Write More Compelling Scenes Using Chaos

Write great scenes and you’ll write a great screenplay. Write boring scenes and you’ll never write a great screenplay. What makes a scene boring is when it’s predictable, so to keep a scene from being too predictable, you must define two things:

  • What each main character in the scene expects will happen
  • How that expectation doesn’t go as planned

Watch this scene from “The Pursuit of Happyness” where Will Smith plays a desperate man trying to get a job with a brokerage firm in San Francisco. Will Smith’s expectation is that he’ll be able to walk into the interview, impress the brokerage firm people, and get a job. Of course if that happened, the scene would be boring. What happens instead is that nothing goes as expected for Will Smith:

  • He was just released from the police station for failing to pay parking tickets, so he doesn’t have time to put on a suit and tie.
  • He was painting his apartment before he was arrested, so he’s sloppily dressed with paint on his face and hands.
  • He had to run from the police station to the interview.

Notice that when Will Smith gets to the interview, the business people look at the way he’s poorly dressed. Then they ask about his education background and question his appearance. Only when Will Smith makes them laugh do they finally warm up to him.

The key to dissecting this scene is that it makes life as difficult as possible for Will Smith’s character (within reason). By first identifying what a character expects will happen (and what usually happens), you can make sure that this ordinary expectation definitely does NOT happen, which leads to a far more interesting scene.

In any scene, positive change must come from the hero’s actions or through the actions of someone the hero influenced. In “The Pursuit of Happyness” scene, Will Smith makes the businessmen like him by telling a joke and explaining how he was first in his Navy class of twenty people. In the following “Back to the Future” scene, Marty (the hero) is trying to get his parents to kiss so they’ll marry and he can be born.

When someone cuts into the dance and steals Lorraine (Marty’s mother) away from George (Marty’s dad), Marty can do nothing but look on helplessly until his dad gains the courage to take back Lorraine and finally kiss her.

Notice that the expectation of the hero in this scene is that he’ll play the guitar so his mother and father can dance and finally kiss. Instead what happens is that someone cuts in and steals Lorraine away, putting Marty’s life in jeopardy if his dad never kisses his mom.

When writing scenes, always identify what the main characters expect will happen in a scene, and then make sure life gets harder for them instead. The more trouble you can create in a scene for your hero, the more engaging a scene (and your overall story) will be.

So don’t go easy on your hero. Make your hero’s life difficult as possible because that will make your scenes far more interesting and engaging, and that will help make your entire screenplay more interesting and engaging as well.

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