Many readers and screenwriters complain that scenes they read are flat and shallow. They are superficial despite the fact that they fuflil their primary purposes of either advancing plot or revealing character. But there is hope for your screenwriting.
Even in high octane action films, the audience needs occasional respite in a soft scene. However, these scenes usually reveal something about a character; a secret, a painful truth, a confession. You only have around two hours to tell your story, so make each scene count.
Here are some techniques used to to add depth and interest to your scenes and further engage your audience:
I have previously discussed the importance of an emotional core in your script. You can create interest by altering the mood. Think about a startling confession in a high tensile court room drama and the mood changes via a comedic moment such as a pizza being delivered. The ancient Greek dramaturgs were masters at elevating the effect of drama. Think about energy flow where the greater the difference between two energy sources (emotions), the greater the impact. A scene has less impact if it moves from funny to slightly funnier, as opposed to jolting from funny to tearjerker. It could be a slight emotional pinch or a mighty punch. Your audience expects the thrill of the peaks and troughs in an emotional rollercoaster ride and everything in between. Don’t disappoint them by giving them a boring cruise control on a flat highway.
OPPOSING RESPONSES TO AN ACTION
Consider a scene where a woman confronts her husband with the news she is pregnant. This happened in “The Simpsons” where Marge proclaimed there will be more love in the house, while Homer tore his hair out. Such differences create conflict and tension within a scene. In this case it created comedy, but usually it creates drama.
Think of those awkward moments when you simply have to tell someone something you would rather not. These include having and affair, stealing, killing or whatever the case may be. Such scenes make characters vulnerable and therefore relatable to the audience. Make the audience feel their pain. It could even be the proclamation of love. These also include denouements, such as when Felicity Huffman reveals to her son the she is in fact his father in”Trans America”. These high impact scenes change the character dynamics irreversibly. These scenes could also relate to wisdom gained or a mystery revealed.
These are especially poignant in fish out of water stories. Consider Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” whose addiction to pink is frowned upon at Harvard. Different viewpoints between characters create tension. Again we focus on diametrically opposed arguments and differences of opinion to create conflict. There wouldn’t be a good film if nobody at Harvard cared about Ms Woods’ dress sense.
ALL IS LOST
When the chips are down and all the choices are undesirable. Consider the impossible situation in “My Sister’s Keeper” where Cameron Diaz tries to force Abigail Breslin to continue her painful bone marrow transplant to save her sister. These scenes also include typical unsuspecting hero stories where they are led to the slaughter. Consider films like “300” “Braveheart” and “Mad Max” when things must hit rock bottom before they improve. These scenes include stories of self sacrifice when the hero must die to save his community. Also think about films such as “The Queen”, where a monarch is questioning the validity of an archaic institution in a modern world.
This is normally tackled in later drafts of your script. Consider your journey along the metaphorical story highway. You slow down, you speed up, you overtake, you hit a bottleneck. You get variety. You need variety to maintain interest or you fall asleep at the wheel. Think about rhythms and speed of execution of your scripts. Consider a tender love scene where the characters ponder and dreamily gaze into each others’ eyes before finally kissing after their date. Visualize the same scene if the woman is giving birth or rushed away to serve in the military. Pacing also gives your audience breathing space. If a scene is side splittingly funny, give them a chance to recover before hitting them with exposition. If it’s a tender moment such as a death, give your audience a chance to gather themselves. I use an arbitrary blood pressure cuff to modulate the pacing of scenes. Will it go up or down? Whatever you decide, make it move.
These are commonly used in heist films where on of the heistees has a change of plan and decides they will keep the loot for themselves rather than share it with their colleagues. Consider films such as ‘The Italian Job”. Such 180 degree story flips generate tension and excitement in your script.
Consider ambiguous endings which promote confusion and discussion such as in “American Beauty”. Who shot Kevin Spacey? Be careful not to be too “artsy” or “clever” or else you’ll alienate your audience.
TRIM THE FAT
Get rid of as many linking scenes as possible if they do not create tension. You don’t need to show your character waking up, taking a shower, getting dressed, eating breakfast, leaving the house, getting in the car, starting the car, checking the rear view mirror and driving off. Consider the leaner version of this scene: character jumps out bed, gets dressed while eating breakfast and driving off. There is more urgency in the trimmed version. Your audience knows how to join the dots. They don’t need to see every detail.
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