Reality TV is an oxymoron because if you were really watching reality, you would see a bunch of people doing something ordinary and ultimately boring. Does anyone really want to see someone else taking the trash out or picking up laundry from a dry cleaner? Stories aren’t about reality, but about the illusion of reality and you create that illusion by only showing events that are special.
In every scene of your story, something special should be happening. Even if you’re showing a scene where the hero is ordering a meal at a restaurant, make that scene special somehow. Either put the hero in conflict with the waiter or waitress such as Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces” where he argues with the waitress, or make that restaurant special, such as the celebrity lookalike contest in the restaurant/bar scene in “Pulp Fiction.” In movies, nothing is normal.
What happens if you need to show a simple scene? Find a way to make it special. In the 1983 movie “Wargames,” the hero and his girlfriend are running to catch a ferry across a lake. To make this scene special, they’re late and have to rush to get aboard. That’s certainly a bit more exciting than seeing them stroll aboard with plenty of time to spare.
Everything must be a heightened sense of reality. In one of my own screenplays, my hero was going to take his girlfriend on a date, but a regular date is boring, so I heightened the tension by making this not only a first date, but a date to the prom.
Besides making an ordinary scene special by making it unique somehow, consider the people in a scene. In “Wargames,” the hero is calling his girlfriend from a phone booth. Pretty dull, right? To heighten the tension, he’s trying to escape the law and a police car just happens to drive nearby and park. That heightens an ordinary scene.
There’s a reason why you never see TV or movie characters going to the bathroom, taking the trash to the curb, wrestling with a stuck zipper on a jacket, or shopping for groceries unless those events are special somehow. In “The Truman Show,” a simple act of getting in the car to drive to work is made special when a stage light mysteriously falls out of the sky and nearly beans him. If you’re going to show a normal scene, there must be something extraordinary about it. In “Pulp Fiction,” John Travolta goes to the bathroom and comes out just in time to be gunned down by Bruce Willis.
If the scene itself isn’t extraordinary, then spice it up by making it different somehow. In “Blood Simple,” two characters need to talk. They could talk anywhere, but the movie puts them in a strip club so while they’re talking, there’s a stripper dropping her clothes in front of us. That alone has little significance to the story, but it’s a simple way to spice up a scene that would otherwise be dull and boring.
Remember, nothing is normal in your movie world. In “The Last Action Hero,” they spoof this feature in movies by having the hero roaming around a Hollywood version of real-life where every woman is gorgeous and dressed in outrageously sexy outfits while driving around in expensive cars.
Keep this in mind for your own movie. Nothing should be normal. If a scene is normal, it either doesn’t belong or you need to spice it up somehow. When your screenplay contains nothing but interesting scenes, you’ll increase your chance of creating an interesting movie.