The Difference Between a Great Scene and a Dull Scene

Scenes represent the building blocks of every story so if you have a dull scene, you’ll have a dull story. That’s why you must make every scene as interesting as possible or else you’ll wind up with a handful of great scenes surrounded by much more numerous mediocre scenes, and that will simply kill even the best story in the world.

So what makes a great scene? Every great scene is about conflict, both internal and external. This is what you need in external conflict:

  • What is the goal of the main character in the scene?
  • Who is trying to stop this goal?
  • What are the consequences if this goal is not met?

Do the above and you’ll have a good scene. What makes a great scene is that the external conflict forces the main character to make a choice between two opposing ideas (internal conflict). In “Hacksaw Ridge,” the hero is a pacifist who refuses to touch a gun. To challenge his belief in not taking a life, he’s thrown into a battlefield known as Hacksaw Ridge, where American and Japanese soldiers are slaughtering each other. So his goal is to enter this deadly battlefield without a gun to protect himself and rescue as many wounded men as possible.

When he enters this battlefield, he’s hunted by Japanese soldiers trying to kill him, so the temptation is to fight back. Yet he makes the active choice to save men instead. Watch this scene form “Hacksaw Ridge” and you can see how the external conflict simply magnifies the hero’s internal conflict in a visual way for us to see.

Notice that this “Hacksaw Ridge” scene makes the following clear:

  • The hero’s goal – To save as many men as possible.
  • Who is trying to stop this goal – The army of Japanese soldiers
  • Consequences – If the hero fails, many wounded men will die and the hero might die as well

Now watch this relatively dull scene from “Unbroken,” which is about a B-24 bomber raid in the Pacific during World War Two.

What is the hero’s goal? To bomb a Japanese base.

Who is trying to stop this goal? Japanese fighter planes, but they don’t show up until halfway through the scene and there’s no hint that they will show up, making their appearance sudden with little tension or foreshadowing of their threat.

What are the consequences of failure? Besides the possible death of the hero and the other B-24 crew members, it’s not clear why this base is so important so the desire to achieve this goal is far less compelling. Even if this goal is clarified earlier, it should be emphasized and repeated during this scene to remind us of the danger. Instead, this scene plays like a leisurely plane ride in the beginning that finally has problems later, which includes flak, Japanese fighter planes, and a bomb bay door that won’t retract.

Watch the two scenes and you’ll see that the “Hacksaw Ridge” scene is far more emotional and personal while the “Unbroken” scene is far less interesting and compelling to watch. The “Hacksaw Ridge” scene forces the hero to choose between not fighting and fighting, which has been his internal conflict throughout the entire story.

What’s the internal conflict in the “Unbroken” scene? There doesn’t appear to be one, which makes this scene visually interesting in a mild sense, but emotionally empty.

That’s the difference between a mediocre scene and a great scene. A great scene externalizes the hero’s internal conflict. In “Hacksaw Ridge,” the hero is constantly forced to choose between not fighting and fighting, and each time he chooses not to fight, he faces greater danger.

In “Unbroken,” the scene fails to externalize any type of internal conflict within the hero, so the scene is essentially useless from an emotional perspective.

When writing your own scenes, make sure you clearly identify the internal conflict of your hero, which is basically your story’s theme. The theme gives a hero a choice between two extremes:

  • “Terminator 2” – Killing is a way to solve problems vs. Killing should not be a way to solve problems
  • “Harold and Maude” – Life is not worth living vs. Life is worth living
  • “Pulp Fiction” – Principles are not important to live vs. Principles make life meaningful

Once you know your theme, every conflict in every scene must test and challenge your hero into making a choice and taking action.

Notice how the hero in “Hacksaw Ridge” constantly faces challenges in trying to save wounded men and always takes action to save more men. Now watch that “Unbroken” scene and notice there is no challenge for the hero to face so he doesn’t need to take any action that surprises us, which makes the scene dull.

Know your theme because that defines your hero’s internal conflict. Once you know the internal conflict, you’ll know how to externalize that conflict in every scene to make it interesting.

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