If you’ve ever gotten hooked on a soap opera, you know how they can hold your attention for weeks, months, or even years. There are two secrets. First, always leave with a cliffhanger so people will come back to find out what happens. Second, always have multiple stories so you have multiple cliffhangers.
For example, a soap opera might be about two people having an affair where the woman is the man’s best friend’s wife. Now the cliffhanger is what will happen when the man’s best friend finds out?
Just a single cliffhanger is like having one hook, but to really snare people, you need multiple hooks. So let’s say the best friend’s wife is friends with the man’s wife. Now another cliffhanger is what will the man’s wife do when she finds out her best friend is having an affair with her husband?
Toss in more outrageous subplots. Perhaps the man’s best friend is embezzling from the company and needs the man’s help. Now another cliffhanger is will they get caught?
The more subplots you have, the more compelling the overall story since you not only want to know how one story turns out, but you want to know how the other stories turn out as well. Then the moment one story finally ends, another one has already popped up to take its place, keeping you hooked on the storyline. Soap operas hold your attention simply because they introduce so many stories that once you get hooked on one, it’s easy to get you hooked on one more. Suddenly you’re following multiple story lines and wanting to know how each of them ends, but they don’t end at the same time. By creating multiple story lines, soap operas can hold your attention across several days, weeks, and months, sometimes years.
Now watch a bad movie and you often can’t even sit still long enough for two hours. The problem is that the bad movie probably just focused on one story and didn’t make it compelling enough with cliffhangers sprinkled throughout to keep you hooked and eager to find out what happens next. Watch a movie like “Die Hard” and you’ll find lots of mini-stories. The main story is whether the hero will get back with his wife. One subplot is whether the wife can hide her true identity from the head terrorist. Another is whether the terrorist will succeed in cracking open the vault. Another is whether the FBI and the police will succeed in attacking the terrorists. Still another is whether the TV newscaster will discover the identity of the wife. “Die Hard” plants multiple stories that keep your attention riveted at all times.
That’s the type of pacing you need for your story. If your screenplay seems to drag, you probably are focusing on just a single story. Create multiple stories with your other characters, just as long those other stories support your main story. The more subplots you have to create cliffhangers throughout your story, the more exciting and faster paced your screenplay will be. Just watch a soap opera to see these techniques in action, but try to resist getting hooked on a soap opera because you might want to watch them for years to come.