I’ve written a lot about story building and screenwriting on the blog, but today I want to focus on arguably the most important building block of any movie: the scene.
Often times when we remember our favorite films, there is one specific scene that sticks with us. We may love the entire movie, but there’s always that one scene that connected with us on a visceral level. Every time we re-watch that movie, it’s that emotion of that scene that we’re really chasing.
That’s the power that individual scenes have – and it’s almost unparalleled.
A movie can have issues with plot or dialogue and can still succeed on other levels. But a movie with lackluster scenes will never work – no matter how great the premise may be or how strong the other elements are.
So with that in mind, let’s look at what I believe to be the 5 most critical factors to consider when building any scene. These are especially relevant for directors, but also for writers, editors, and anyone else involved in the creative storytelling process.
1. DRIVE CONFLICT
This is scene-writing 101, and you’ve likely heard this advice countless times for good reason – Every scene (with very few exceptions) should be primarily driven by conflict. That’s what will make it interesting to watch.
Great cinematography or interesting camera movements may add flare to a scene, but audiences will check out very quickly if there isn’t some degree of conflict apparent throughout.
The conflict doesn’t necessarily need be obvious or heavy handed though. It could be – for instance a fight scene would definitely check the “conflict” box – but it can be much more subtle than that too.
Even a 10 second scene that simply shows a character walking from her car to the front door of a house can be made more interesting with conflict. What if it’s pouring rain outside and she gets drenched on the way in? Or maybe the neighbor is blasting loud music, irritating her before she even enters… There are a million ways to do it.
The specific way that you introduce conflict into a scene will obviously be dependent on your story as a whole. But no matter how subtle, there should always be some degree of conflict interwoven into the DNA of every scene. Not only to entertain the audience, but also to inform them. We learn about our characters by seeing how they react to conflict – big or small – so you should always take the opportunity to show the audience who your characters really are.
In an ideal world, conflict is built into scenes during the writing phase. But it can be also discovered on set through careful direction with the actors, or even achieved in post-production with the right mix of editing and sound design.
2. INTRODUCE NEW INFORMATION
It goes without saying that most scenes work best when they push the story forward in some way. But just as importantly, they need to reveal new information to the audience that is key to the narrative or thematic journey.
In some cases, simply revealing the next plot point may be enough to carry a scene. But really great scenes – in my opinion at least – work on multiple levels and teach us something we didn’t know before… Maybe it’s a new detail about our main character, or a little hint of a backstory that will come into play later.
By constantly revealing new information to the audience, drip by drip, each detail more interesting by the last, your audience will have no choice but to stay engaged. On the flip-side though, scenes that fail to reveal new information or raise interesting questions will lose audiences faster than just about anything.
And it’s not just about strengthening the individual scenes, it’s about how those new details play into the bigger picture too.
With all films (especially features) so much information needs to be conveyed to the viewer in a relatively short amount of time. If you don’t look for opportunities to inject new and relevant information into every scene, you may end up piling on too much exposition in certain scenes, or leaving out details in others that would have made your movie feel more complete.
3. FIND THE BEATS
What a scene is to a sequence, a beat is to a scene. Every great scene is made up of multiple beats, even if the scene is just a few seconds long… So if you don’t spend time while writing, shooting, or editing to make each beat really stand out, you’re missing a lot of opportunities to strengthen the final product and shape the narrative.
The best movies flow with a certain musical rhythm – even if there is no music. One moment bleeds into the next seamlessly, and the narrative continues to build, turn and evolve – however dramatically or subtly – and we can’t help but keep our eyes on it.
This type of narrative flow hinges on how well you execute your beats, which in many respects are the backbone of your story. There are no hard and fast rules about how many beats your scene should have, or how much needs to change from beat to beat. But without them, scenes will simply plateau, actors will become stagnant, and the audience will get bored.
A beat could be as small as a change in expression on the actors face or as large as a major plot point reveal. It’s not the size or intensity of the beat that really matters, it’s the consistency and rhythm that counts.
Great actors are able to read a scene and immediately identify its beats. They’ll use them as anchor points for their performance, just as a composer will use them as inspiration for the music cues. Without them, everyone gets a little lost.
An easy way to create beats is to break your scenes up into three acts. Now your scene needs an identifiable beginning, middle and end, so you have no choice to create three distinct beats. Naturally, some scenes may need far more beats (particularly long, dialogue scenes), but at a minimum 3 beats is a good starting point for most.
4. INCORPORATE THEME
Theme is a fundamental pillar of any great story, which is why I believe it should be embedded in some way into every scene. It doesn’t need to be obviously apparent in each scene (in fact it’s almost always better if not), but it should be felt at all times, however nuanced.
A well executed theme can move an audience like nothing else, but can also come across as preachy or contrived when done poorly. The difference lies entirely at the scene level.
Great films find unique ways to hint at their themes in each and every scene. Just like great exposition, the theme is slowly dosed out to the audience in many ways – through dialogue, set design, performance, sound, and so on.
A film dealing with themes surrounding mortality might use production design to show a funeral playing on TV in the background of a scene. It might be barely noticeable, but just its subtle presence is enough to work on a subconscious level.
When the theme is eventually explored more obviously and on a deeper level (likely during a crisis or resolution sequence), it will feel right. The audience has been carefully led up to that point, and they’re already primed to buy into the theme before it even presents itself.
On the contrary, films don’t usually work when their themes are only ever explored in big, obvious moments. Because the filmmakers haven’t worked the audience up to them, those moments fall flat and don’t feel earned. For this reason, I don’t consider any of my scenes complete until I’ve found some small way to incorporate theme into them. The audience may never notice consciously, but I know they will feel it on some level.
If you apply the previous 4 principles to your scenes, they’re more likely to achieve the number one rule of filmmaking: Entertain the audience.
But even if you follow the “rules”, you may still run into trouble. Don’t ever assume that any given scene will be entertaining just because you checked the right boxes. You may have a conflict-driven scene that teaches the audience something new, has multiple beats and weaves in a great theme, but it still just might not work.
This could be for any number of reasons – Maybe the jokes don’t land or the stakes aren’t high enough. Perhaps the acting doesn’t quite cut it or the scene just runs too long.
Whatever the issue may be, if it’s not addressed you will lose the audience. As I stated above, a great film with incredibly entertaining scenes will almost always stand out from the crowd – even if it’s flawed in other ways. But a scene that checks all the right boxes but isn’t entertaining will never fly.
There’s no magic bullet solution for creating an entertaining scene. The principles on this list will certainly help, but it’s up to you to challenge yourself at every stage to make every moment of your film as captivating as possible. Look for ways to inject more excitement, intensity, humor, suspense, or other emotionally charged elements into every moment.
If you can do all that, you’ve got a movie on your hands.
I spoke about this topic at length on a recent Show, Don’t Tell podcast episode. If you’re interested in listening, click the link below:
How do you approach writing your scenes? Leave a comment below and let me know your process!