Every scene needs conflict. Conflict doesn’t always have to mean two people shooting or punching each other in the face. Sometimes conflict can be subtle. Conflict essentially means nothing more than conflicting goals between two people and tension making us wonder how it will all turn out.
In the opening scene in “Die Hard,” the hero sits in an airplane, gripping his seat arm rests in fear while a fellow passenger relaxes in the next seat. There’s little conflict here but the hint of tension because the hero is so fearful. The goal of the hero is simply to relax but the goal of his fellow passenger is to calm the hero down. There’s little conflict beyond the hero’s inability to relax and the passenger’s desire to help the hero out.
Where the conflict temporarily flares up is when the passenger spots the hero’s gun. Now briefly there’s conflict because the passenger is worried about the hero’s motives. Then the hero defuses this tension by explaining he’s a cop. Yet that little thread of conflict is all that’s necessary to keep this scene from appearing flat and dull.
This introductory scene in “Die Hard” not only introduces the hero, but also foreshadows the hero running around barefoot (and at a disadvantage to the villain) and the fact that the hero has a gun that he’ll likely use later in the story.
Every scene needs conflict, but that conflict needs to foreshadow a future scene that pays off or resolves this conflict. In “Die Hard,” the fact that the hero has a gun, is a cop, and eventually becomes bare foot is all resolved in later scenes. That’s what makes this introductory scene so useful.
Now look at the opening scene in “Suicide Squad” where Deadshot is being taunted by a prison guard. There’s conflict but it never pays off later because when Deadshot threatens to get revenge on this sadistic prison guard, we never see him get revenge.
At one point, Deadshot threatens this prison guard by pointing a gun at his head, but then he takes the gun away. For the rest of the story, this prison guard no longer appears and this conflict between Deadshot and the prison guard never gets resolved. That’s a perfect example of a waste of conflict in a scene.
If you’re going to create conflict, make that conflict pay off in another scene later. If you’re not going to pay off an earlier scene’s conflict, then there’s no point in showing that conflict in the first place.
In “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” the hero is a boy placed in a foster home with a couple where the woman loves him but the man does not. In one scene, the boy and the woman chat where the boy explains how a counselor taught him to express his emotions using haiku, a way off saying a poem within a fixed number of words. This scene has minor conflict when the boy keeps rattling off increasingly disturbing haiku poems until the woman tells him that’s enough. That scene is funny and demonstrates a minor conflict between the boy and the woman.
However, the importance of this scene is that later the man who does not like the boy recites a haiku of his own where he tells the boy how much fun he actually had with the boy. That demonstrates a change of heart for the man and pays off the earlier scene where the boy recites haiku to express emotion.
So the key to creating great scenes is to have conflict but foreshadow a future pay off later in the story. Conflict by itself is pointless. Just watch most scenes in “Suicide Squad.” Conflict with resolution in later scenes is what each scene needs. Without conflict, a scene is boring. Without foreshadowing and a pay off later, a scene is simply pointless.
You need conflict with foreshadowing/payoffs. Then your scene will be interesting and useful in telling your story.