Nothing’s more boring than a scene where two people talk and nothing happens. There’s no arguing, no fighting, nothing. That’s a dull scene.
OF course, adding conflict barely makes any scene more interesting. Just because two people are fighting doesn’t mean anything’s actually going on. Watch any bad James Bond movie where James Bond is fighting and defeating an army of assassins and all you get are visual eye-candy to watch while nothing of importance really happens.
To make a scene really worth watching, add two elements: surprise and inner conflict.
Surprise means we think we’re watching something but it turns out we’re watching something us. That sudden surprise gives us sudden new insight on the situation and characters.
In “Pulp Fiction,” two men are chatting happily away about fast food in Europe. At the end of this friendly conversation, the two men pull out guns and we suddenly realize they’re hit men. that’s a surprise that suddenly makes all their silly banter suddenly far more important.
In the South Korean film “The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil,” an organized crime gangster appears to be working out by punching a heavy bag. Only when he’s done do we get the surprise when his men open the heavy bag to reveal a dead man inside the heavy bag who the gangster had been punching to death.
Besides surprising the audience by showing a seemingly normal situation in a new light, add inner conflict to a scene. Inner conflict stems from temptation where the hero is tempted to stay the same while struggling to change into a better person. This pull between good and bad provides inner conflict and makes every scene far more interesting to watch because we want to see which choice the character will make.
In “”Yesterday,” the hero is torn between telling the truth (that he ripped off The Beatles songs to pass off as his own) or lying and enjoying the fame of being a successful musician. So every scene tugs at these twin choices.
In one scene, the hero is in a music company’s conference room where everyone is trying to come up with a name for the hero’s debut album. The music company rejects actual Beatles album names like The White Album and Abbey Road. Instead, the music company decides to call the album “One Man Only” to highlight the hero’s supposed creativity in writing so many hits songs all by himself.
When the hero hears the title of his album, he’s torn between revealing the truth or staying silent and feeling guilty as the album title further emphasizes his inner conflict. So although no explosions or car crashes occur in that scene, the inner turmoil makes the scene far more interesting because the scene further makes the hero’s decisions to reveal his lies that much harder.
Inner conflict often comes about through deception where the hero is deceiving others and trying to keep from being exposed. In “Tootsie,” the hero is a man pretending to be a woman actress in a soap opera. When he hero falls in love with his beautiful co-star, she invites him to spend the night at her place where they can talk in bed. Since the hero is in love with his co-star, his temptation creates humor as he’s forced to pretend he’s a woman while wanting to make love to the object of his desire.
That inner conflict makes that scene far more interesting because we keep waiting to see if the hero will be able to maintain his masquerade or if he’ll be exposed.
So rely on surprise and inner conflict to make a scene more interesting. Don’t rely on more meaningless action that audiences will simply forget one second after it’s over.