The Purpose of a Scene

Scenes act like building blocks that move your story forward. However, a scene is more than just dialogue. A scene should also incorporate some visual action to make the scene more cinematic. if a scene can take place anywhere, then your scene probably needs to be rewritten so that it can only take place in a specific location.

For example, if a scene takes place in a restaurant, ask yourself what type of restaurant is it because a high-end steak house would contain different types of people from a fast food restaurant.

Imagine the robbery scene at the beginning and end of “Pulp Fiction” where the couple robs a coffee shop. If this couple were in a high-end steak house or a Japanese sushi restaurant, the feeling of the scene would be far different. A coffee shop makes that scene appear normal. A steak house or sushi restaurant would not.

Scenes should serve one or more of the following:

  • Action
  • Discovery
  • Interpersonal
  • Emotional
  • Challenge
  • Preparation

An action scene is mostly about fighting or struggling to achieve a goal. The championship boxing scene at the end of “Rocky” is an example of an action scene along with the final battle scene in “Saving Private Ryan.” Action scenes show characters striving to achieve a physical goal.

Discovery scenes occur when a character learns something new. In “Die Hard,” there’s a scene where John McClane discovers how the roof has been rigged to blow up. Discovery scenes help reveal hidden motives of the other characters such as the villain.

Interpersonal scenes occur when two characters change their relationship with each other somehow. The first time couples meet in a romantic comedy is an example of an interpersonal scene and the final scene when couples finally get together is another example of an interpersonal scene.

Emotional drastically alter a character’s feelings. In a romantic comedy, two major and necessary emotional scenes occur when all appears lost and when the hero finally finds true love. Emotional scenes exist solely to show a character’s extreme feelings with highs and lows.

Challenge scenes present a puzzle to a character, forcing that character not just to take action (such as fighting) but to think. Mystery stories such as “Knives Out” contain plenty of challenge scenes where the detective is trying to figure out what happened.

Preparation scenes occur when a characters is readying for a future event. This often occurs in montages that show a long passage of time in a few snippets, such as the montage of Rocky training or an athlete stretching before competing in a major sporting event. Preparation scenes draw out the drama and tension.

Of course, most scenes incorporate two or more of the above but scenes must incorporate at least one of these ideas to move the story forward. By knowing all these different purposes of a scene, you can keep your screenplay story moving forward at all times.

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