The Purpose of Every Scene (That Most Novices Completely Overlook)

There’s a huge difference between beginner screenplays and professional screenplays. Although they both may be formatted correctly, the beginner often tries dumping information to explain the story. Such information dumps bury even the best ideas from sight.

Instead of dumping information on the audience, scenes must be structured. Structured scenes not only tell a story, but also do the following:

  • Grab and hold attention
  • Manipulate emotions
  • Set up goals and expectations
  • Identifies which characters “win”
  • Ends with a cliffhanger to link to the next scene

If you can’t write a scene that grabs and holds attention, nothing else matters. The number one priority must always be grabbing and holding attention. The moment a scene fails to grab and hold attention, the entire story is lost.

What grabs and holds our attention can be something surprising, something unusual, or something we expect. A surprise might be a policeman driving a patrol car, running a red light, and suddenly being chased by another police car. That’s unexpected and unusual, which makes us immediately want to know what’s going on. We expect a cop to chase after someone who drives through a red light, but we don’t expect that to be another cop.

Grabbing and holding attention is always the first priority of a scene. The second priority of a scene is to intensive emotions. Audiences want to experience emotions so if a scene simply shows two people getting along over lunch, there’s little emotion to care about.

However, if two people are eating lunch and one secretly pulls out a gun and hides it in their lap, that immediately hits an emotion of fear. If the second person also pulls out a gun and hides it in their lap, we might still feel fear or humor because of the unlikely chance that two people would pull out a gun and hide it.

People don’t watch movies or read novels to be bored. People want to feel an emotional rush whether of adrenaline from an action story, fear from a horror story, or laughter from a comedic story. Whatever type of story you’re creating, that’s the emotion you must constantly give the audience in every scene. Any scene lacking emotion will be far less interesting than the exact same scene infused with a strong emotion.

Another common problem is that novices clutter their scenes with characters who exist solely to say something (usually exposition) that advances the plot. A far better solution is to make sure every character in a scene wants something, then strives to achieve that goal.

Ideally, the goals of one character conflicts with the goals of another, creating drama as we wonder who will win and how will it all turn out. When characters have goals, there’s the fun of shattering expectations.

In “Legally Blonde,” the hero goes to dinner with her boyfriend, fully expecting him to propose to her. However, her boyfriend has a completely different goal, which is to dump her. Those two conflicting goals can’t help but create drama and any type of drama is far more interesting than an information dump that novices write.

Finally, every scene should end with a cliffhanger that makes us want to know what happens next. In “Pulp Fiction,” an early scene shows John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson riding in a car, chatting about fast food in Europe. If the scene just ended there, there would be no reason to care about the next scene, but the scene ends with the two men pulling out guns. That immediately grabs our attention and makes us want to know what happens in the next scene.

So craft your scenes with care. They’re not just ways to rush the story along to the exciting parts. Every scene in your screenplay should be exciting in its own way. If it isn’t, then you’re scene isn’t working.

Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Likewise, a screenplay is only as strong as its weakest scene so make sure every scene is as strong as possible.

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