What makes a dull story? When things are predictable. What makes an exciting story? When things are not only unpredictable, but logical as well. The best movies are those that constantly challenge the viewer like a magic trick.
First a scene begins with some goal in mind. Then something different and unexpected happens so one of two possible endings occur:
- The scene ends as expected, but in an unexpected way
- The scene ends in an unexpected manner
In the opening scene to “The Hurt Locker,” American soldiers discover a bomb hidden under some garbage so they decide to detonate it. Just knowing this much, you would expect the bomb to blow up at the end of the scene and you’d be right. What makes this scene appealing is how the American soldiers blow up the bomb.
First, they try using a robot, but it breaks down. Next, one of the soldiers puts on a bomb-resistant suit and walks towards the bomb. As he gets closer, we see various Iraqi people watching. The American soldiers scan the Iraqi faces, looking for someone who might try detonating the bomb using a cell phone and that’s exactly what happens. What’s unexpected is that the solder trying to disarm the bomb gets killed by the blast.
In that scene, the American soldiers have a goal of detonating a hidden bomb and they succeed. The unexpected twist is how they detonate the bomb and what happens as a result, which isn’t what the American soldiers planned.
Because the unexpected can be dramatic, it holds our attention to the next scene as we wait to see how the surviving American soldiers will react.
Besides giving us the expected in an unexpected way, a second approach is to surprise us completely with a completely different result. In “The Crying Game,” a man is being seduced by a woman. We expect the scene to end with the woman successfully seducing the man, but the unexpected twist occurs when the man finds out the woman is actually a man as well.
The unexpected definitely grabs our attention because now we want to know how the story will turn out.
Watch any good movie and notice how scenes either give us the expected ending but with a twist, or give us an unexpected ending.
In “Star Wars,” Luke and Hans sneak into a guard station, dressed as stormtroopers. Their initial goal is to hide there until Obi-wan can turn off the tractor beams and get back to the Millennium Falcon. The unexpected occurs when Luke discovers that Princess Leia is being held prisoner and is scheduled for execution. This unexpected discovery moves the story forward quickly and holds the audience’s interest.
In “Legally Blonde,” the hero enters the courtroom determined to prove her client’s innocence. Since this is a comedy, we expect that she’ll successfully defend her client and we’re not disappointed. What keeps our attention and surprises us is how she does this by noticing that a witness claimed she took a shower after getting a perm, which is something no woman would ever do because it would ruin the perm. By destroying the witness’s testimony, the hero successfully defends her client.
So when writing every scene, define the following:
- What’s the goal for the main character in that scene?
- What’s the expected end result of that scene based on the main character’s goal?
- How do you want to end that scene? (Deliver the expected or deliver an unexpected result?)
Remember, your screenplay can only sell if it’s interesting and it will only be interesting if every scene is interesting. To make every scene interesting, deliver the unexpected either in the end or on the way to delivering the expected.
Surprise us. That’s the key to keeping a screenplay interesting from start to finish.