I’ve written a lot about character development and story structure shenanigans. However it crossed my mind that I haven’t focused on the building blocks of a script: scenes. If you can’t write scenes, you can’t write a script. Period. Sometimes mapping out the big picture is actually easier than writing scenes. So let’s talk about the characteristics of a good scene. (Scene-eristics? Maybe?)
1. It should take us somewhere we haven’t been before.
Is this scene showing us something we haven’t seen before? Is it revealing new information? When evaluating scenes as individual units it’s important to ask if the scene serves the story. Maybe it’s revealing new information about a character. Maybe it’s giving us more insight into the challenges facing our characters. But try to shy away from “oh I think this would be funny” or “oh I think this would be cool looking” if that scene isn’t actually advancing the story.
2. It should give us some indication of other scenes to come.
An expertly crafted scene makes us excited to watch another scene. You could write the most interesting conversation between the most interesting characters but if there isn’t at least a hint at other plot points to come it’s easy for audiences to feel like “Where are we going with this?”
If two people meet and set up a first date, now we’re waiting to see that date.
If our villain lets a monster loose, now we’re waiting to see if that monster attacks anyone.
You need to build tension, which means that most of your scenes should leave your audience waiting to see how the scenario will play out.
3. It should fit the tone of the overall film.
There’s a little bit more flexibility here, but in general comedy films should have funny scenes. Action movies should have scenes with action. While it probably will do more harm than good to try to make EVERY scene overly scary/funny/adventurous, at the very least you need to avoid violating your chosen tone.
Not every scene in a horror movie should be scary, but you definitely need to keep funny scenes to a minimum. You don’t necessarily need to be consistent 100% of the time, but you at least can’t go so far in the opposite direction that you confuse your audience about the tone.
4. It should entertain.
At the end of the day, we watch movies to be entertained. Therefore, scenes should entertain. I’ve seen some movies that take the notion of setting up other scenes too far. You spend 90+ minutes just WAITING for stuff to happen. Making your audience excited for other scenes is important, but there’s also something to be said for making your audience love the moment that’s unfolding right now. The journey needs to be just as exciting as the destination.
So try to ask yourself, “what, if any entertainment value does this scene have all on its own?” if it is a relatively boring scene that’s necessary to set up something else, try to find a way to have your cake and eat it too. Challenge yourself to find entertaining ways to set up all the plot points you need to advance your story.
I know it sounds hard, but the ability to write good scenes and the ability to write good outlines is what separates writers from people who have really good outlines. I know some of this advice seems contradictory, but in a lot of ways screenwriting is a precarious balancing act. You’re constantly trying to solve story problems without creating new problems for yourself. But if you think you’re up to the task, go ahead and write. It’s the only way to get better.