The most common mistake novices make when writing a screenplay is trying to tell a story. That usually means characters speaking dialogue that explains what’s going on and scenes that exist solely to show some background information.
When screenwriters try to tell a story, they’re more apt to dump exposition on the reader. Exposition by itself is deathly boring. Instead of continuously vomiting exposition on the page through stiff dialogue and scenes that go nowhere, create an experience instead.
Depending on the genre of your story, that experience can be fear (in a horror movie), laughter (in a comedy), excitement (in an action thriller), or sorrow and ultimately happiness (in a romance).
When you strive to create an experience, then you’ll immerse the reader and ultimately the audience into a situation that teases, toys, and rattles their emotions. That’s far more interesting and compelling than simply reading a bunch of facts.
Wold you rather read a list of facts? Or would you rather experience a unique emotion? That’s the difference between telling a story and creating an experience.
Here’s a bad way to tell a story. Have one character say to another, “Remember, Bob, we’ve been close friends since elementary school and when you married Jackie and I married Susan, we vowed our kids would grow up to be friends just like we were back in Pecos, Texas.”
Not only is such expository dialogue stiff and unrealistic, it gives the audience no reason to care. When you focus on telling a story, you’ll be tempted to layer on the exposition so thick that it suffocates your story.
However, when you try to create an emotional experience, now you’ve got a much better chance of engaging the audience.
Imagine a man meeting two strangers in a bar. Instead of immediately revealing why this man is meeting two strangers in a dive bar, leave the purpose a mystery to entice us to want to know more.
Instead of being happy to see this man, have the two waiting men upset that this man is late. When a man meets two strangers, you’d expect everyone to be happy to see each other. Shatter expectations and you’ll create surprise, and that’s exactly how the opening scene in “Fargo” works when Jerry is late to his meeting with two men he’s hired to kidnap his wife.
So the key to creating an immersive experience in a scene is to focus less on telling a story and more on creating an experience. Second, look at the typical expectation for that scene and find a way to subvert it. A man meeting two strangers in a bar would usually begin with pleasant introductions, but in “Fargo,” everything starts off wrong when Jerry realizes he’s an hour late and the two men he’s hired to kidnap his wife are mad at him.
Shatter expectations and focus on creating an experience instead of telling a story. Just do those two things and you’ll avoid the common mistake of dumping exposition on the audience and writing a dull screenplay in the process.