Shock and Surprise Us

Look in your ordinary world and chances are good nothing exciting is happening. That’s why you can’t write scenes where something ordinary is happening. Remember, your audience can leave at any time and if your audience is a professional script reader, that person can give up on your screenplay at any time.

So the way to hold an audience’s attention is to use shock and surprise. On an extreme level, that can be something dramatic such as in the opening scene of “Harold and Maude” where we watch a young man carefully prepare a room before climbing up on a chair and hanging himself.

Up until that point of watching his feet dangling in the air, we have no idea what’s going on but it’s mildly interesting because it seems to have a purpose. Only until that scene ends do we fully understand that the young man in the scene was preparing his suicide by hanging himself.

Another example of shock and surprise occurs in the opening scene in “WALL-E” where we see a world of trash and immobile robots. Then we see a single, tiny robot diligently working away stacking garbage. Right away, this scene grabs our attention because we want to know what’s going on.

That’s the key to every scene. Write each scene as if it were the first scene an audience sees. That scene has to grab the audience’s attention by making them wonder, “What’s going on?” Then the scene has to end by answering that question partially, if not completely.

“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is about the life of Mr. Rogers, and its opening scene shows Mr. Rogers going through a seemingly normal routine at the beginning of his show. Then the shock occurs when Mr. Rogers shows us a picture of a man with a cut on his face and Mr. Rogers briefly explains that this man is hurt.

This sudden appearance of a man with a cut face contrasts sharply with the seemingly normal routine of a Mr. Rogers children’s TV show, and that surprise shocks us into wondering, “What’s going on?” The moment we want to know what’s going on, we’ll stick around to find out.

In “Ghostbusters,” the opening scene shows a librarian unaware that something supernatural happening around her. That surprises us. Then the librarian turns and sees something that makes her scream, but we can’t see what it is. That shocks us. Now we really want to know what’s going on.

So in writing every scene in your screenplay, isolate it as if it were a short script that ends by making us wonder, “What’s going on?” How can your scene surprise us? How can your scene shock us? If your scene shocks and surprises the reader (audience), chances are good you’ve got a good scene.

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