Most movies are about a hero trying to solve a personal problem. The problem becomes acute in the first scene and it’s resolved (or peaceably accepted) in the final scene.
Therefore, the way to get from scene to scene is not determined by “Where does my hero go next today?”, or even “What is the fallout of this scene?” Instead, the next scene should be the next step in the escalation or solving of the problem, whether that happens immediately after the previous scene or two years later.
Once you’ve established this rhythm, the audience will subconsciously realize that they are following the path of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s life. And as the audience engages with the story, they will begin to attempt to guess: Will the hero’s problem get worse or better in this scene?
If you’ve done your job and made them love your hero, then they will be rooting for the problem to get better. But what does that mean? It depends on the scene. In most scenes, the audience will want the same thing the heroes do: the heroes pursue a goal and we root for them to achieve it.
But in some scenes, the audience will be rooting for some heroes not to get what they want. For one reason or another, we know that they are pursuing a false goal and what they’re attempting to do will only make their problem worse. In these scenes, we root for the hero to realize that what they want is not what they really need.
Sometimes, we find ourselves rooting for both outcomes, causing a pleasant cognitive dissonance. I’ve written before about Psycho: we want Tony Perkins to get help, so we don’t really want him go get away with hiding Janet Leigh’s body, but when the car bobs back up out of the lake, we gasp for fear that he will be discovered. Hitchcock is forcing us to root for what Perkins wants (to get away with it) and what he needs (to get professional help) at the same time, even though they conflict.
Even when we’re straightforwardly rooting for a good-guy protagonist to succeed, that doesn’t mean we’re always rooting against the bad guys.
- In a movie like The Fugitive, we root for the both the protagonist and the antagonist in alternating scenes, even through they’re working at cross purposes. Ultimately we’re rooting for them to realize that they share the same true goal (arresting the right man) before they kill each other.
- In The Rock, we see that Ed Harris is basically an honorable guy so we root for him to achieve his ends (exposing government corruption), but not through these means (taking hostages).
- Die Hard is an even more interesting case: we hate that Hans is threatening our hero and his wife, but we find ourselves oddly cheering for him to kill off the FBI, because they’re lunkheaded jerks (who have insulted our hero) whereas Hans is clever, witty and sophisticated.
If you’re telling a straightforward story, then there’s nothing an audience hates more than to have no rooting interest in a scene. “Why are they showing me this? This isn’t moving the story forward. I can’t even figure out what’s supposed to happen here, or how to feel about it…” Instead, you must either trigger straightforward feelings in your audience (stand up and cheer!) or trigger ambiguous feelings (I want the hero to succeed and fail, and I can’t decide which I want to see more…).
As soon as a scene begins, let your audience know that one of a few things might soon happen, then get them to root for one or the other, or maybe even, if you’re really good, for more than one irreconcilable option. Once they’re rooting for a certain outcome, then how you end the scene will either make them feel good, make them feel bad, or make them feel something more complex… but you must make them feel something.