Write Great Scenes By Constantly Knocking Characters Off Balance

Far too many writers write boring scenes. The most common problem is they try to mimic reality, but reality is mostly boring. Nobody wants to see two characters talking about the price of gas if that has nothing to do with the story. Never mimic reality. Always strive to deliver an experience, not mimic real life.

A second way writers make boring scenes is by playing it safe where characters are never challenged. The key to a great scene is to go from one extreme to another. In the beginning of a scene, a character should feel one way and by the end of that scene, the character should feel the complete opposite.

Watch the following scene from “Moneyball” where the hero Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is trying to recruit a baseball pitcher named Scott Hatteberg. Although Billy Beane is the hero of the movie, this scene focuses on drastically changing Scott Hatteberg from the beginning to the end.

In the beginning of the scene, Scott Hatteberg is out of baseball because of a damaged elbow, which keeps him from throwing a ball effectively as a catcher. Scott studies pictures of his Little League past where he had a future. Meanwhile, his wife is in the kitchen, paying bills that they presumably can’t afford any more because Scott is no longer in the major leagues since no team wants a catcher who can’t throw the ball.

So the beginning of the scene shows Scott Hatteberg depressed and broke. That means the end of the scene must leave Scott Hatteberg happy with a job again, and that’s exactly what that scene delivers.

To get there, Scott’s life gets knocked out of whack when he receives a phone call from Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s. This immediately gives Scott hope. When Billy Beane asks Scott if they can talk, Scott immediately says yes because this represents a chance to make money and play in the major leagues again.

Then the scene knocks Scott’s life out of whack when Billy Beane says open the front door. Scott has no idea what that means until Billy Beane explains that they’re outside his house and want to talk in person. That’s a surprising moment.

Once Scott lets Billy Beane and his assistant inside, Billy Beane asks Scott about his elbow. Scott knows his elbow won’t let him throw a ball again but tries to hide it. Then Billy Beane knocks Scott’s life out of whack again by confronting Scott by telling him that he can’t throw and his days as a catcher are over. Scott has no choice but to silently admit it.

Then Billy Beane knocks Scott’s life out of whack again by saying he wants him to play first base. Scott is shocked because he’s never played first base. To assure him, Billy Beane asks his assistant to tell Scott that playing first base isn’t hard. Instead, the assistant tells Scott that it’s incredibly hard. Billy Beane immediately says anything hard is worth doing.

Finally, he lays another bombshell on Scott. He hands him a contract. Scott has gone from thinking he’s washed up to having a contract to play baseball again. Along the way, his life has gotten knocked out of whack three times:

  • Scott isn’t expecting a call from any baseball team, so getting a call from Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s is surprising, and even more surprising when Billy Beane says he’s outside the front door already.
  • Scott thinks Billy Beane wants him as a catcher, but Billy Beane surprises him by saying they want him to play first base, a position he’s never played before.
  • Scott isn’t sure he can play first base, but he doesn’t want to let this opportunity go. Then Billy Beane surprises him a third time by offering him a contract.

Notice that Scott’s life goes from depressed and broke to happy with a contract. Along the way, his life keeps going from one surprise to another. Those constant surprises make the scene interesting because they surprise us as well.

This is how a novice would write the same scene:

  • Scott Hatteberg is depressed, out of work, and broke
  • Billy Beane calls and offers him a contract
  • Scott accepts

See the difference? Even though Scott Hatteberg goes from one extreme to the other, the path from the beginning to the end is far less interesting. Remember, execution of an idea is far more important than an idea by itself. If you have a great idea but execute it poorly, it won’t work. So make sure you wring the most emotional mileage out of every scene as possible and your scenes and screenplay will be much better for the effort.

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