What’s Going On vs. What’s Really Happening

The easiest mistake to make when writing a screenplay is to start off telling yours tory. You might think you need to start out telling your story but when you do that, you’ll run out of ideas about halfway and then have no idea how to continue the rest of the way.

What you really need to do is trick the audience. For the first half of the screenplay, deceive the audience into thinking they know what’s going on. Then in the second half, explain what’s really going on.

In the comedy horror movie “Slaxx,” a possessed pair of blue jeans goes around killing people in a clothing store. This might seem absurd and it is, but it mocks the typical horror movie with people getting killed on a regular basis. The only difference is that the killer is a possessed pair of blue jeans.

About halfway through the story, the real story emerges. The blue jeans are possessed by the body of a 13-year old girl who died picking genetically modified cotton for a clothing company that claims to support fair trade while using non-GMO materials in their products. Because this is a blatant lie, the girl’s spirit has possessed the blue jeans and is taking revenge on the people in the clothing store.

Notice that this revelation in the second half of the screenplay suddenly makes the first half of the story more meaningful.

In “Die Hard,” we initially think terrorists have taken over a skyscraper to hold the people hostage. Then about halfway through the story, we suddenly realize that the terrorists really want to rob a corporate vault of bonds and kill everyone to get away. That makes everything in the first half of the story more meaningful.

So the first half of the story is a sleight of hand trick to get audiences into thinking the story is about one thing, but then the second half of the story shows us that it’s really about much more.

In stories with a dominant villain, the villain’s motive and goal is usually hidden in the first half of the story but revealed in the second half. In “Star Wars,” we don’t know why Darth Vader wants the stolen Death Star plans back from Princess Leia, but in the second half we learn that his goal is to find the rebel base and destroy it using the Death Star. If the rebels have the stolen Death Star plans, they may be able to find a weakness, which they do.

In stories without a dominant villain, the first half of the story appears to be about one goal but the second half is about the real goal. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the first half of the story appears to be getting Olive, the daughter, to a beauty pageant on time. In the second half of the story, we realize the real story is getting the family back to loving each other again.

So when writing your own screenplay, focus on tricking your audience in the first half and then revealing the real goal in the second half. This makes a far more interesting story and gives you plenty of ideas for completing your entire screenplay.

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