In a story, nothing goes right and nothing is simple. In the real world, people go to the supermarket to buy food and then go home. Boring. In “The Mist,” people go to the supermarket and get trapped inside when they’re surrounded by a mysterious mist that hides various monsters from another dimension.
The key to making a story compelling is to make sure the hero has a goal but doesn’t get it right away. Instead, your hero must fight and struggle to get what they want because conflict is what makes a story interesting.
Think of what goal your hero wants – and then shatter those expectations. In “Legally Blonde,” Elle walks into a dinner scene, thinking her boyfriend is going to propose. Instead, he dumps her.
That’s the exact opposite of what she expected. Now we want to see the next scene to see how she’ll respond.
Think how boring this scene would have been if Elle thought her boyfriend was going to propose, and he did. No conflict and thus no excitement.
Think of the beginning scene in “Saving Private Ryan.” Soldiers rush towards a beach in landing craft. If they just landed and took over the beach, that would be boring. Instead many of the soldiers get shot or blown up, making the chances of getting to the beach, let alone taking control of the beach, in doubt.
As long as the goal of a scene remains in doubt, you’ll create suspense and suspense will hold an audience’s attention.
So two ways to create tension and suspense in every scene is to:
- Define a goal in the beginning, then keep it in doubt
- Shatter expectations
Study every great scene in your favorite movie and you’ll notice it shatters expectations and surprises you. When you can duplicate that in your own screenplays, you’ll be on your way to writing a great screenplay.