The simplest way to understand story structure is to study children’s stories, since this makes it easy to see how a story works. To see how to keep an audience’s attention, study “The Hardy Boys” series of books, aimed at 10-14 year old boys.
Young boys are easily distracted, so to grab their attention, you must have something that they want. Given a choice between video games, the Internet, or TV, most boys would choose anything but reading since reading requires silence and concentration. Despite the drawbacks of reading (from a boy’s point of view), the boys series of books, “The Hardy Boys” continues to be popular with each new generation, which suggests that “The Hardy Boys” series must know something about grabbing and keeping a young boy’s attention.
If you can grab a young boy’s attention and hold it, you can likely grab any audience’s attention and hold it. The key to doing so with “The Hardy Boys” books is to offer a compelling situation, then end with a cliff-hanger that makes readers want to continue just to learn more.
If you follow these two basic principles, you can improve every scene in your screenplay. Start with a compelling, interesting situation, and then end it with a cliff-hanger. Think of the early scene with John Travolta and Samuel Jackson in “Pulp Fiction” when they’re driving along, talking about Burger King and McDonald’s restaurants in Amsterdam. Initially, this conversation is interesting because it’s just about two guys talking, sharing a laugh, and having a good time. As an audience, we’re interested in the conversation because the topic is unique and interesting. This unique topic grabs our attention.
Suddenly, the conversation talks about the hit man’s boss having someone thrown out of a window for touching his wife’s feet. Now we learn that John Travolta is supposed to escort his boss’s wife and we start wondering what might happen next.
Before we learn about this setup, John Travolta and Samuel Jackson step out of the car and reveal they have guns and they’re going to use it someplace. Now that ends this initial scene, but it’s not only grabbed our attention, it’s ended with a cliff hanger, making us wonder what’s going to happen next.
Pick a scene in any good movie and you can spot the same pattern. Grab the audience’s attention in the beginning, plant something that will payoff later, and then end with a cliff hanger. Skim through any Hardy Boys book and you’ll see how this pattern clearly appears in each chapter. Something interesting happens at the beginning of the chapter, something gets set up somewhere in the middle of the chapter, and something happens that leaves the reader in suspense at the end of the chapter.
“The Hardy Boys” series is popular with generations of boys simply because it follows the standard attention-getting technique that all stories must use to hold the attention of the audience. Consider the scene from “Star Wars” when Luke discovers that R2D2 has run away. Luke rushes off to search for R2D2, he finds him, then before he can return him back to his uncle’s farm, Luke gets attacked by the Sand People, leaving us in suspense as to what happens next.
Grab the audience’s attention, plant a setup for later in the story, then end with a cliff hanger. Do this for every scene in your movie and your movie will rush along, compelling an audience to sit still and wait to see what happens next. The moment you can do that consistently, you’ve captivated the audience, and that’s the first step towards making a sale with your screenplay.