Not that kind of PPK. Sure got your attention, though, didn't it?
I seem to be growing heavy with book once again, so my thoughts seem to be turning more and more to craft. And the ways craft goes wrong.
Conflict is the heart of story. It's the heart of life. From cradle to grave, we fight. We compete for attention, for resources, for love. We fight to be better people. Even given everything we could ever possibly want, we quest for the next challenge.
Small wonder that every moment in your story should contain conflict.
The only reason to have two characters in a scene together is if they want different things. Enemies, sure. Detectives and suspects or star-crossed lovers, of course. But even best friends, if they're going to share a scene together, will have goals at odds with each other.
Since I'm reading them at the moment, take Travis McGee. He and his best friend Meyer share one of the most memorable friendships in literature. But notice how often Travis is motivated by anger at the preditors and Meyer is hanging along because he's concerned about his friend. In most of their conversations, Travis's goal is get Meyer to help think up a way to get the bastards. Meyer's goal is keep Travis from going off the deep end or help my broken friend to heal.
Early on, McGee's main buddy is the Alabama Tiger. They're close enough for the Tiger to lend Travis a speedboat in The Deep Blue Good-by, yet the Tiger never once shows up on the page. Why? No conflict. As drawn, the Alabama Tiger's needs are simple: booze and women. He has both on his boat, hence no need to leave. And no way to meaningfully interact with the tormented, hedonistic half-hearted Puritan, that reluctant hero Travis McGee.
Or consider Itchy and Scratchy. Remember when Marge got to make them 'just get along'?
EXT./DAY, a front porch.
Itchy and Scratchy rock together on the porch, a pitcher of lemonade on a table between them.
SCRATCHY: Lemonade, Itchy?
ITCHY: Thanks, Scratchy.
Any conflict-free moment in your book is just PPK: a Pointless Pace Killer. Dead weight. It doesn't matter how prettily it's written, a moment without conflict isn't worth the paper to print it.
This doesn't just count for moments between characters. This is also the *real* reason that we don't spend pages watching characters brush their teeth, pee, balance their checkbooks, etc.
Two apparent exceptions actually serve to prove the rule.
Lonely Tension: this lovely heroine is all alone on those slippery stone steps. Even though I painted this, I don't know where she's going, or why, or what she'll find when she gets there. The point is, her lonely midnight walk is fraught with tension. Like any burglar prowling a night-dark hall, or a lonely and bored housewife eyeing the sherry, the tension between the apparent quiet and the understood threat is a form of conflict.
Sequel: Lots of writers set their heroes alone with some stage business to get through the stages of sequel. A character may flyfish in an icy river, or sweat on a treadmill or do repairs on a houseboat as stage-business for sequel. But remember, sequel is emotions and thoughts, options and a choice. It's about frustrated desire and a fresh plan of attack. And that's a product of inner conflict.
SQT raised a good point in the comments: what about moments of apparently idle comaraderie? She cited John Sanford's detective novels, but other such scenes abound in literature-- the protagonist just sort of hanging out, shooting the shit with a buddy or two. What gives?
Three possible reasons come to mind:
1) Act II Bump: One way to keep that Big Middle of the tale from going all soggy is to introduce a bit of random color as distraction: a vivid but pointless character (think Mike Yamagita from FARGO), an exciting activity (Freefall in Crimson features a hot-air balloon ride) or mysterious encounter (Dean Koontz loves to use slightly unearthly animals) or a good story (Andrew Vachss uses examples either humorous or harrowing). My first guess is, if you look at the place Sanford's funny stories appear, they'll come right when the second act needs a little bump.
2) Pointful Pace Killer: Every now and then, a storyteller will have a *reason* to kill the pace of their story. That random color in Act II might be one example of this, though I feel that use of color should still serve the general tone of the story. Otherwise, you may have a plot hole that needs patching, or a 'natural' break in the pace that needs glossing over.
For instance, your sleuth's quest for the truth is faltering, but a big break falls in her lap. To keep the break in logical progression from being too jarring, you throw a little misdirection at the reader. Disney does this all the time with their song-and-dance numbers, and therein lies the danger: those numbers are boooooring.
3) Indulgence: Then, as now, some writers got away with any darned shortcomings they cared to. Everyone makes money, but once editors fear to alter, it's the stories that suffer.