Recently I was reading one of my student’s feature scripts. I came to a three page scene with two characters out on a date. The dialogue of the scene was very natural. The scene had a purpose in the larger story – this was the point where the two characters’ relationship was deepening, and they were discussing their philosophy on a subject that would come into play later. The whole thing seemed quite realistic.
It just didn’t seem dramatic.
The problem was there was no conflict in the scene. I debated for a while how to give the note. The “bad teacher” suggestion would have been: “have the characters argue about something.” But then the conflict could end up feeling forced and irrelevant to the story, and it might work against the larger purpose of showing these characters falling in love.
This is actually a common problem in a romantic story. Happy people are kind of boring, frankly. But you need to show the characters falling in love. So what do you do?
A better approach would be to introduce some kind of outside conflict. An annoying waiter, perhaps, or a food allergy. Then let the philosophical discussion fall into the background. Since the script in question was a romantic comedy this might work okay.
But I think a more sophisticated approach would be to inject conflict on a subtextual level using the characters’ intentions.
You know that old cliché about actors asking, “what’s my motivation?” Today they usually ask about their intention. But it’s the same basic question: why am I doing this? And it’s valid.
Actors phrase their intentions as “to” verbs. You can use the same technique as a writer. If you find a scene that feels dramatically flat, try giving your characters stronger intentions. Some intentions that might fit in a dinner date scene would be:
- To seduce
- To test
- To get control
- To confess
- To hide (a secret)
- To prove my maturity
- To make him work for it
- To stall
- To impress
- To tease
You don’t have to pick intentions that are diametrically opposed to get conflict, and you don’t have to make the conflict overt to have drama. These people are on a date and you want them to end up liking each other. But you can pick intentions that are different enough that they will force the characters to deal with the gap in an interesting way.
Consider what kind of scene you might write if you picked the intentions “to seduce” for her and “to confess” for him. Or maybe “to get control” for him and “to test” for her. Voices never have to rise, nobody has to get angry…but the conversation no longer seems so casual.
Now let’s get a little more complicated by adding adjustments to the intention.
You can add an emotional modifier to the intention, such as “fear” or “excitement” or “confidence” or “disgust.” So now it can become “to seduce, with anxiety.” Note that I’m not talking about anxiety as a technique used to seduce, but rather an emotion the seducer is feeling. Imagine the difference between “to stall, with disgust” and “to stall, with lust.”
Now before we go too far here, I’m not sure it’s very helpful to start consciously sticking intentions and adjustments on every line of every scene. In fact, it might prevent you from letting the dialogue flow naturally out of your imagination and result in stilted conversations.
But it may be worth thinking about each character’s overall intention and emotion in a given scene before you start typing. And it can certainly be useful to explore these elements during rewriting when you have a scene that feels flat.