How do you keep a story from slowing down and dragging? Watch a bad movie like “Grandmaster” and you’ll likely fall asleep. Watch a long movie like “Schindler’s List” and you’ll likely not even notice the time has gone by so quickly. The two keys to keep your story moving at all times is Anticipation and Uncertainty.
Anticipation means every part of your story gives the audience something to look forward to so they want to see how it will end. Every movie starts off with a Big Question such as in “Titanic” where there’s the Big Question of who will survive, but there’s an even more important question on whether Rose will escape from being trapped in a dull marriage. Those two Big Questions never get answered until the end.
Yet in the meantime, “Titanic” constantly asks lots of questions that create anticipation. Early in the movie, Jack wins tickets to the Titanic, so there’s the anticipation of whether he’ll win and whether he’ll make it to the ship on time before it leaves. While we’re waiting to see if he succeeds, “Titanic” already has its two Big Questions hanging over our heads, but also a small question of what Rose will do next to deal with her situation.
Later, there’s the anticipation of whether Rose will kill herself or not. Then there’s the anticipation of what Jack will do when he gets to sit in first class and dine with Rose and her fiancé. Then there’s more anticipation of whether Jack and Rose will finally consummate their relationship.
Along with anticipation, there’s always uncertainty. If you know something is going to happen and nothing can stop it, that’s about as exciting as watching a bus pull into a bus stop. Now toss in a bomb about to go off if the bus should slow down and you get uncertainty as in “Speed.” Anticipation gives us something to look forward to while uncertainty makes us worry that it won’t happen the way we hope it will.
Strip away anticipation and a movie can show you gorgeous scenes that mean nothing since you don’t know or care what you’re watching. Strip away uncertainty and you get a movie that plods from one point to another with nothing of interest happening. The lack of uncertainty is what makes watching people in a shopping mall so dull because nothing interesting is happening.
So make sure every scene in your screenplay provides Anticipation and Uncertainty. Create that in every scene and you\’ll find that your story moves faster and compels an audience to wait until the final ending.