Murphy’s Law states that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The screenwriting world is no different. You want to make everything go wrong as far as possible. In an early draft of the script to “Sex Tape,” the couple that frantically tries to retrieve their sex tape are afraid that if their bosses at work discover they released a sex tape, they could lose their job. So in this early draft, their bosses never learn about their sex tape, which makes the whole point of bringing up this fear pointless.
If you bring up an issue, you have to make it appear. That’s the first rule of screenwriting.
In “The Interview,” the early promise is that the daytime talk show host and his partner will help kill Kim Jong-Un. That promise is later fulfilled in the end, but not in the way that the CIA (or the heroes) expected. Yet this early expectation about killing Kim Jong-Un comes through to a satisfying conclusion.
In every love story, the worst that can happen is that something threatens to keep the lovers apart forever. In “Sleepless in Seattle,” that’s when the woman might actually marry another man. That’s also when the man starts going out with another woman. In “The Proposal,” the worst that can happen is that everyone will discover that the hero is lying about being engaged to an American so she can stay in the United States, and that’s exactly what happens. In “Star Wars,” the worst that can happen is that Darth Vader will eventually find the location of the rebel base and attack it, and that’s exactly what happens.
When you create a problem, you have to follow through on that promise by creating the worst that could happen. Obviously the worst that could happen to any hero is that the hero gets killed, so you have to choose the worst scenario that’s not irreversible but only appears so. In “Die Hard,” the worst that could happen is that the terrorists could kill the hero’s wife, so that threat is what needs to be fulfilled. In “The Hunger Games,” the worst that could happen is that Peeta gets killed, but he’s just seriously wounded.
Make the worst that could happen occur, short of actually killing your hero. When you promise a major problem and fulfill that promise, you’ll create a far more emotionally satisfying story than offering a promise and ignoring it completely.