Keep a Screenplay Interesting with Cliffhangers Using Reversals and Revelations

At the end of every scene, you need to leave on a cliffhanger to entice the audience to keep following the story. A cliffhanger gets its name from the old serial movies where the villain would leave the hero dangling off the edge of a cliff and audiences would have to come back next week to see what happened.

Two ways to create cliffhangers are reversals and revelations. Reversals simply change the hero’s state from good to bad (or bad to good). Think of the scene in “Pretty Woman” when the hero (Julia Roberts) goes into a high end clothing store to go shopping. She enters the store still looking like a prostitute, but she’s happy and looking forward to shopping.

Then the store clerks treat her poorly and make her leave in tears. That’s a reversal as her state was happy and suddenly it turns to sad, which makes us want to know what will happen next and how will the hero respond.

As it turns out, the hero goes to another store, buys multiple expensive outfits, and then returns to the first store to flaunt her purchases in the face of the mean store clerks while telling them they made a big mistake.

If a scene fails to change the hero’s state from good to bad (or bad to good), then there’s no change at all, which means the scene is simply flat and stagnant. Such scenes do nothing to help the story and should be eliminated or modified.

Revelations are similar to reversals except instead of flipping the hero’s state from good to bad (or bad to good), revelations simply reveal new information. Often times this new information completely changes the hero’s (and the audience’s) perspective on the past.

In “The Shawshank Redemption,” there’s a scene where a convict claims he met another prisoner who admitted to a crime that the hero was falsely accused of committing. That’s when the warden asks to meet with this convict in private to ask if this is true and whether this information could get the hero out of prison. At this point, we think the warden is on the hero’s side.

When the convict says that he’d be willing to testify to get the hero out of prison to prove he’s innocent, the warden steps aside and a prison guard shoots the convict dead, thereby ensuring that this information will never release the hero from prison.

Suddenly we’ve gone from thinking the warden might be a friend to realizing he’s now an enemy. This revelation changes our perspective of the story because now we know the hero must overcome the warden.

By ending every scene with a reversal or a revelation, every scene will end with a cliffhanger, making us want to know more. When each scene pulls the audience along, the entire story will flow and create an integrated and satisfying experience.

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