The Problem and Anticipation

What makes a scene interesting isn’t a lot of mindless action, but introducing a problem and anticipating the result.

A problem creates conflict, and that conflict generates anticipation because we want to know what will happen. Ideally, the anticipation should be something good or bad.

In the opening scene of “Rocky,” Rocky is fighting a boxing match. Initially we don’t have any idea who’s fighting or what’s going on, but the problem is that two men are hitting each other and we want to know which one will win. At this point, we only have minor interest in the action.

Suddenly, the other boxer cheats and head butts Rocky, infuriating Rocky and immediately gaining our sympathy. Suddenly we know exactly who to root for (Rocky) and now we want to see the other boxer get what he deserves. Suddenly we’re hoping to see Rocky win and see the other boxer lose. Our anticipation has suddenly increased dramatically.

In the opening scene for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” Mr. Rogers is going through his opening routine for his TV show where he steps through the front door, changes into a sweater, and explains what he’s going to talk about to his audience. There’s almost no problem at this point so there’s also very little interest.

Then Mr. Rogers shows a picture of a sad man with a bruise across his nose. This picture is so jarring and out of place in a children’s TV show that it immediately grabs our attention. Although Mr. Rogers isn’t part of the conflict, the picture of a bruised man immediately hints of conflict and we want to know why this man is bruised across his face. The anticipation is waiting to find the answer.

Scenes that introduce a problem and tease us with anticipation play off the mind’s need for answers. Introduce a problem that we don’t quite understand and now we immediately want an answer. Because we want an answer, we’ll wait around for the next scene that will either provide the answer or more likely provide just a hint of the answer to pull us along to the following scene one after another until we finally understand what’s going on.

In a screenplay, Act I (the first 30 minutes ) is about introducing a problem and teasing us with anticipation. Act IIa (the 30-60 minute segment) then provides us with some answers but leaves us with still more questions.

Finally, Act IIb (the 60-90 minute segment) gives us all the answers we want except one, and that final answer is how will the story end?

Then Act III (the 90-120 minute segment) is mostly action that answers all open-ended questions until it finally answers the initial question posed at the beginning.

In “Star Wars,” the initial problem is that Luke wants an adventure. By the end of Act I, Luke is part way to getting his adventure when he agrees to leave with Obi-wan.

Then in Act IIa, Luke has to find a pilot to fly him off his planet and he barely escapes when storm troopers try to stop them, but Luke succeeds in finally leaving his planet.

In Act IIb, Luke is trapped on the Death Star and rescues Princess Leia. By the end of Act IIb, we know answers to all the questions introduced earlier such as what did Princess Leia hide in RD2 (the Death Star plans), why was Darth Vader trying to find R2D2 (to retrieve the stolen Death Star plans), what is Darth Vader’s plan (to find and destroy the rebel base), and how can the good guys defeat Darth Vader (blow up the Death Star). The only question remaining at the end of Act IIb is whether Luke will succeed in blowing up the Death Star or not.

Act III is about both sides planning their attack with the Death Star approaching the rebel base and the rebels planning a near suicidal attack on the Death Star. By the end of Act III, we finally learn that Luke has an adventure after all when he blows up the Death Star and defeats Darth Vader.

So every time you write any scene, make sure it introduces a problem and creates enough anticipation in the audience to want to know what happens next. If every scene you write in your screenplay can introduce an interesting problem and hold us in suspense for how it turns out, you’ll likely have a screenplay that readers will want to keep reading until the end.

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