In every scene, a main character wants something. What makes a scene interesting is watching that character struggling to get it. The book “Make a Scene” by Jordan Rosenfeld, identifies three common items that characters strive for:
One of the strongest emotions is love, so it only makes sense that two characters struggle to get love. In romantic comedies, two characters often want to love each other, but fear letting the object of their love know about their emotions. So they pretend not to love a person when they really do. This creates tension as we wait to see when the characters will finally attain their emotional goal.
In “The Lion King,” Simba and Nala are in love with each other but don’t initially admit this to each other. So every scene with them is about each of them letting the other know of their feelings without openly admitting those feelings. Because Simba and Nala are withholding their love for each other, each scene crackles with greater tension as a result.
Another way to create tension in a scene is to have one character withhold information from another character. Now the two characters must bargain with each other so the character who needs information gets it and the character who has the information gets something in return.
Think of “Silence of the Lambs” where Clarice is an FBI trainee and needs information about a serial killer from Hannibal Lecter, who knows about this serial killer. Now the tension from their scenes together is all about Hannibal slowly revealing hints and clues to Clarice while Clarice promises to give Hannibal what he wants in return.
Imagine if Hannibal freely gave Clarice information. Their scenes together would be far less interesting and boring. By withholding information, Hannibal makes every scene with Clarice into a mental chess game where each must maneuver to get what they want and the outcome is always in doubt, which makes each scene compelling to watch.
The simplest way to create an obstacle in a scene is to have one character withhold a physical object from another one. Now one character must struggle against another character.
Sometimes this object can be another character in itself, such as in many detective stories where a detective is trying to find a criminal such as in “Murder on the Orient Express.” The murderer is trying to hide his or her crime from the detective and the detective is trying to find the criminal.
When writing a screenplay, go through every scene and look for ways to withhold emotions, information, or objects from a character. When characters struggle to get an emotion, information, or an object, that struggle makes any scene interesting to watch.