Keep Making the Promise Bigger

Every movie promises something to the audience. An action film promises hand to hand combat, gunfire, and sometimes car chases and explosions. Whatever promise a story makes to the audience, it must provide that promise in each Act of the story. In addition to providing the promise in each Act, a story needs to keep making each promise bigger and more exciting than the previous promise.

In “John Wick, Chapter 2,” the big promise is action. In Act I, this promise is fulfilled when John Wick goes to retrieve his car and battles through multiple men to get his car back.

In Act IIa, John Wick is forced to assassinate the sister of the villain. After completing his mission, he has to battle his way to safety again, which delivers a second promise of action with plenty of hand to hand combat and gunfire.

In Act IIb, the villain has now hired multiple professional hit men to kill John Wick. This creates a third massive battle that delivers the promise of action as John Wick has to fight past professional hit men trying to kill him. Since professional hit men are more dangerous than ordinary bodyguards, this makes the action more suspenseful than previous battles.

In Act III, John Wick now goes after the villain and has to fight past the villain’s multiple bodyguards. Even worse, John Wick only has a gun with seven bullets and must kill others to take their guns to use against the other professional hit men coming at him, including a deadly deaf woman.

Because “John Wick, Chapter 2” promises action and delivers it four times in each Act, and then each action gradually gets bigger until the end, the story holds and keeps your attention. By creating a promise of action and delivering it in each Act where the promise gets progressively bigger and more dangerous, “John Wick, Chapter 2” creates an entertaining action film.

To see how the failure of delivering on a promise creates a disappointing story, watch “Hanna” or the latest “Fantastic Four” remake. In “Hanna,” the hero (Hanna) is a girl trained by her father to be an assassin. The story starts out well enough as Hanna fights soldiers sent to capture her and her father. She allows herself to be captured and then gets imprisoned in a secret government center that she must fight her way out of after killing a woman she thinks is her mother (the villain).

From this point on, the action in “Hanna” gets smaller and less exciting. In the beginning, Hanna had to fight multiple soldiers but near the end of the movie, the fighting almost disappears completely and she’s faced with confronting her own mother (the villain) in a scene that’s far less exciting than the earlier scenes where Hanna fights multiple soldiers in hand to hand combat. As a result, “Hanna” starts off with a good promise and delivers initially, but fails to deliver in the end.

The latest “Fantastic Four” remake promises super heroes fighting, but none of that actually happens until the very end. So the promise is to show super heroes fighting but until the last ten minutes of the movie, you never see super heroes fighting. By failing to deliver on its promise earlier and often, “The Fantastic Four” fails completely as a movie while “Hanna” starts off well then peters out to a disappointing conclusion.

In your own screenplay, identify your major promise whether it’s romance, comedy, action, or horror. Then make sure you deliver that promise in each Act where each promise gets progressively bigger and more suspenseful. Do that and you’ll likely create an interesting story. Fail to do that and you’ll be lucky to have your script turned into a bomb like “The Fantastic Four.”

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