6 Tips to Craft Compelling Screenplay Scenes

Great scenes “play” – they seem to be effortlessly compelling, engaging the reader and involving him on the journey. So, what’s the difference between a scene that plays and one that feels flat?

Scenes that are designed to purely reveal exposition or character, or that consist of “on-the-nose” dialogue are often dull. Scenes that evoke emotion, contain conflict and stakes, change the dynamic, allow audiences to gain insight, and push the story forward are the scenes that make a story work.

Here are 6 tips to craft compelling scenes:

1. Know the Conflict
Scenes revolve around conflict – two (or more) conflicting desires at direct odds with one another. If the forces are tangential the conflict is diluted. A well-written scene presents clearly opposed forces. It is the back-and-forth dynamic, the push-and-pull, the action-reaction component of the scene that makes it compelling - as the conflict steadily increases and ultimately reaches a crescendo. Note:

  • Who is driving the scene?
  • What does that character want?
  • Who or what is opposing that character’s desire?
  • What does that opposing force want?
  • Track the action/reaction conflict throughout the scene to ensure it is developing - and not static.

2. Evoke Emotion
If the audience feels nothing (or worse, feels boredom) at the end of a scene – then the scene didn’t deliver. Remember, character emotions don’t equate with the audiences’ emotions. A character in a scene may collapse to the floor and cry when her lover leaves her, but the audience doesn’t necessarily feel what the character feels (sadness and loss). A helpful exercise is to note what emotion each scene evokes - whether it is anxiety, curiosity, laughter, joy, fear, sadness - and determine if it is delivering the intended emotional punch..

3. Allow the Audience to Discover the Meaning
If the scene is too “on-the-nose” it deprives the audience of the joy of gaining their own insight and discovering what lies beneath the surface - the real meaning of the scene. Well-crafted scenes don’t spoon-feed information to the audience, they unfold with layers of subtext.

4. Come in Late, Get Out Early
Keep your scenes lean, tight, and focused by cutting extraneous, unnecessary material. Enter the scene at the latest possible moment and end it immediately upon (or before) resolution.

5. Make a Change
If the scene concludes on the same note as it started, nothing has happened. There should be a clear change – it could be a change in stakes, or direction, or knowledge, or any element that affects the story.

6. The Ending is Only the Beginning
Good scenes drive the story forward. They open up new questions, create complications, and establish problems that need to be resolved. Successful scenes create a level of suspense (regardless of genre) that inspires the reader to turn the page to find out what will happen. The ending of a well-crafted scene leads directly into the next scene.