Surprise the Viewer Whenever Possible

Nothing’s more boring than seeing the ordinary. People don’t go to movies to watch ordinary life. People go to movies to see something different.

While it’s easy to show drastically different scenes such as tanks plowing into shopping malls or spaceships shooting lasers at each other, even the most ordinary scenes need to surprise audiences to grab their attention and highlight something crucial to the story. The more surprises you can spring on the audience (and the script reader), the more compelling and interesting your story will be.

The movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” is about Mr. Rogers, the celebrated children’s TV host. In the movie, the hero (a jade and cynical journalist) named Lloyd Vogel, is given the job of interviewing Mr. Rogers. The first surprise comes when Lloyd calls Mr. Rogers and Mr. Rogers asks him if he knows what’s the most important thing Mr. Rogers is doing right now. To the journalist’s surprise, Mr. Rogers answers, “Talking to Lloyd Vogel.”

This is such an odd response that it immediately draws the audience in to find out what Mr. Rogers means. A second surprise comes later when Lloyd goes to watch Mr. Rogers filming his show. Just as Lloyd enters the studio, Mr. Rogers begins filming and suddenly stops and tells everyone in the middle of filming, “It’s Lloyd Vogel!”

This highlights Lloyd’s presence on the set and further emphasizes Mr. Roger’s caring attitude towards Lloyd, who is shocked that Mr. Rogers would wreck the filming of his show just to say hello to him.

Yet another surprise occurs when Lloyd is interviewing Mr. Rogers and instead of answering, Mr. Rogers pulls out a puppet and starts talking to Lloyd through the puppet. This scene makes us think Mr. Rogers is insane and shocks us, but it’s another example of surprise that makes us want to see what happens next.

In every scene, think of what people expect, and then find some way to surprise the audience. Surprises shouldn’t be random (such as having Godzilla suddenly appear) but they should be integral to the story and the characters somehow. In “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Mr. Rogers constantly surprises Lloyd and the audience by his seeming eccentric behavior. Only until the end do we realize Mr. Rogers was behaving this way solely because he cares about Lloyd as a human being.

In your screenplay, surprise your audience (and potential script readers) as often as possible in ways that enhance your story. The more surprises you spring on the audience, the more compelling your overall story will be.

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