Surprise is the key to holding your audience’s attention. That means you need to entice the audience with what appears to be the story, then surprise them halfway through by suddenly revealing the real story behind the initial story.
The initial story is often something we don’t quite understand, but we think we know what’s going on. Then suddenly the real story appears and now the initial story makes perfect sense in hindsight.
In “Star Wars,” the initial story seems to be nothing more than Darth Vader trying to capture Princess Leia to learn the location of the rebel base. That by itself sounds interesting, but then we learn that Darth Vader plans to blow up the rebel use by using the Death Star and that Darth Vader is really looking for the stolen Death Star plans.
Suddenly the initial story has gone from being interesting to suddenly making sense and being more terrifying than we initially imagined.
In “Die Hard,” the initial story seems to be nothing more than terrorists taking over a skyscraper. Then as we learn gradual clues about the villain’s goal (breaking into a vault and carrying detonators and dynamite), we eventually learn that the true story is that the villain plans to steal corporate bonds and blow up the hostages on the roof to create a distraction so he can get away.
That’s far more frightening than the initial story about terrorists taking over a skyscraper and holding people hostage.
Think of every great movie and you’ll notice this same pattern of teasing with an initial story and then suddenly revealing the real story underneath. In action films like “Star Wars” and “Die Hard,” the real story is a more terrifying version of the initial story. In other types of films, the real story is a deeper, emotional version of the initial story.
In “Toy Story 4,” the initial story might seem to be about Woody getting Forky to learn he’s a toy and not trash. However the real story is about Woody learning to be with someone he loves whether it’s a child who wants a toy or another toy who needs Woody.
In this case, Woody learns to leave the other toys and Bonnie, his owner, so he can stay with Bo, who he loves. The real story is far deeper and more meaningful than the initial story, but that’s what makes a story great.
“Thelma and Louise” initially seems like a story about two women fleeing a murder that they committed in self-defense, but the real story is about two women finally finding themselves and becoming the strong individuals that they are.
When plotting your own screenplay, think of what’s initially exciting and then go a bit deeper. Or simply come up with the real story and then disguise it with an initial story.
When your story gets deeper and richer at the halfway point, you’ll suddenly have a far stronger story than one that simply stretches a good idea for far too long and stretches the patience of the audience to its breaking point.