The Number One Reason Why Most People Write Scenes That Don’t Work

This is the way far too many people write a screenplay. They come up with a rough idea and before they know what the complete story might be, they start writing it as a screenplay. Since they don’t know where the story is going or what crucial information needs to be revealed, they write flabby, directionless, pointless scenes.

However, the real reason most people write scenes that don’t work is because they don’t understand the purpose of story telling through screenwriting, which is this:

Every screenplay (movie) takes the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride.

That means every scene (yes, every scene) must give the audience a strong, enjoyable emotional experience. Fail to do that and your scene will fail no matter how much action, clever dialogue, or special effects you might include.

Every scene must create a strong emotional experience.

What most people do is write scenes that dump information on the audience or show characters interacting with each other where nothing much happens. If you want to see a curiously emotion-free movie, watch “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” Despite lots of popular actors and constant action involving gunfire and explosions, this movie does not make you care about any of the characters on an emotional level. We never know who these characters are beyond their flat, one-dimensional appearance.

Because of that, all the action in the world won’t matter because we don’t care about any of these characters. These characters simply walk into danger with little physical risk to themselves and zero emotional engagement. Strangely, this movie got positive critical reviews but bombed at the box office because audiences likely found the movie unemotional, like watching a sport you know nothing about in a language you don’t understand.

So if you want to write a great screenplay, you have to know how to write a great scene and that means creating a strong emotional response in the audience. To do that, you need to evoke a strong emotional response in the characters to make us feel like they could lose. Watch this scene from “Ford vs. Ferrari” to see the multitude of emotions the scene evokes:

First, the scene starts out with one character, Henry Ford II, angry at another character called Shelby (played by Matt Damon). Even if you don’t know the whole story, the idea that one character is mad at another immediately starts the emotional rollercoaster going. Now we want to know how Shelby will respond to the anger from Henry Ford II.

Shelby starts by being reasonable, then starts being comical when he talks about how many things fell apart on their car. This attempt at humor actually intensifies the emotion because Henry Ford II is already mad. Making fun of his car doesn’t seem like it will make Henry Ford II any happier.

Then Shelby goes straight to the core of his argument. He tells Henry Ford II that despite everything that went wrong with Ford’s car, it went the fastest in the last race than any other car has ever gone. That means everyone, especially their rival, Ferrari, knows that Ford can build a car that’s faster than anything anyone else has ever built.

Shelby goes further by explaining that the only way Henry Ford II can defeat Ferrari is by keeping him (Shelby) on the project. Shelby then ends the conversation smugly by telling Henry Ford II that he should be thankful for what happened, not angry.

Just in this simple scene, look at the emotional experience audiences feel. They get to feel the anger from Henry Ford II. Then they get the comical response from Shelby. Finally, they get to Shelby’s true argument that the Ford car is the fastest thing anyone has ever seen. Then the scene ends with Shelby’s smug reply that completely deflates Henry Ford II’s anger.

In that one scene, we’ve gone from anger, to joking, to seriousness, to smugness. While going on this emotional ride, audiences also get the pleasant surprise of seeing Shelby turn the situation around against Henry Ford II. In the beginning of the scene, Shelby looked like he’s going to get fired. By the end of the scene, Shelby has convinced henry Ford II (and the audience) that he’s the only chance Henry Ford II has to defeat Ferrari.

This complete reversal of Shelby’s status in the scene, from on the verge of getting fired to winning the approval of Henry Ford II creates a powerful and memorable emotional experience.

Watch this scene from “Erin Brockovich” where the lawyers of Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) try to settle with her using the argument that Erin Brockovich’s clients aren’t that rich so a little money should make them happy despite their numerous health problems they’re suffering from due to the continuation of the water supply from PG&E.

In this scene, Erin Brockovich is outraged at PG&E’s lawyers and hammers home the point that her clients are suffering and that money is the last thing they’re really thinking about when they’d really want their health back. Then she concludes by showing the lawyers their own hypocrisy when they refuse to drink water Erin Brockovich claims is the contaminated water that her clients drank and caused their numerous health problems.

The scene begins with tension followed by the smugness of PG&E’s lawyers. Then Erin Brockovich’s blistering response and final statement about their water to make PG&E’s lawyers look stupid. Erin Brockovich’s emotional outburst is interesting to watch, but it takes us on an emotional ride as we enjoy her destroying PG&E’s lawyers step by step.

So the lesson for today is that the stronger the emotional experience in the characters in every scene you write, the stronger the emotional experience of the audience, and that’s what counts the most. Create an action-packed but emotion-free experience like “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” and you’ll get a visually interesting but emotionally empty experience.

Focus on creating the most intense emotional experience possible in every scene and you’ll create a great emotional screenplay.

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