Intensify Scenes by Making Everything Work Against the Characters

Nothing should ever come easy to your characters. They should struggle against their environment, other people, and themselves at all times because conflict is the heart of every story.

When writing a scene, think of how to make everything work against your characters. To make the environment work against your characters, think of how to make things worse.

In “Margin Call,” there’s a scene where two people are arguing. To make matters worse, they’re trapped in an elevator going to another floor. To make matters even more uncomfortable, there’s a cleaning lady with her cleaning cart stuck in between them. So now the two characters can’t fully express themselves or scream at each other because of the cleaning lady standing there.

The combination of forcing two characters into the enclosed space of an elevator compresses the conflict between the two characters. Then putting a cleaning lady in between them makes their conversation even more restricted.

Far too many writers neglect choosing a setting that works against their characters. Even more shocking is that far too many writers also forget to create conflict between the characters in a scene.

In “Pulp Fiction,” there’s a simple scene between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as they talk about fast food in Europe. Conflict doesn’t always mean fighting but it means two characters pursuing different goals. In this “Pulp Fiction” scene, John Travolta is trying to tell Samuel L. Jackson what fast food in Europe is like and how it differs from America. Samuel L. Jackson isn’t agreeing with John Travolta but expressing disbelief.

So John Travolta’s goal is to convince Samuel L. Jackson that he’s telling the truth while Samuel L. Jackson’s goal is to learn more so it won’t sound so outrageous. The conflict isn’t against each other but about one character trying to convince another that he’s telling the truth and the other character trying to believe him.

The simplest conflict is just to have two people hit each other, but it’s far more common for characters to “fight” using words and non-physical action. Omit this type of conflict and your scenes will feel pointless.

The third type of conflict is when the hero fights themselves. In “Boyz N the Hood,” the hero is a black teenager growing up in the dangerous streets of Los Angeles. He wants to escape the crime and poverty of his neighborhood, but he also wants to help his friends who are ex-convicts, drug dealers and users, and murderers.

So the main struggle is that the hero is always torn between taking action that will put him on the path to crime and murder, or staying away from negative influences and escape his crime-ridden neighborhood.

This internal conflict is ultimately what every story is about, but it must be embedded within every scene as well.

So make sure every scene you write contains these three levels of conflict:

  • Environment works against the hero
  • Other people work against the hero
  • The hero’s internal struggle works against the hero

Especially make sure your entire story is about a hero struggling against an internal conflict from start to finish because this emotional story is ultimately what your story is about.

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