First of all, let’s just admit that Blake Snyder was a genius at what he did. If you’re not familiar with his work, buy his screenwriting book ‘Save the Cat!’ It’ll change your writing life.
Before I read Snyder’s book, (and after several years spent getting an MFA in Film from UCLA) I kinda sorta knew there needed to be conflict in a scene, and that it had to move the story forward. But it wasn’t until I saw Snyder’s 4 necessary ingredients that it all clicked for me.
By the way, this doesn’t just apply to screenplays, but to fiction and memoir scenes as well.
He said the four ingredients for a good scene are as follows.
It must have conflict
It must have a beginning, middle and end
It must move the story forward
There must be an emotional shift for the character.
For me, the emotional shift for the character thing was a revelation. Now, I could go on and on about why you need all these four things, and how they work in a scene, but what a bore.
Let’s just look at a scene that DOESN’T have all these things, then one that DOES.
Our first example is from one of my favorite bad movies, THE ROOM. Try to look past the terrible dialogue and misogyny to see it’s true deep down inferiority.
Conflict? Yes, sort of. Handsome Guy is cheating with Black Haired Guy’s girlfriend?
Beginning/Middle/End: It sort of has a beginning (Black Haired Guy enters, says he didn’t hit Lisa), Middle (they talk about women) and end (Handsome Guy leaves.) Notice how all these beats feel disconnected?
Emotional Shift: None
Moves the Story Forward: No. (If it did, Handsome Guy’s behavior would make Black Haired Guy suspicious)
Now, here’s a scene from GOOD WILL HUNTING that does have all of Snyder’s magic ingredients.
Conflict: Lambeau wants Will to be a mathematician, Will doesn’t want to be a mathematician.
Beginning/Middle/End: The beginning of the scene is Will handing over the proof. The middle is Lambeau reading it, not understanding it and being upset that Will won’t accept his mentoring. The end is Will exploding, leaving, and Lambeau realizing he will never be as gifted as Will.
Moves The Story Forward: Will finally reveals his dominance and endangers his mentorship with Lambeau.
Emotional Shift: Not just for one character, but both! Lambeau goes from confident to broken, and Will from quiet and subservient to powerful and confident.
So writers, Take Action! Look at a scene you’re struggling with. Does it have conflict, does it move the story forward, does it have a strong emotional shift for the characters and a clear beginning, middle and end?
If one of these things is missing, can you inject it somehow? And most importantly, if the scene isn’t moving the story forward, can you combine it with an already existing scene that does?
If you haven’t read Blake Snyder’s book, again, I highly recommend it. It’s called SAVE THE CAT! and here’s the link.
Now, go write a great scene. 🙂