Continuity in the Story

If you want to destroy any chance of holding an audience’s interest, do what the movie “Skiptrace” does and jump around from scene to scene with no sense of continuity between each scene. If you watch the trailer for “Skiptrace,” you’ve basically seen the best scenes of the entire movie. The rest of the movie involves transitions from one scene to another.

The basic idea behind “Skiptrace” is that a bunch of executives got together and said, “Hey, let’s come up with funny scenes and then put them together, back to back, with no logic connecting any of them together.” For example, there’s a scene where one main character is being held in Russia. Suddenly, the other main character, a Hong Kong cop, magically shows up and saves him.

Together, the two of them escape to get back to Hong Kong. First, they drive a car to a train station. Then in the middle of the train ride for no apparent reason, they jump off the train. Then they have to bargain with a used car dealer to buy a useless car that they abandon so they can run into a Mongol horde and get drunk with them.

Does any of this make sense?

The key to telling a good story isn’t to string together a bunch of scenes and hope they make sense. The real key to telling a story is to stay focused on the story. For example, in “Skiptrace,” the Hong Kong cop magically finds the other character in Russia and rescues him. A far better approach would be rather than jumping straight to this scene, showing a bunch of intermediary scenes where the Hong Kong cop learns the location of this other character and then races to rescue him.

The key to telling any good story is to stay focused on the details. When Indiana Jones escapes from inside a pyramid filled with poisonous snakes, we get to see how he does it and then how he escapes and gets back on track with the Ark of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” There is one scene where Indiana Jones clings to a submarine and then the next scene shows him hiding inside the underground submarine base, but notice that’s just one leap in time. Most of the story stays in real-time where the audience can see (and experience) Indiana Jones running from a rolling boulder or fighting a man near a spinning propeller on an airplane.

To keep your audience engaged, stay focused on the details. You might need to skip the details to avoid monotony (this is why you never see characters in movies going to the bathroom unless it’s important somehow like in “Pulp Fiction”), but overall, the more the audience can see the main character learning and getting to a major scene, the more emotionally engaged we’ll be.

If you do what “Skiptrace” does and jump from one major scene to another without any intervening scenes in between, it’s like we’re watching total strangers act and it creates a dissatisfying, unemotional, completely disengaged process from the audience. Instead of experiencing the lives of the main characters, we’re simply witnessing strangers behave.

Think of watching two strangers argue in public. It’s mildly interesting but because you don’t know either of these people, you’re not emotionally engaged. Now imagine if you got to see how each stranger started the day, gradually ran into problems, got madder and more upset over the course of their lives, and then ran into each other to argue and fight. Suddenly because you’ve traveled their own emotional journey, the fight is more interesting. You’re not watching strangers fight. You’re watching people you know and trust and relate to fight, and that creates a far more emotionally engaging experience.

So the key to making a good movie isn’t to follow “Skiptrace” and pile on seemingly interesting scenes one after another. Instead, focus on creating one good scene and then a lot of other good scenes showing us how the main characters get to that really good scene. That means writing lots of good scenes along the way and letting us see and experience the main character as he or she changes, learns, and grows.

Emotions come only by watching people we care about, and we can only care about people when we’ve experienced what they’ve gone through. Remember the Indian saying that to truly understand another person, you have to walk a mile in their moccasins. To truly understand a movie character, we have to follow along as well and live in that character’s shoes.

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