If you’ve ever been on a roller coaster, you know that you start at the bottom, then climb the biggest hill possible before diving down to the bottom again. Roller coasters are fun precisely because they take you through the ups and downs.
How much fun would a roller coaster be if it was flat or simply moved up and down with minor shifts in height? Boring. If roller coasters would be dull without extreme changes in height, why would anyone think screenplays should be any different?
Far too many novices write scenes that don’t tell a story so much as they vomit up information for the audience to understand. Then the following scene does more of the same, which explains why the majority of screenplays are never produced. It’s because they’re not that good in their current form.
What all screenplays need is to create massive changes in emotion and to do that, use contrast. White looks whiter against a black background and vice versa, so make sure every scene has strong emotional highs and lows.
An emotional high is when the hero gets closer to achieving a goal. An emotional low occurs when the hero seems further away from achieving that same goal.
In one scene in “Die Hard,” John McClane experiences an emotional low when he’s trapped on the roof of the skyscraper as FBI helicopters shoot at him, thinking he’s a terrorist. Even worse, the roof is rigged to explode. Then John McClane grabs a fire hose and leaps over the edge of the building where he can swing himself down to safety on a lower floor. That’s an emotional high.
Suddenly, the fire hose metal attachment to the wall falls, acting like an anchor, dragging him back out the window where he might fall to his death. That’s another emotional low that comes immediately after the emotional high when we thought he was saved. Finally, John McClane frees himself from the firehose and is safe once more.
That short scene took us through multiple emotional highs and lows:
- Low – John McClane is trapped on the roof, being shot at while the roof is rigged to explode at any moment
- High – John McClane uses a fire hose to swing down to a lower floor
- Low – The fire hose attachment falls and drags John McClane back towards the open window
- High – John McClane frees himself
Notice these constant swings between lows and highs makes the story move much faster. Compare this with the typical novice screenplay where nothing much happens for several scenes except for meaningless action, introducing us to characters we don’t care about. With no emotional swings, contrasting between high and low, most novice screenplays are simply boring.
Always look for contrast to make each emotional high and low appear greater. Comedies use contrast but dramas and all types of stories use them as well. In the action comedy “Boss Level,” a man finds himself trapped in a time loop where assassins keep killing him over and over again.
The contrast comes when a helicopter fires a minigun at him but because he knows exactly where the bullets are going to hit, he just casually walks through his apartment, deftly avoiding every shot. This contrast creates humor, but a drama could simply make each emotion feel more impactful.
Use contrast to highlight every scene and every emotion. The more contrast you have, the more vivid your story will be.