What makes a great movie is a solid story, but what can spice up a solid story are interesting scenes. The key to making an interesting scene is to identify what would be normal and then make sure you do anything but that.
Normal is boring. If people wanted to see a normal life, they would just look in the mirror. What movies must do is provide the illusion of being normal while being different. When characters walk down the street, it’s not just what they’ve done a billion times before in their lives, but something special.
In “Blood Simple,” a man has just buried another man alive and is driving home in the early morning. Suddenly, an oncoming car blinks its lights at him. This man gets worried. Then the oncoming headlights blink again. Now the man is really worried something is wrong until he realizes that his headlights are still on. As the oncoming car passes by, the driver waves to let him know that he figured it out.
This short scene doesn’t advance the story any, but it does ratchet up the suspense a bit. After just killing a man, the driver will understandably be jumpy, so think of something to make his life even more miserable. Getting pulled over by a copy would be a worse-case scenario, but having a strange car flash its headlights at you is mysterious and initially frightening too, and that grabs our attention to make the scene worthwhile.
In “Pulp Fiction,” John Travolta and Samuel Jackson are just two guys driving and talking. But they don’t just talk about anything. They’re setting up the later scene when John Travolta has to take the boss’s wife out and not get thrown out a window in the process. It’s an ordinary event to drive and talk, but what makes this scene special is that it foreshadows the future.
There should be nothing normal and mundane in your story because every scene is special somehow, either through a trivial event that grabs our attention, or through foreshadowing that hints of a future scene.
An easy way to grab our attention is to show us something unusual, such as a man driving a car through a deserted city (“I Am Legend”). It’s harder to take a normal scene and make it grab our attention, but you can use irony (such as Dustin Hoffman first dressed as a woman, walking down the street in “Tootsie”), the promise of some impending doom (such as the French farmer worried about an arriving convoy of cars in “Inglorious Basterds”), or just something really interesting such as an exotic location as in any James Bond movie.
Whatever your scene is, it can’t be boring and boring means ordinary, normal, and predictable. Even the tiniest scene needs to be interesting and unpredictable to make it fresh and new somehow. The opening scene with Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” is just about passengers getting off a plane, but the tension amps up as soon as we see Bruce Willis’s gun and then learn that he’s a cop.
There’s more tension too when Bruce Willis is leaving the plane and an attractive flight attendant flirts with him. Getting off a plane is an ordinary event, but flirting with a pretty flight attendant is something different and it gets our attention.
Make your scenes different, interesting, or a hint of the future. Make every tiny scene interesting and chances are good your overall story will be more interesting as well.