Using “Why” to Define and Shape a Scene

What makes a boring scene is when that scene exists solely to advance the plot by providing information to the audience. Thats a guaranteed recipe for a flat, dull, boring scene. If you want to create an interesting scene, you need to ask yourself three “Why” questions.

First, “Why today?” Why is a particular scene happening now? If you can’t answer that, then you likely haven’t thought through the purpose of the scene and its impact on the characters involved.

By answering “Why today,” you can dig deeper into the goal of the characters and their purpose. For example, in the opening scene in “Die Hard,” John McClane is arriving by plane in Los Angeles. Although we don’t know what’s going on, the writer knows that this is important today because it’s the night John McClane will meet with his wife at a corporate Christmas party that’s about to be taken over by terrorists.

Knowing this ahead of time, the writer can foreshadow events and plant hints of the future such as when John McClane reveals that he’s a cop with a gun and his fellow passenger tells him to relieve jet lag by scrunching his bare toes in the carpet, which is why John McClane will wind up barefoot later.

If the writer couldn’t answer “Why today,” then all of this crucial setup information would be lost and the scene would appear flat, dull, and boring

A second question to ask is “Why this person?” In “The Little Mermaid,” Ariel is the hero because she’s the daughter of King Neptune and the villain wants to take control of the oceans from Neptune. Thus it’s important that the hero be the daughter of Neptune, who is Ariel.

By not knowing why the hero of a scene is important, it’s easy to write a scene that fails to connect the hero to other parts of the story such as the villain. Even though the opening scene in “The Little Mermaid” doesn’t show any hint of the villain (the Sea witch), it does show Ariel’s relationship with her father and hints of her ability to sing, both of which will play crucial roles later in the story.

A third question to ask is “Why this location?” A scene shouldn’t take place anywhere. If you could yank your characters and drop them in a Paris, a ghetto, a bowling alley, or a park and it wouldn’t make a difference, then your scene will likely miss crucial information.

Look at the scene in “Little Miss Sunshine” where the family visits a restaurant and Olive, the little girl, wants to eat ice cream but she’s afraid she’ll get fat and won’t be able to compete as a beauty pageant contestant. This scene has to take place in a restaurant because it deals with Olive’s insecurity about her weight and her love of ice cream. In addition, this restaurant is a dumpy place that highlights Olive’s family’s lack of money.

When writing or rewriting every scene in your screenplay, ask yourself these three “Why” questions:

  • Why today?
  • Why this person?
  • Why this location?

When you can confidently answer these questions with each scene in your screenplay, you’ll greatly increase your chances of writing more compelling and interesting scenes.

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