How do you grab an audience’s attention and hold it? Show them conflict and mystery. Conflict implies a battle between two people while a mystery makes you want to know what’s happening so you’ll stick around to see more.
The beginning of every movie needs this dual combination of conflict and mystery. There’s an obscure movie called “Amreeka” where a woman is shopping in a local grocery store and suddenly stops to eye a pretty woman who stares back at her. Then the first woman leaves the grocery store and spies on the pretty woman leaving the store. The implied conflict is that these two women have a history of antagonism between them, but we don’t know why so it’s a mystery that we want to know more about. Just as we’re on the verge of learning the answer to this mystery, a new mystery should pop up and keep stringing us along.
In “Die Hard,” John McClane is hesitant about meeting his wife so there’s implied conflict there along with a mystery of what happened between the two of them. Just as John McClane gets to the Christmas party, a new set of conflict and mystery appears when the first two terrorists walk into the skyscraper lobby and shoot the security guard dead. Then they take over the security guard’s post and open the gates to let more terrorists inside. Men with guns implies conflict, and there’s the mystery of what they’re going to do. As soon as we learn that they’re taking everyone hostage, another mystery creeps up when we want to know why. When we learn that they want to steal the bonds in the safe, we get another set of conflict and mystery where we wonder how John McClane is going to survive against them. Then we wonder how he’s going to rescue his wife. Then we want to know how he will defeat the terrorists.
It’s this dual combination of conflict and mystery that strings us along and leads us from start to finish. Without conflict, we’ll get bored. Without a mystery, we have no reason to keep watching. Watch a bad movie and you’ll likely fall asleep because there’s no conflict and no mystery. In bad karate movies and action movies, there’s plenty of conflict but no mystery. We see lots of things breaking or blowing up, but there’s no mystery to keep us intrigued to see the outcome.
When the terrorists shoot the company president, the action is brief but effective because it keeps the mystery of their actions going. When bad guys just blow up a shuttle like in one of those bad “Star Wars” prequels, you don’t even get a hint of conflict or mystery before the pyrotechnics start up with a bomb going off. Despite the special effects of a bomb going off, there’s no conflict implied so there’s no interest. There’s no mystery so there’s no concern about the outcome because we don’t know where this action scene is leading us. As a result, this type of scene is meaningless.
If your screenplay starts dragging, find a way to put in more conflict and mystery. The conflict doesn’t have to be actual fighting, but implied conflict of some kind. Then make it a mystery so we want to know what’s happening. Audiences don’t watch movies so much to find out what’s going to happen as they do to find out the significance of what already happened. With both conflict and mystery, you’ll have two ingredients to keep an audience’s attention.