There are two things every story needs. A hook that grabs the audience and a cliffhanger that makes the audience want to know what happens next.
One of the earliest movies that Joan Collins appeared in was called “The Empire of the Ants.” The basic storyline is that Joan Collins is showing a bunch of real estate investors property on an island where radioactive waste has been dumped, turning ants into giants.
While silly, the story starts off mildly interesting when we see the radioactive waste being dumped illegally off shore and then washing up on the beach where ants crawl nearby.
Then the movie falls apart from there as we see a long, drawn out parade of different characters who will eventually get eaten by the mutated ants. However, this part of the story drags because nothing interesting happens. In other words, there’s no hook to keep us interested.
Basically, a hook not only promises something exciting in the future, but also grabs our attention right away. Think of “Terminator” where a strange man suddenly materializes out of nowhere, naked, and starts running around. Right away this unusual event grabs our attention and also promises to explain what’s going on later. The hook snares us from the beginning.
Once you hook the audience, you need to hold their interest until the end and to do that, you constantly need cliffhanger endings for each scene or sequence of scenes. These cliffhangers have to leave the audience wanting to know what happens next, but before you reveal the answer, set another cliffhanger in place. That way once the audience learns the results of the first cliffhanger, they’ll stick around to see how the second cliffhanger ends. By that time, you’ll have sprung a third cliffhanger on the audience and so on until the end.
In “Thor,” the initial hook are the heroes chasing an interesting storm. A big storm is interesting in itself, so since it’s unusual, it grabs our attention. Then the cliffhanger is when they suddenly see Thor appear and they run into him.
In “Star Wars,” the initial hook is Darth Vader’s starship firing on Princess Leia’s starship. The cliffhanger is Princess Leia sending R2D2 out with a message. What is this message? That’s what keeps you watching and interested.
When we learn the message, we’re faced with another hook. Who is Obiwan and why has this princess sent for his help? Then the cliffhanger is when Luke finally meets Obiwan and we want to know what Obiwan is going to do.
By constantly using a hook to snare your audience’s attention and then stringing them along with cliffhangers, you pull the audience from beginning to end of your story. If you fail to use hooks, your story will stall from lack of interest. If you fail to use cliffhangers, you’ll fail to bring your audience along.
Watch a bad movie to see the failure of a compelling hook. For most men, watch a chick flick and notice that there isn’t a compelling hook to keep you wanting to know more. For most women, watch a mindless action film and notice that violence is rarely enough to want you to know more about what happens next.
Omit cliffhangers in your story and the entire story just drags with seemingly no purpose. Dull and boring. Study bad films and notice when your interest flags. It’s probably because there are no hooks to grab you and no cliffhangers to make you want to know more.
Bad films simply pile on the action without hooking your interest first and drawing out the suspense with a cliffhanger.
In “The Empire of the Ants,” the giant ants start killing everyone. Then they start herding the people towards a town that pops out of nowhere. Suddenly, the townspeople are revealed to being controlled by the ants and they want the survivors to become mindless slaves of the ants too.
If this makes no sense, that’s because “The Empire of the Ants” lacks enough hooks and cliffhangers to draw your interest and maintain the suspense. Instead it just throws random scenes of violence at you in the hope that it will keep you glued to your seat.
It’s easy to make a bad movie, and Hollywood churns those out frequently. Avoid their mistakes and focus on hooks and cliffhangers. By doing this, you’ll improve your chances of writing an interesting and compelling screenplay.