Study every scene you read and every scene you write. Notice that memorable scene form your favorite movies stick with you because they’re interesting and evoke a strong emotion in you whether it’s fear, laughter, love, or something else. Scenes don’t exist solely to move a story along. Scenes exist to play with the audience’s emotions because the stronger the emotions, the greater the impact.
The best way to give a scene a strong emotion is to set it up right from the start. As soon as a scene starts, create a mystery that hints at how the scene will end. When we know where a scene is heading, then we’ll want to know what happens. Then surprise us.
In “Inglorious Basterds,” the opening scene involves the villain, known as the Jew Hunter, who is a ruthless Nazi commander who relishes finding and killing Jews. The scene starts with a mystery on what the Jew Hunter wants but as he continues talking, we gradually learn that he wants to find and kill any Jews who might be hiding in a French farmer’s home.
On the other hand, the French farmer wants to continue hiding the existence of the Jews in his house. So the expectation is that the Jew Hunter either will or will not find the Jews. By the end of the scene, the Jew Hunter has won and the French farmer has lost because he has willingly given away the location of the Jews to the Jew Hunter.
Once we know who wins and who loses in a scene, the ending must surprise us. We might expect the Jew Hunter to bring his soldiers in, pry apart the floorboards, and haul the hiding Jews out of their hiding place. But that wouldn’t be as surprising as what actually happens, which is that the German soldiers bring machine guns and shoot through the floorboards to massacre an entire family hiding underneath.
So the first surprise is that the Jew Hunter machine guns the Jewish family to death. The second surprise is that one girl actually survives and flees as the Jew Hunter watches her go. This surprise at the end is what helps cement the strong emotion of the scene.
So the key to writing an effective scene is to give us a gradual clue what’s at stake and who the opposing characters are. Then when we know what to expect, surprise us in the end.
Watch this short scene from “Legally Blonde” to see how these two principles work. First, the scene sets up that the hero, Elle, wants to pick out a dress for her date with her boyfriend because she thinks he’s going to propose. So the expectation is that Elle will get a dress.
The conflict occurs when a sales woman tries to take advantage of Elle and sell her a dress for full price. The expectation is that Elle will either buy the dress and get conned by the sales woman, or that Elle won’t buy the dress.
The surprise is that Elle knows exactly what the sales woman is trying to do and calls her out on her scam in trying to trick her. That creates a strong emotion in making Elle outwit the sales woman.
So when writing any scene, start out with defining what to expect in that scene. Then instead of giving us what we expect, surprise us. The more your scenes surprise (and delight or shock us), the more memorable your story will be.