What makes an interesting movie are interesting scenes, and what makes an interesting scene is one where nothing is stable.
Picture a man walking down a sidewalk. There’s no suspense or danger of any kind, so watching a man walk down a sidewalk is boring. Now put this same man on stilts and have him walk across a tightrope over Niagara Falls. Suddenly everything is interesting because one misstep and this man will fall. This scene is interesting because there’s the constant threat of instability.
Study scenes in good movies and you’ll notice this tension of instability throughout. In “Wild,” the hero heads off to hike the Pacific Coast Trail alone. In an early scene, she catches a ride from a couple. Normally this would be a relatively boring scene, so to spice it up, the man starts playing music on the radio while his wife reads a book. The music takes the hero back to her past when her life was great and pleasant. Then the wife suddenly snaps the radio off because she wants quiet to read her book. The man looks annoyed but says nothing while the hero watches all this.
Despite being such a simple scene, it demonstrates instability. Just when we think everything will be okay (the hero gets a ride in a car), this silently feuding couple causes minor problems for the hero by yanking her out of her pleasant past and back into her harsh reality.
Another scene in “Wild” occurs when the hero has run out of food and meets a farmer who tells her to wait in his truck until he’s done working. When he gets in the car, there’s a threat that he might attack her. First, he offers her some booze as if to soften her up. Then he tells her what he likes to do after a hard day’s work by leering at her. Now we’re almost sure he’s going to attack her, but then he pulls out licorice and gives her some, telling her not to tell his wife because she doesn’t like him eating candy. That relieves the tension in the scene and brings it back to stability again.
In other scenes in “Wild,” we’re left wondering if men will attack the hero. Each time the threat appears to destabilize the scene, something happens and everything goes back to normal. Yet without this threat of instability, the scene would be boring.
In any good scene, there must be a threat to the hero. In “Star Wars,” Luke goes into the bar with Obi-wan and sees all the rough characters. Immediately, the bartender orders C3PO and R2D2 to get out. Then some strangers confront Luke and threaten him until Obi-wan rescues Luke by killing these two strangers.
If you have a scene where your hero isn’t threatened, you don’t have a scene. If you have too many scenes where your hero isn’t threatened, you have a bad screenplay.
Threaten your hero in every scene, even if it’s just something simple like the feuding couple in “Wild” who plays music on the radio only to have the wife snap it off suddenly. When the hero in “Wild” checks into a cheap motel, the clerk informs her that the room costs $18 a night, but more if someone joins her. The hero says nobody’s going to join her, but the clerk insists that if someone does, the room rate will go up. The hero has to keep insisting that this won’t happen, which provides a bit of a conflict and inserts a minor bit of instability in her life.
Instability = interest. Without instability, you don’t have interest and without interest, you don’t have a good story no matter how good your idea might be. If your scenes are boring, you have a boring story. It’s that simple.