It has been suggested that since the title of this column is “Breaking & Entering,” perhaps I should devote more of my advice to criminal activity. At first, I thought of my research into the history of forensic medicine in crime solving from a previous project – blood splatter science is fascinating – but perhaps too specific for your needs. Not to mention the squeamish factor.
Then I thought of the relationship between the writer and the reader. Talk about illicit activity! Turning your reader into your “partner in crime” means you are engaging the audience. This screenwriting caper can lead to a very big payoff!
Lure Us In
Often in an action or a thriller piece, there’s an opening sequence – a “big bang,” if you will – that winds up having very little to do with the story. It might do the trick of grabbing our attention and setting the tone, but the instant we realize that was just a trick – a little fireworks show and it’s not the Fourth of July, you’ve pulled off a heinous crime – the bait and switch.
This is no minor misdemeanor. We feel cheated. Any ground you've gained is lost.
Tempt us with something intriguing and integral to the story.
Great openings reveal a significant aspect of the hero. It’s the main character that draws us into the story and makes us want to keep reading – it’s because we want go on the journey with them. Artfully reveal something essential to know about them – their own inner struggle or flaw that goes to the heart of the conflict that they will ultimately face.
You’ve set the stage for the entire story to unfold. Engaging audiences makes us your willing or even unwilling accomplice.
Get Us Hooked
We read a fair amount of ably written script openings – likely because writers pay so much time and attention to them. Often they’re rewritten time and again, every time the writer opens up the draft and starts a rewrite. These writers may know how to write a screenplay, but the cleverest of culprits quickly gets us hooked.
What’s the best bait? The idea. A concept that is fresh, unique and compelling – or a clever spin on something we’ve seen before – is most likely to get us entangled in your tale.
Offering up that time-worn paradigm of the retired crook drawn out for one last, big score is downright felonious – unless you have something ingenious and special to add to the mix.
What Is The Hero After?
Great movies have great stakes. If you want to make us your partner in crime, there had better be a hero with a big objective and a great payoff. That means a tangible goal and what is at stake if the hero fails to achieve it.
Whether your hero is determined to get the girl, steal the diamonds or save the galaxy from a nefarious Sith, you are creating stakes.
With nothing meaningful to be won or lost, you are not engaging audiences. Without stakes, who cares?
Create A Conspiracy Theory
There’s something undeniably appealing about the feeling that we’re in it right along with the hero. We’re in their shoes. We’re co-conspirators.
This can’t happen if you’ve put us in the superior position. Revealing the true identity of the bad guy, the location of the treasure, “the person who-done-it too soon” – or making it too easy for us to figure it our on our own – then we’re stuck waiting around for the hero to figure out what we already know. Not only is that boring, it makes your hero look rather dumb for having failed to put the pieces together.
Putting the audience in a superior position does work in horror movies, where it can escalate the tension through the roof. The audience knows the killer is calling from inside the house – but the heroine doesn’t. “Get out, get out!” we’re screaming in our minds.
Pull The Old Switcheroo
It’s inevitable that we will begin to anticipate what happens next in a story. I’ve easily put in my 10,000 hours reading scripts, as have so many of the folks who will be looking at your material. Not to mention the adage, “There are no new stories.” Plus we’ve all been exposed to stories since we were tiny tots.
One of my favorite anecdotes about how familiar we are with stories involves a bunch of little kids watching a movie on DVD, with mom in the other room. In a moment of conflict, one of the boys got scared. “Don’t worry!” chimed in the four-year-old host – and son of a screenwriter – “He’s the hero – he’s not going to die!”
No, I’m not saying kill off your heroes; but do remember to surprise us with the distinctive ways in which your story plays out. While they can’t come out of the blue, a deft bit of set up makes these delicious payoffs plausible without spilling the beans. Our story-loving minds adore the twist that we didn’t see coming; that unpredictable but believable plot development; the cherished concept that’s cleverly reinvented.
These felonies delight us. What a rush when the pieces fall into place, the dominoes tumble, and the ending really is a fireworks “big finish!”
The end of The Usual Suspects when we (and Chazz Palminteri) realize the identity of Keyser Söze.
The moment in The Sixth Sense when the film’s iconic line, “I see dead people,” takes on a whole new meaning.
When we finally get to the beauty pageant in Little Miss Sunshine and discover the hilariously inappropriate dance number Olive has been practicing and her family overcomes their issues to join in.
Dunno about you, but I didn’t see any of these coming. (I’m a super freak about not letting anyone spoil the story for me before I’ve seen the film.) And yet, as surprising as they were, within the context of their stories, they made perfect sense.
These are the bait and switches that are truly profitable screenwriting schemes!
Good Capers Have Many Levels
Think of your favorite caper flick. Whether it’s Ocean's 11 (1960) or Ocean's Eleven (2001) and one of its dozen sequels, a great caper must be clever in both the construction of the crime and of the appealingly crooked bad guys we can’t help but root for.
As you layout your “caper” for us, make sure it is every bit as complex. Two guys walk into a bank, pull a gun, get the money and walk out. Criminally boring. Now that’s a storytelling offense.
Adding a subplot – will the robber also get a date with the teller? – isn’t enough.
We don’t see all the layers of a good story at once. Hence the saying that, as character is revealed, we are “peeling the onion.” Riveting stories have a surface layer – the plot – as well as a subtext layer – the theme – the overall message of the story conveyed by the arc of the hero. When your story has both a strong story and something to say, a commentary on life as you see it, and what you believe is important, there’s an added resonance that engages audiences.
There’s a saying that what we remember about a great meal is the dessert. While I don’t want to debate that, there is a relevant point here that applies to storytelling. The happy ending. (As you can imagine, the my friend the ever saucy Dr. Paige Turner has something to say about “Happy Endings. Read her advice here.
This doesn’t mean that everyone lives happily ever after; it means the ending that makes the audience happy. The satisfying ending is the one we crave.
The specifics of this satisfying ending vary from genre to genre, but the key is the same – it’s not about winning as much as it is about triumphing – over external adversity or our hero’s own shortcomings. That’s what reflects our lives and engages audiences time and again.
The hero may not get what they want, what they set out to achieve, but they do get something important. In the words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” (Listen here!)
In a New York Times interview with Doran, art and film critic Carrie Rickey explores her observations about endings. “Some of the most elevating American movies ‘are about people desperate to achieve something that they do not get to achieve.’ (George Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life doesn’t get to travel the world, Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird doesn’t win an acquittal for his client.)”
“Second, many of the greatest romances (Roman Holiday, Casablanca) are about lovers who can’t or don’t remain together. And in many of the most successful movies of all time accomplishment is accompanied by incalculable loss.”
Explains Doran, “The ‘happy ending,’ the one that is most memorable and might make people go back to see the film a second time, might not be about winning. It might be about not winning, about finding something deeper that means more than victory.”
Some of the most successful and cherished stories leave us with the feeling of being uplifted and inspired by the deeper meaning. The message of the story has the power to engage audiences.
Theme may be the last, sweet taste we are left with.
That’s the really big score we hope to take away from your script.
- More articles by Barri Evins
- Screenwriter's Guidepost: "How do I know when my script is done?"
- Balls of Steel Goes Into the Writing Room and Behind the Lines with DR
Get more advice on how to engage your audience with Carla Iacovetti's webinar
The Audience's Connection to a Screenplay: Engaging Through Conflict