle against opposing forces is what makes every story interesting. Strip away conflict and struggle and there’s nothing of interest.

Imagine if that “Star Wars” scene just involves Han and Luke walking into an empty guard station and taking it over. That would be boring. It’s far more interesting to have Chewbacca stand in the door just as a guard opens it so he can clobber the guard away while Luke and Han shoot the other guards. Because the guards are trying to protect the station and Luke and Han want to take over the station, there’s conflict. Because Luke and Han have to overcome the guards, it’s not easy.

Now watch this scene from “The Room,” considered one of the worst movies ever made. In this short scene, the hero walks into a flower shop, buys some flowers, and leaves. There is a goal (get the flowers) but there’s absolutely no conflict whatsoever, making the entire scene boring to watch. This is what happens when your scene lacks conflict and everything is too easy for the hero to achieve.

Finally, every scene should change the characters’ lives somehow. Sometimes this change can be dramatic such as the scene in “Legally Blonde” where the hero’s boyfriend dumps her instead of proposing to her like she expected. Most of the time, a scene simply changes a character’s perspective in a more subtle way.

In an early scene in “Titanic,” Rose (the hero), lights up a cigarette at the dining table, which her mother doesn’t like. Yet Rose isn’t just smoking for the enjoyment but to rebel against her mother and her fiancĂ© by behaving in a way that she knows will upset them.

This scene doesn’t dramatically change Rose’s life, but it foreshadows her independent streak and desire to control her own life. When she gives in to her mother, this scene helps Rose realize she doesn’t want a life where she’s not in control. It’s subtle but it’s there. Take away this scene and it weakens the rest of the overall story.

Every scene must support the overall story in a non-repetitive way. If a scene simply repeats something another scene told us, one of those scenes is unnecessary. If a scene doesn’t support the overall story, then that scene is useless.

So make sure your scenes contain these three crucial elements:

  • A goal (where the scene is heading)
  • Conflict (what’s keeping the hero from achieving the goal too soon)
  • Life change (how does this scene change the hero’s perspective about life)

Most importantly, a scene must evoke emotions to make us care about the characters. If we don’t care about a character, we won’t care about the story so every scene must evoke the strongest possible emotions to hold an audience’s attention.

Scenes are short stories. Make sure your scenes tell an engaging story because when every scene does that, your entire screenplay will also tell an engaging story from start to finish.

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