Sometimes I’ll be reading a script and the story seems like it should be working… yet I’m bored. The scenes lie on the page without energy. The situation is dramatic, but the scenes aren’t. Today I want to discuss five common reasons for dull scenes and some possible solutions. Often we apply these solutions in the rewrite process, but many of the problems can be avoided with proper outlining and a little thought before you begin to write the first draft of the scene.
1. The scene doesn’t serve any purpose. This is probably the easiest to fix but the hardest to identify. Ask yourself what has changed in your story from the beginning to the end of the scene. If the answer is nothing (or very little), the scene should go. Another test is whether the story will still function when you cut the scene. If the answer is yes, cut it.
Sometimes there will be one thing in the scene necessary to the story – a bit of exposition, say – but it’s not enough to justify a whole scene. Try to find a different scene where you can move that important beat. Other times there will be something in the scene that you dearly love. You will be working very hard to justify keeping it. Don’t. Perhaps you can use that beloved element in another, more vital scene. Or perhaps this is a time to remember the old saying, “Kill your darlings.” It may be great, but it still may not fit in this screenplay.
2. Everyone wants the same thing – there’s no conflict. Drama is conflict. Scenes without conflict are boring. Every scene should be about a character who wants something having difficulty getting it. This means, first of all, there needs to be a character in the scene who actually wants something. And second, there needs to be some kind of obstacle to their getting that thing.
Obstacles can come from the environment (something physically impedes the character, such as a robber trying to infiltrate a highly secured building) or from within the character themselves (some fear or conflicting need stands in the way of the goal, such as someone with a fear of heights needing to retrieve an object from their roof). But most commonly the primary source of obstacles is other characters.
Often dull scenes result because none of the characters are really opposed to the other character(s)’ goals. Even in a scene of people talking calmly, each character must have an agenda, and at least two of those agendas should be in conflict.
The characters don’t have to be angry and yelling. Let’s say you have a scene of a man and a woman on a date. You want them to get along. Perfectly reasonable, but the scene is boring. Try giving them different agendas. Perhaps the woman’s goal is to seduce the man, while the man’s goal is to prove he’s a gentleman. That will lead to a much more fun scene than if both of them are “trying to get to know each other.” This is sometimes known as “mutually exclusive goals.”
3. Everything is too easy. You have a character with a goal and there are obstacles to that goal… but the character overcomes the obstacles easily. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the drama. The solution may be as simple as putting more obstacles in the way of the character’s goal. Or possibly it’s adding a different kind of obstacle. In our date scene, you could try adding a physical obstacle to the scene in addition to the character obstacle. Perhaps the man has forgotten his wallet, for example.
Another approach is to increase the stakes for the opposing characters. The more important it is for the other character to achieve their (mutually exclusive) goal, the harder they will fight for it and the better opponent they will be for the main character. And make sure the opposing characters are well equipped to achieve their goal. If the man on the date is our main character and he’s trying to resist the woman’s seductions, she better be sexy as hell!
4. The premise of the scene isn’t fully exploited. Sometimes the concept of the scene is fine, but it isn’t fully exploited. You’re not having as much fun with the scene as you could be. This is particularly important for your set piece scenes – those scenes that pay off the genre of your story (action scenes in an action movie, scary scenes in a horror movie, emotional scenes in a drama). If the character faces and overcomes a single obstacle in the scene, you are probably not doing as much as you could with the situation.
Ask yourself what else could happen given the scenario you’ve concocted. What elements have you placed in the scene? What more could you do with them? Try sketching out the most outrageous version of the scene. Unless you are doing an outrageous comedy it may not fit your tone, but it might give you ideas. Another technique is “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” Look for a way that, by overcoming one obstacle, the character creates an even bigger obstacle for themselves.
5. The scene is predictable – there are no twists or turns. This is a very easy mistake to make. The scene could have a lot of drama – the character has a strong want, there are significant obstacles, you’re really exploiting your premise – but everything plays out the way we expect from the set up. The burglar avoids the guards, breaks into the safe, escapes with the jewels. It was exciting but it was also exactly what we thought was going to happen.
Good scenes surprise us. Often you need the scene to end up at a certain place (the burglar gets the jewels). Okay, you know the ending… don’t broadcast it to the audience. Give the character an obstacle they weren’t expecting. Maybe the burglar is a careful planner, but tonight the security guard got delayed by a call from his girlfriend and didn’t follow his regular routine. The guard checks the safe room late, catching the burglar in the act and forcing a change of plans. If this pushes your character to find a more clever way to achieve their goal, all the better!
Another tool is “preparation in opposition.” This is when you set the audience up to expect a different outcome than what actually occurs. Is the main character going to get fired in the scene? Set it up so that we think they are going to get promoted. It will make the outcome much more powerful.
My late teacher Frank Daniel was fond of saying, “There is only one rule in screenwriting: Don’t be boring.” Make sure your scenes are full of purpose, conflict and surprises and your writing will be anything but boring!