Here are two ways to make a boring story. First, create a problem. Second, solve the problem right away. That’s boring because there’s no suspense or conflict. Watch any bad movie and you’ll see this lack of suspense and conflict. In “Maleficent,” there’s a scene where a boy becomes friends with Maleficent. Then he stops seeing her. Suddenly we see this boy as a grown up where the king says the next heir to the throne will be whoever kills Maleficent. So this man who used to be friends with Maleficent goes to meet her, can’t bring himself to kill her, and strips her of her wings instead.
That scene is way too short because we never really get to see any emotional conflict between the man and Maleficent. As a result, that scene fails to emotionally grab us.
Here’s a second way to make a boring story. First, create a problem. Second, ignore it. If you watch bad movies, they often bring up problems that never get resolved or explained. In “Prometheus,” the bad guy is a giant human who is part of an ancient race that created human beings on Earth. We never learn why they created the human race or why they wanted to later kill it by creating the aliens. As a result, we have a problem that never gets resolved, so what’s the point of the whole story?
Here’s the right way to tell a story. Create a problem. Show conflict as the two opposing characters gradually try different tactics to get what they want. Each time a tactic fails, they choose a more dangerous and risky tactic that creates escalating tension. Finally resolve the conflict in the form of a cliffhanger that makes us wonder what will happen next.
In “Edge of Tomorrow,” Tom Cruise is a military PR officer who goes to meet with a general. So far, no conflict or problem. The problem occurs when the general wants Tom Cruise to go with the Marines in the first landing wave to record the event. Tom Cruise obviously doesn’t want to risk dying so his first tactic is to say he’s afraid of fighting and gets scared when he sees blood from a paper cut. The general doesn’t budge.
Tom Cruise next tries to convince the general that he’s unfit as a soldier because he only joined ROTC in college. The general says that’s why Tom Cruise will be surrounded by Marines who do know how to fight.
Desperate, Tom Cruise tries to offer names of other people who could go in his place. The general says that he’s not requesting that Tom Cruise go with the Marines. He’s ordering him. Tom Cruise refuses and threatens to blackmail the general, raising the stakes of the conflict. Now the general calls in soldiers to force Tom Cruise to go with the Marines. Notice how things keep getting worse for Tom Cruise as the general keeps raising the threat?
Finally Tom Cruise tries to run away from the soldiers ordered to take him to the Marines. One of the soldiers knocks Tom Cruise out so the cliffhanger is what will happen next?
Now study a mediocre movie like “Maleficent” to see how it creates a problem (the man needs to kill Maleficent, his friend, to become king), but doesn’t create escalating tension through increasingly dangerous conflict. Also notice that when the man strips Maleficent of her wings, there’s no real cliffhanger. She loses her wings but there’s little sense of what will happen next.
In “Edge of Tomorrow,” when Tom Cruise gets knocked out, we’re left wondering what will happen to him. Then the next scene shows us Tom Cruise being forced into a Marine squad and being ill prepared to fight.
If every scene creates a problem, creates escalating tension through deteriorating conflict, then ends with a cliffhanger, you’ll wind up creating an entire screenplay that holds an audience from start to finish. The simple formula for creating a great screenplay is to first create great scenes one after another.