Every scene in your screenplay, from start to finish, must grab the audience’s attention. Fail to do that and you wind up with a boring scene. String together too many boring scenes and you wind up with a boring screenplay.
So the key is to make sure every scene, no matter how short, is interesting in some way. Here are several techniques to do this:
- A WTF is going on moment
- Unusual location
- Shatter expectation
- Teaser of what’s to come
The biggest mistake Hollywood makes all the time is thinking more. More car crashes, more gunfire, more explosions, more sex appeal, will grab an audience’s attention. It will for a moment, but then all that activity still has to make sense somehow. Examine your scenes in your favorite movies and look for how these attention-grabbing techniques work.
A WTF is going on moment immediately grabs our attention because we want to know what’s happening and why. In the opening scene of “A Clockwork Orange,” we start with a closeup of the hero’s eye, then his face. When the camera pulls back, we see the hero and his gang members dressed in white overalls, sitting in a strange bar that looks like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Then the hero sips a glass of milk. At this point, we have no idea what’s going on but our curiosity has been piqued.
An unusual location lets us peek behind the scenes in places we don’t normally see but wish we could see. In “Hustlers,” there’s a scene where the hero is in the dressing room of a strip club. Since we don’t normally get to see a dressing room in a strip club, full of half naked women, that scene grabs our attention.
Conflict is always a great way to grab our attention at the start of a scene. In the opening scene of “Rocky,” we see two boxers fighting in a dingy arena. We don’t know who the hero is but we’re curious who will win. This curiosity helps keep our attention to watch the entire scene to find out what happens.
Shattering expectation is a way to present a seemingly normal scene and then surprise us by revealing it’s actually something else. The opening scene in “Passenger 57” shows a hijacker taking over an airplane. That’s conflict, but then the scene shatters our expectations by revealing it’s just a training exercise in a fake airplane.
Another way to shatter expectations is to lead the audience into thinking one thing will happen and then surprise us when the complete opposite happens instead. In “Legally Blonde,” the hero is going to dinner with her boyfriend and she’s already let everyone know she expects her boyfriend will propose to her. Instead, he dumps her.
Throughout this scene, we’re waiting to see if the boyfriend will propose or not, but like the hero, we’re surprised when he dumps her instead.
A teaser of what’s to come is the opposite of shattering expectations. The scene opens with a hint of what will happen, and then it shows us exactly what we expect. The tension occurs when we aren’t sure if the hint will happen or not.
In “Blood Simple,” a man and a woman are driving a car late at night in the rain. They’re talking about being attracted to each other, so now we’re expecting them to get together. After a mysterious car follows them and leaves, then the couple finally fulfills the expectation of getting together.
Make sure every scene grabs the attention of the audience because if you can hold the audience’s attention in every scene, that means you’ll also hold them throughout your entire screenplay as well.