The purpose of a screenplay is not to tell a story. The real purpose of a screenplay is to grab and hold our attention. Only until it can hold our attention can a screenplay tell a story.
One of the biggest mistakes screenwriters can make is to forget the hero of the story. Every scene, every event must impact the hero’s life somehow. If a scene doesn’t affect the hero in any way, there’s no point in that scene.
To see how this works, read this early draft of “The Hunger Games,” which is drastically different from the final shooting script. Curiously, the final shooting script closely resembles the actions in the novel but the above early draft strays from the novel in ways that simply don’t work because they include numerous scenes that have little to do with the hero.
In “The Hunger Games,” the story is about Katniss, a young girl who lives in a dystopian world where teenagers are sent into an arena to kill each other off. Yet in the early draft of “The Hunger Games,” the opening scene focuses on the previous year’s events that have no impact on the hero.
This opening scene shows participants fighting for their lives, but the sole purpose of this opening scene is to show the futility of the hero’s district (District 12) in sending participants into the Hunger Games since they inevitably get killed on the first day.
Then the script jumps forward a year later when Katniss’s little sister gets picked for the Hunger Games and Katniss volunteers to take her place instead.
This early draft of “The Hunger Games” then wastes time on two subplots: Haymitch trying to redeem himself for being a drunkard as he watches District 12’s tributes get slaughtered every year, and Gale, Katniss’s friend, who sneaks into the Capitol and then sneaks out again.
Haymitch’s subplot story focuses on Haymitch being laughed at by all the other participants because he’s drunk all the time. Then he slowly redeems himself by helping Katniss and Peeta win the Hunger Games. Yet the bulk of this Haymitch subplot focuses on events that impact Haymitch but are completely irrelevant to Katniss’s fate. As a result, most of this Haymitch subplot is totally useless precisely because it ignores the real hero of the story (Katniss).
The second subplot focuses on Gale sneaking into the Capitol, meeting Katniss, and then sneaking out again. Yet all this effort has no effect on Katniss’s life. It’s another example of scenes that completely ignore the hero. Not surprisingly, this entire subplot got cut out of the final movie.
By studying this early draft, you can see why it largely does not work, especially compared to the final shooting script. The lesson to learn is that every scene in your screenplay must focus on the hero or its impact on the hero. If a scene does not affect the hero in any way, it does not belong. It’s as simple as that.