In novels, the reader experiences what the characters go through and that’s what makes a good novel compelling to read. Pick up any novel by Stephen King, John Grisham, Dan Brown, or Toni Morrison and the text will focus on sensory details (sight, touch, taste, smell, sound) and emotional feelings (anger, happiness, confusion, doubt, love, etc.).
In screenplays, you’re not writing for the audience. You’re writing for the person reading the screenplay who can pass your screenplay on to others who can approve its purchase or not. While you need to think of the audience in a theater or at home, watching your movie, your first audience is always the Hollywood reader who will read your screenplay.
Unlike novels, screenplays cannot focus on emotional feelings or sensory details other than sight. So you need to draw in the reader’s interest visually and to do that, you can rely on multiple techniques either individually or together in various combinations.
First, add a mystery. When something happens in a screenplay, tease the reader by suggesting something is out of the ordinary. The ordinary is boring so even if a scene takes place in an ordinary setting, something must be different somehow.
In the opening scene to “The Hunger Games,” the hero (Katniss) is getting ready for some event, but the mystery is that we don’t know what this event is. Our first clue that something is wrong is when Katniss’s little sister is terrified of what’s going to happen. Now this seemingly ordinary scene is suddenly far more important because of this mystery of why the little sister is terrified of a coming event.
A second way to draw in the reader is through conflict. In novels, authors can describe what’s happening in a character’s thoughts and emotions. Screenwriters can’t do that so they must rely on expressing the characters’ emotions through conflict either against objects or (preferably) against people.
In “Castaway,” Tom Hanks plays a man marooned on an island. In one scene, his tooth is bothering him so he uses an ice skate to hammer the tooth out of his mouth. Knowing this will cause a great deal of pain, the conflict is that the hero is torn between knocking his tooth out and not doing anything at all, but he knows he has to knock the tooth out. Thus the conflict makes the scene interesting because we get to see him preparing to knock his tooth out, knowing he doesn’t want to do it.
Conflict through people is much easier and more enjoyable to watch. In “Titanic,” the hero (Rose) is about to commit suicide by throwing herself off the front of the ocean liner. Then Jack appears and the conflict is who will win? Rose (killing herself) or Jack (getting her to come back from the edge). Conflict holds our interest because we want to see who will win in the end.
So in every scene, create a mystery and add conflict to reveal the characters’ emotions. The more emotional characters can get, the more interesting it will be to watch them and ultimately cheer them on.