What’s the best way to keep an audience’s attention? The two most common ways involve interesting visuals or interesting dialogue. Neither one is better than the other, but you should know how both methods work to keep your screenplay interesting to your audience.
When Rod Serling created “The Twilight Zone,” he created a television classic that has endured for decades. When he later created “Night Gallery,” he created an easily forgettable series that pales compared to The Twilight Zone. The difference can be summed up simply.
The Twilight Zone focused on dramas that relied on limited special effects and miniscule budgets. The producers couldn’t afford computer-generated effects or expensive and exotic locations. Instead, they had to come up with creative solutions that had the same effect.
Contrast this with most movies these days and you’ll see a bloated budget paying for meaningless special effects designed to entertain you like a fireworks display, but leave you empty immediately afterwards.
As a screenwriter, you can’t write in your script “And now a spectacular special effects explosion occurs here that will consume five minutes of time and keep an audience’s attention.” Instead, you have to actually write a good story. Visual effects always (yes, always) supplement a story, not substitute for it.
Nobody would care about the special effects in “The Terminator” if the story wasn’t good. There have been plenty of movies with great special effects, but without a good story to back it up, those movies quickly disappear into the dustbins of history.
Watch a Twilight Zone episode like “The Midnight Sun,” which tells the story of the end of the world as the sun slowly gets closer to incinerate the Earth. Rather than rely on massive special effects, the producers simply showed thermometers bubbling over, paintings melting on the canvas, and people sweating profusely. Amazingly, those simple effects create the necessary appearance of the end of the world.
Where “Night Gallery” falls apart is relying too heavily on special effects instead of providing an interesting story. Who cares about a witch or werewolf running around if the character’s plight doesn’t grab us and make us want to root him (or her) on to success?
That’s the difference between The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. The Twilight Zone focused on dialogue, drama, and conflict. Night Gallery focused on special effects and is much poorer as a result.
In your own screenplays, you can’t rely on special effects to save your story. You must create a compelling story and then let special effects act like seasoning that spices up your story, but doesn’t substitute for it.
Doing so might turn your screenplay into a great movie, but relying on special effects to cover up the flaws in your story will guarantee that your screenplay will go nowhere.