Every scene follows a basic four-part structure:
- The initial problem – grabs our attention and gives characters a goal to pursue
- The reaction – shows characters taking active steps to deal with the initial problem
- The conflict – shows how one character runs into obstacles that creates conflict with another character
- The irreversible result – shows whether problem gets solved or not, changing the characters’ lives
The Initial Problem
The initial scene problem must immediately grab our attention so we’ll follow the rest of the scene. In the opening “Star Wars” scene, we see one starship shooting lasers at another starship. Although we don’t know what’s going on or who’s involved, the problem immediately grabs our attention.
In “Harold and Maude” there’s a scene where Harold has just hung himself. That problem grabs our attention and makes us wonder what will happen next.
In “2001: A Space Odyssey” there’s a scene where the apes suddenly see a monolith. That creates a problem because they don’t know what it is or whether it’s safe or not. When we see that monolith, we also don’t know what it is or what it might do.
The opening of any scene typically creates questions and expectations in our mind. In the “Star Wars” opening scene, we don’t know why one starship would fire on another one. In the suicide scene of “Harold and Maude,” we don’t now who hung himself, why he did it, or what will happen next. In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” we don’t know what the monolith is or why it suddenly appeared.
Every scene needs a problem. A scene without a problem is boring. The reason why problems are crucial is because they throw the character’s world out of whack so the story holds our attention as we watch the characters try to put their world back together again. Problems are interesting and the key to creating suspense as we watch to see how that character will solve the problem.
Watch a woman walking down the street and that’s boring. Watch that same woman walking down the street while a man stalks her from behind and suddenly she has a problem. The mere act of walking down the street suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.
Notice the the opening of any scene must be visual to grab our attention whether it’s a starship battle (“Star Wars”), a man hanging himself (“Harold and Maude”), or a strange object (“2001: A Space Odyssey”). Then the scene opener must generate questions that the scene will gradually answer.
Every initial problem immediately creates a reaction from a character. When Darth Vader’s starship disables Princess Leia’s starship in “Star Wars,” the soldiers inside Princess Leia’s starship get into positions to defend the starship against Darth Vader’s stormtroopers.
When Harold hangs himself in “Harold and Maude,” his mother walks into the room, stares at his dangling body, and then makes a phone call.
When the apes first see the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” they try touching it and observing it to see what it might do.
After a scene introduces an initial problem, a character always reacts. This further holds our attention because now we want to know if this reaction will solve the initial problem and further explain what’s going on in the first place.
How a character reacts is one way to reveal that character’s personality. When Harold’s mother finds Harold hanging by his neck from a rope in “Harold and Maude,” the first thing she does is make a phone call to chat with a friend about a social engagement. That immediately tells us how uncaring she is towards Harold and how self-centered she really is.
In “Star Wars,” Hans Solo is trying to leave the bar when a bounty hunter points a gun at him and makes him sit down. Rather than fight, Hans Solo reacts by calming sitting down and talking to the bounty hunter while secretly reaching for his own gun. That reveals Hans Solo’s personality as someone who’s smart and unafraid to fight.
In “The Sting,” the hero (Johnny Hooker) has just finished making a phone call when a cop, who has been chasing him for giving him counterfeit money, smashes the glass of the phone booth and rams a gun against the hero’s head. The hero reacts by jamming the phone booth door open so it holds the cop’s hand temporarily immobilized so he can escape. This demonstrates the hero’s resourcefulness and spontaneity under pressure.
The way characters react is a way to reveal their personality and any changes in their personality. For example, in “Terminator 2,” there’s a scene where John Connor yells for help so some nearby guys come over. That’s when the hero (the good Terminator) almost kills them until John Connor makes him stop.
Later in another scene when John Connor and the good Terminator head towards the asylum to free Sarah Connor, a guard tries to stop them at the gate but the good Terminator shoots him in the leg instead. That shows how the hero (the good Terminator) has changed.
When the good Terminator and his friends are trapped in the Cyberdyne facility that will make SkyNet, the good Terminator sees all the police surrounding the building so he reacts by firing a mini-gun that destroys most of the police cars without killing a single person. How the good Terminator reacts to different problems shows how he’s changed over time.
When a character reacts, it’s always a way to reveal more of that character’s personality, so this part of a scene is vital in making characters more detailed and real.
The heart of every scene is conflict and conflict can only exist when two characters are fighting to achieve opposing goals. While the initial problem of a scene may have grabbed our attention, conflict keeps our attention riveted until we find out what happens and who wins.
In “Star Wars,” Luke and Obi-wan need a pilot to take them off the planet. If Luke and Obi-wan could simply buy a ticket and hop on a starship like someone buying an airline ticket, that would be boring. Problems make every scene interesting.
There are two ways to create problems. First, you can create simple obstacles. In “Star Wars,” Luke and Obi-wan need to find a pilot to take them off the planet. That’s a simple problem, but that problem gets harder when Luke learns the only pilots around are sleazy, dangerous, scumbags who hang around a seedy bar. Now the problem isn’t easy to solve so our attention in the scene suddenly increases.
A second way to create problems is through conflict. To find a pilot, Luke and Obi-wan must get past stormtroopers patrolling the spaceport. Obi-wan uses the Force to trick a stormtrooper into letting them through, but other stormtroopers are looking for them as well, which makes the scene more interesting.
What makes that scene even more interesting is when we add conflict. Conflict occurs when someone or something directly opposes a character. In “Star Wars,” trying to find a pilot in a seedy, dangerous bar is bad enough, but suddenly there are two strangers who don’t like Luke and try to attack him. Obi-wan has to save Luke by slicing the strangers in half with his light saber. People to people conflict is always interesting because we want to know who will win in the end and how they’ll succeed.
Conflict is what makes every story (and scene) compelling. More conflict occurs in that bar scene in “Star Wars” when the stormtroopers show up and Luke and Obi-wan have to escape. Then additional conflict occurs when a bounty hunter tries to capture Hans Solo, only to have Hans blast him and walk away. Problems and conflict go hand in hand towards making every scene worth watching.
Conflict can be physical, psychological, or emotional. Physical conflict is the easiest to see. Just watch any action thriller where the hero (such as James Bond) fights a bad guy.
Although physical conflict is the easiest to understand, your scene must still make that conflict understandable by making it clear who we should be sympathetic towards. In the opening scene of “Rocky,” all we see are two boxers hitting each other where one of them (Rocky) seems to be losing. At this point, we don’t know who these boxers are or why we should care about either one.
Suddenly, the other boxer cheats by head butting Rocky. This enrages Rocky and also violates our sense of fair play, so now we suddenly want Rocky to win. Rocky then fights back and ultimately wins the boxing match.
Psychological conflict is less action-oriented and more dialogue dependent. In “Silence of the Lambs,” Clarice (the hero) is an FBI trainee who goes to interview Hannibal Lecter in an asylum. When she confronts him, Hannibal studies her and asks probing questions which she tries to deflect.
Watching this psychological conflict can be immensely more enjoyable than meaningless action of gunfire and explosions.
Emotional conflict typically occurs internally within the hero. In “The Proposal,” the hero has deceived everyone into thinking she’s going to marry an American so she won’t get deported from her job. However when she’s finally able to achieve her goal of getting married, she breaks down and admits that her wedding is really just a plot to avoid deportation.
Emotional conflict can be the most satisfying conflict of all because it finally shows how the hero has changed, hopefully for the better.
The Irreversible Result
At the end of every scene, something must irreversibly change in a character’s life. In “WALL-E,” there’s a scene where WALL-E sees a rocket taking Eve away, so WALL-E rushes to the rocket and stows away on it. Now he’s yanked off Earth.
A less dramatic example from “WALL-E” occurs when WALL-E is sent to a repair shop where he thinks Eve is being taken apart and tortured by a maintenance robot. Panicking, WALL-E breaks free from his holding pen and releases an army of rogue robots in the process. This has created a mess for WALL-E and changed his life because he can’t go back and put the rogue robots back in their holding pens again.
In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the hero comes home to find his young son chatting with a girl in his room. That motivates the hero to call a woman for a date, which changes his life because now he’ll continue dating this woman who represents an obstacle to his true love who he hasn’t even met yet.
The irreversible result that defines the end of one scene creates the initial problem of a following scene. By linking scenes tightly together, your story moves effortlessly from one scene to the next.
If your scenes were completely unrelated, your story would start and stop like a defective car trying to drive in a jerking motion. Each scene would feel completely unrelated to the previous one so the audience’s attention would waver.
In Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio,” Pinocchio is heading towards school when he meets a fox and a cat who convince him to become an actor instead. The end of this scene creates an irreversible result as Pinocchio skips school to follow the fox and the cat.
The next scene picks up immediately from here where the new initial problem is whether Pinocchio will succeed as an actor or not. That scene ends when Pinocchio succeeds and the crowd loves him.
Just as we think Pinocchio is a success, the following scene’s initial problem is that Pinocchio suddenly finds himself a prisoner of the puppeteer. Notice how the end of one scene directly creates the initial problem of the following scene.
The ending of each scene is either positive or negative. Generally you don’t want too many positive or negative scene endings in a row. Instead you want to alternate them so your story has variety. The contrast between a positive ending and a negative ending makes a story more emotionally satisfying because of the constant changes, much like the constant changes of a roller coaster.
A roller coaster that’s flat and predictable is boring. A roller coaster with plenty of surprising twists, turns, and dips is far more exciting, and that’s why your scene endings need to vary from positive to negative.
Once you understand that every scene follows a four-part structure, you can write more emotionally intriguing and compelling scenes, even with seemingly trivial scenes.
In the opening scene in “Pulp Fiction,” a couple talks about the best places to rob while sitting in a coffee shop. Their initial problem is finding a place to rob. Their reaction is to look at the coffee shop they’re in and conclude that a coffee shop might actually be the best place to rob.
A minor emotional conflict occurs when they discuss the pros and cons of robbing a coffee shop compared to other places like a bank. That’s when they conclude that lots of young people with wallets go to coffee shops. The final, irreversible result is that the couple stands up and declares that they’re robbing the place.
For every scene you write, use this four-part structure to help create a compelling mini-story:
- What’s the initial problem clearly stated?
- What’s the characters response to resolving this problem?
- What conflict do the characters face in resolving this problem?
- What irreversible result occurs after they successfully (or not) solve the problem?
If all of your scenes are interesting, then they’ll combine to make your entire screenplay interesting, scene by scene. That doesn’t guarantee that some scenes may not fit, but it does guarantee that every scene you do write will hold the audience’s attention and move your story forward, which are the qualities that make a great screenplay so studios will want to buy it and turn it into a great movie.