Events vs. Stories

One of the most common screenwriting mistakes is that a screenwriter will come up with a handful of action packed scenes, and then the bulk of the screenplay consists of boring, dull scenes that lead up to that action-packed scene. Yet because so much of the screenplay consists of dull, boring scenes, the whole screenplay winds up being largely dull and uninspiring.

The problem is that most scenes in screenplays are just events. For example, imagine talking in a coffee shop. Kind of boring, right? But in “Pulp Fiction,” that coffee shop conversation takes on a whole new meaning when the conversation steers towards robbing the place, and it means a lot more when we realize the main characters are in that same coffee shop. Suddenly w0\’re not just witnessing a boring conversation in a coffee shop any more.

Skim through a good screenplay and you’ll notice that there are rarely dull scenes where nothing of significance happens. Ideally, every scene should include the following:

  • An interesting problem for the characters to solve
  • Foreshadowing that prepares us for a future scene
  • A resolution that solves the problem
  • A cliffhanger that makes us want to know what happens next

In “Star Wars,” there’s a simple scene where Luke and Hans rescue Princess Leia. Suddenly the problem is that they’re trapped by stormtroopers. Princess Leia orders everyone into the garbage chute, which foreshadows the garbage chute scene. The resolution is that everyone escapes, and the cliffhanger is what will happen to them next once they’re in the garbage compactor?

In “Avatar,” there’s a scene where Jake explores the alien planet for the first time. First, there’s the problem of simply learning what this alien world is all about. There’s foreshadowing when the hero learns that a certain rhino-like animal just gets mad if you shoot it because your shots won’t hurt it. The resolution of this scene is that the hero gets separated from everyone else, and the cliffhanger is what will happen to an unprepared avatar roaming the world by himself with no protection and no knowledge of how to survive?

Every scene needs to provide multiple layers of information to keep the story moving. A scene that just foreshadows the future is boring. A scene that just presents a problem is also boring because there’s no foreshadowing of the future and no cliffhanger at the end to make the story pull us forward. Such movies tend to lurch forward and stop, which makes for a jerky story experience. Ideally, you want to grab the audience from the start and pull them along to the end without giving them a chance to lose interest. James Cameron movies do this very well while mediocre movies don’t.

When you watch a movie that drags, it’s because it’s lacking one or more of these elements of presenting a problem, foreshadowing the future, resolving the problem created, and ending with a cliffhanger to pull us into the next scene. When each of your scenes is interesting, your entire screenplay will be interesting. If a large number of your scenes are boring, then your screenplay will be boring.

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