The Most Common Mistake in Writing Scenes

Compare a screenplay that was produced to the numerous screenplays people are writing that have yet to be produced. Despite so many people writing screenplays, most will never be produced for a variety of reasons, but the number one reason is that they’re simply not compelling enough.

Forget about the actual story. Look at how someone writes a screenplay and you can immediately tell if they’re going to take you on a journey or simply parade a bunch of scenes together that lack drama, tension, and intrigue.

The number one problem with writing scenes is that by themselves, most scenes are boring. Watching a scene of someone waking up in the morning and going through a morning routine of breakfast and getting dressed is simply boring. In every scene, there must be something interesting going on to grab and hold our attention. You can never rely on another scene to make a previous scene interesting.

One common problem people make all the time is writing scenes simply to show a character going from one place to another, such as leaving an airport in one city and then arriving at a different airport in another city. To make things worse, there might even be a short scene of the character boarding the plane and sitting down.

All of this can be interesting if that scene by itself is interesting. In “Die Hard,” the opening scene is about a man arriving in Los Angeles from New York. Notice that this does not show the hero boarding a plane in New York or flying across the country. Instead, the scene begins as late as possible with the man landing in Los Angeles.

Then to spice up the scene, the is terrified of flying. Every scene must show us something out of the ordinary. Otherwise, what’s the point of showing us the ordinary?

In “Die Hard,” there are three surprises in that opening scene. First, the hero is terrified of flying while a fellow passenger tries to calm him down. Second, the passenger sees that the hero has a gun on him but learns that he’s a cop. Third, as the hero leaves the plane, a flight attendant flirts with him.

Just in that one scene, there’s action. The contrast of the hero being terrified of flying, yet being a veteran cop is amusing. The initial shock of seeing him carrying a gun, but later learning he’s a cop sets up the rest of the story. The scene where the flight attendant flirts with him subtly hints of the conflict that the hero is trying to get back with his wife and this flight attendant threatens to keep him from this goal.

Notice that this opening scene in “Die Hard” is not boring. Even if you miss the set up of the gun and the fact that he’s a cop, the hero is doing things and people are reacting to him in ways to keep the hero from achieving his goal. Even though we don’t know that goal yet, there’s already conflict getting in his way.

Compare this with a scene that simply shows someone boarding a plane and then landing. Boring and pointless. Yet that’s the way 99% of people write their screenplays.

If you can simply avoid writing boring scenes, you’ll elevate your screenplay above others. Then if every scene in your screenplay grabs people’s attention and sets up a future scene, you’ll really be ahead of most people. Then it’s just a matter of fine-tuning your screenplay until there’s not a single word that doesn’t belong.

It’s not easy, but that’s why so few screenplays get produced. Even veteran screenwriters make horribly obvious mistakes all the time so stay alert to times when your scene exists solely to impart information with no tension or intrigue whatsoever.

Every scene is a mini-story. If a single scene can’t grab someone’s attention by itself, chances are good the rest of your screenplay won’t do it either.

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