In every scene, characters want something. Without a goal to pursue, a scene serves no purpose. Once a scene establishes a goal for a character to pursue, the next step is conflict. Conflict can come from physical problems but more often comes from another character.
Because every scene forces two characters to fight each other, there are two ways to show this. One, is to show characters physically fighting although this can get dull and isn’t appropriate for every scene, even in the best action thrillers.
Two, characters use dialogue to get what they want. This is the true purpose of dialogue.
Think of dialogue as a weapon. One character probes for a weakness in the other like a boxer searching for a weakness in an opponent. That makes a scene come alive and enhances the conflict.
There’s an excellent science fiction independent movie called “The Artifice Girl,” which is about a man who creates an artificially intelligent program that appears on computer screens as a little girl. You can watch the trailer here, but the trailer doesn’t demonstrate what makes the movie so special.
What makes “The Artifice Girl” unique is that the entire Act I takes place in a single room between three characters. Two of them are government agents and the third is a man they’ve brought in for questioning. The goal of the government agents is to find out what this man knows about a girl named Cherry.
Because these government agents want to know where Cherry is to rescue her, they alternate between threatening and bribing the man to tell them where she is so they can save her. However, the man has a goal as well, which is to hide the truth that Cherry isn’t real.
Because the man’s goal directly conflicts with the two government agents’ goals, the scene is a constant back-and-forth battle where the weapons are nothing more than dialogue. This makes Act I of “The Artifice Girl” amazingly tense and suspenseful without the use of any type of special effects whatsoever, which is rare because “The Artifice Girl” is a science fiction film as well.
Study any great scene in a great movie and you’ll find that the action is always secondary to the dialogue. Yet far too many movies (especially action thrillers) rely too much on action instead of dialogue. This creates endless action that’s essentially meaningless as witnessed in “The 355” and “Fast X”.
When writing any scene, define the goals of the characters in that scene and how they conflict. Then define who wins in the end.
In “The Artifice Girl,” the man eventually loses and has to admit that Cherry is an artificial intelligent program he created to trap pedophiles on the Internet. The two government agents get what they want (learning the truth about Cherry) but it’s not what they expected. The man loses his goal (to hide the truth about Cherry) but he doesn’t get imprisoned because Cherry isn’t real.
That’s the true mark of a great scene. Less reliance on meaningless action and more dependence on characters in conflict, striving to achieve a goal that turns out to be something unexpected.
When characters pursue a goal and get it, that’s boring. When characters pursue a goal and have to struggle to get it, that’s interesting. When characters pursue a goal only to get it and find out it’s not what they expected, that’s fascinating and far more compelling.
So make sure every scene you write has a goal. Then make sure someone wins and someone loses. For greater interest, surprise the audience and the characters on what the goal really is. When you can do that consistently for each scene, you’ll be on the way to writing a strong screenplay from start to finish.