Hey guys. Today is going to be a short post as I’m super busy. But basically I wanted to talk about scenes. So much of what we discuss revolves around concept, structure, and character. But the reality is, we have to write 60 scenes in a screenplay. And if you don’t know what to do inside of a scene, it doesn’t matter how good your concept is, or your structure is, or how your characters are.
Now I will put a disclaimer on here that there’s no such thing as a rule that applies to everything. Obviously, there will be exceptions. But this rule should be utilized a ton. You see, as I’ve opened up a couple of early entries for the Scriptshadow 250, I’m seeing a scary trend. The scenes are boring. They sit there. There’s not a lot going on. It’s the dreaded case of “nothing happens.”
Luckily, today, I’m going to teach you a trick where you can make sure this doesn’t happen to you. All it entails is that in each scene, you add a problem. That problem will lead to conflict, which will result in drama. And as you all know, drama is entertainment.
To see this in action, go back and study your favorite films. I guarantee you that in 95% of the scenes, there will be a problem.
The best script to see this in action with is the greatest spec ever written, American Beauty. Nearly every scene in that script introduces a problem. Lester is on a sales call at work but the person doesn’t want to buy anything. PROBLEM. Lester is called in to see his boss, who tells Lester that he’s firing him. PROBLEM. The family tries to have dinner together until the daughter complains about the music they have to listen to all the time, which leads to an argument. PROBLEM. Even tiny scenes, like Lester going to the car in the morning introduce a problem (Lester dropping his briefcase, spilling the contents everywhere, making everyone late).
In a more recent film, American Sniper, the opening scene has Chris Kyle trying to decide whether to shoot a child. PROBLEM. When he gets home, his wife is in bed with another man. PROBLEM.
If you go back further in film lore to Star Wars, the opening scene has the Empire capturing and boarding the Rebel ship. PROBLEM. When R2-D2 and C3PO land on Tantooine, they have no idea where to go. PROBLEM.
One thing to remember is that the problem doesn’t always have to happen to the hero. The problem can happen to anyone in the scene. So, again, in Star Wars, when we finally meet our hero, Luke, he’s buying droids from the Jawas. But the problem occurs from the side of C3PO. He’s been purchased but it looks like he’s going to be separated from his friend, R2-D2. PROBLEM.
Once a problem is introduced into a scene, so is uncertainty. And uncertainty creates curiosity in the reader/audience. People have a natural inclination to keep reading to see how the problem gets resolved.
Let’s say I have a scene between Joseph and Cara, who are on a first date. Let’s say it happens at a diner. In it, the two talk about their likes and dislikes – a typical “get to know each other” scene. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this scene, especially if there’s some interesting revelations about the characters’ pasts, or if the dialogue is witty and clever.
But you can do all of that AND engage the reader by adding a problem. Maybe, for example, Cara’s crazy ex-boyfriend shows up unexpectedly. He asks her where she’s been and why she hasn’t been answering his phone calls. He then turns to Joseph and demands to know who he is. PROBLEM.
Now there are situations where you want to hold back on the problems. For example, let’s say you’re going to kill a character off in scene 4 of your script. You might want to use the first three scenes to build up an idyllic life between that character and our hero. In this case, there’s a deliberate strategy to creating a problem-free sequence – so that the death impacts the audience that much more when it happens.
But I’d recommend adding problems into even those scenes. They won’t be as big as, say, the Empire boarding a Rebel ship. But even the smallest problem leads to conflict and conflict is always going to liven a scene up.
So the first thing I want you to do with your Scriptshadow 250 script is to go through each and every scene. Is there a problem in each of those scenes? I’ll repeat what I said before. There doesn’t HAVE to be a problem in every scene. But if a lot of your scenes are lacking a problem, I can almost guarantee that your script is boring.
Problem-free scenes tend to happen most when the writer is setting up his characters or writing a lot of exposition. They believe they have a right, since screenwriting is hard, to dribble out boring scenes during these moments. I’m here to tell you that that is a BAD IDEA. You don’t get to take scenes off, no matter how hard they are to write. Go into those character intro and exposition scenes and find a problem to add. I guarantee you the scenes will be better.
Also remember that each problem should vary in intensity. Don’t try to write some earth-shattering problem into each and every scene or you’ll exhaust the reader. A problem could be as simple as your character goes to get coffee and someone cuts in front of him. PROBLEM.
Or maybe the barista gives your character the wrong coffee and he has to go back in line. He, then, could be the person who has to cut others. But everyone tells him to get back in line. PROBLEM. Add a time constraint (he has to be in a big meeting in 5 minutes) and now you have yourself a scene. It really is that simple.
The reason this trick works is because characters become the most interesting when they’re forced to act. That’s when we learn the most about them. By introducing a problem, you force your character to act. And however they choose to react tells us loads about them, in addition to creating conflict in the scene, in addition to making the audience curious about what’s going to happen next . To that end, this might be considered a super-tool. Go ahead and use it in your scenes and report back in the comments on how it went. Good luck. And keep working on those Scriptshadow 250 scripts!