Time and time again I find that writers have taken great pains to get the characters, dialog and description right but forgot to give the scene a purpose. I’m not talking about a cheesy “a ha!” moment at the end of every scene but a believable, organic reason for the scene being in the script. The purpose can be subtle or overt. It can be obvious at the time or be revealed later but there has to be a justification for it to be in the script. Showing off the scenery, educating your audience or plain old ego aren’t good enough reasons for a scene to be in the script.
Here’s a good test; after you’ve finished writing your script, go back through and read each individual scene as a single, stand alone piece. Ask yourself what has this particular scene accomplished. Has it forwarded the story? This is typically the best reason for a scene to be in the movie and yet often the most misunderstood. Marking time by repeating information about the story or a character that we already know (or sometimes don’t need to know) doesn’t count.
Has the scene revealed more about a particular character that is vital to the storyline? The biggest culprit here is when writers give the audience the back-story of a character at the beginning of the movie that really isn’t all that necessary to know. If you’re talking “Batman Begins” then sure, showing young Bruce Wayne has purpose. After all, the whole point of the movie is showing how Batman became Batman. But in a movie like “The Saint,” one of the least satisfying aspects of that fairly mediocre movie was the long drawn out beginning to help us understand what made Simon Templar into the man he became. Who cares? An audience isn’t stupid; they’ll be able to piece together what made your villain evil or your hero (or anti-hero) the person he is. If there’s a moment you really feel strongly about, consider putting it in the present action of the main story. Find a way to weave it into the dialog or action of the without simply spewing out details in a clunky “info-dump”. That’s a valid purpose for a scene that doesn’t slow the movie down.
Go through this process with every scene. Does each individual scene forward either the story or the character? If the answer is no or even a wobbly maybe, then either go back and add purpose to it or, painful as it may be, cut the scene altogether. Working with writers I’ve found it’s often hard to cut the fair-haired darlings, the scenes that they just like as an artist but amputation might be necessary for the health of the whole body. You can try to add purpose but usually it ends up feeling forced, like cramming a round peg in a square hole.
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a drama, an action piece, a mystery/thriller or animated short; making sure that each scene has a purpose will successfully pull an audience into your script. That’s a key difference between a page-turner that you can’t put down and a ho hum script that you’re done with after just 10 pages.