For my own curiosity, I decided to study several popular movies and analyze them to see what made them work. Although every script is different, the one constant feature is that every great movie tells little mini-stories that have their own audience grabbing beginning, a problem, a solution, and a cliffhanger ending.
The intriguing beginning of each mini-story holds your attention. The problem keeps suspense. The solution resolves the problem, and the cliffhanger pulls you into the next mini-story. Place each mini-story back to back and now each mini-story pulls the audience along and then leaves them hanging at the end until the next mini-story starts up again. So rather than focus on developing suspense within each act of your screenplay, create suspense in every scene possible.
For example, in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there’s a scene where Jimmy Stewart goes to the school dance and meets the girl who loves him. Jimmy Stewart cuts another guy out of the dance, who plots revenge and opens the dance floor to reveal a pool underneath. Now the suspense is whether Jimmy Stewart will fall into the pool or not.
Of course, any time you introduce anything, you have to resolve it so Jimmy Stewart finally does fall into the pool. This immediately pulls the audience into the next mini-story where Jimmy Stewart and his girlfriend walk home wearing odd clothes since their own clothes are soaking wet. Just as it looks like Jimmy Stewart might fall in love with his girlfriend, his uncle roars up and tells him that his dad had a stroke so Jimmy Stewart immediately has to leave, which pulls us into the next mini-story.
Study any good movie and you’ll see the same structure in action. Intriguing opening, problem, solution, and cliffhanger to create suspense throughout your entire screenplay. Where most novices fail is when they write long stretches of scenes where nothing really interesting happens. These boring sections simply lead the audience into the more exciting scenes, but by then it’s too late. You don’t want any dead space in any part of your screenplay. If there’s a single scene that doesn’t either intrigue the audience, pose a problem, offer a solution to a previous problem, or end with a cliffhanger, it probably doesn’t belong.
Cut out all dead scenes because you want your screenplay to yank the reader along from beginning to end. Think of a roller coaster that immediately starts the thrills from the beginning and never lets up until the end. Would you want to ride a roller coaster that spends too much time going slow on a flat part of the track where nothing exciting happens?
Think of your screenplay’s actions as a roller coaster. Keep the ups and downs moving to grab your audience and never let go. To create an interesting screenplay, you need to create four interesting acts. To create an interesting act, you need to create multiple interesting scenes. Any time your screenplay starts getting boring, guess what? You’ve just lost the audience and that\’s a sin you never want to commit.
Keep it interesting. In case you want to read the mini-story structure of popular movies, feel free to purchase any of the following e-books or just analyze your own favorite movie. You may be surprised how the same mini-story structure keeps popping up in different movies from comedy to drama to horror.