Engaging the Reader by script consultant Ginger Earle, www.WhyThisisGood.com
The ability to keep the reader engaged and invested in your story is the key to success as a screenwriter. If your reader’s mind wanders—no matter how brilliantly crafted your dialogue, or how perfectly written your character description, or even how amazing the ending is—he may never pick it up again. On the other hand, if your story is so well crafted that the reader can’t put it down, then the resulting film will be so exciting that the audience won’t be able to look away.
One simple—but difficult—way to keep the reader intrigued is to ask a question on every page. This keeps the pages turning and the reader on the edge of his seat, dying to know what happens next. The mystery and promise of an answer will keep your story from falling flat.
The first several pages of even mediocre stories keep up interest: the reader (and resulting audience) will try to figure out who the hero is, and what is going on in their life. The questions, at this point, are simple, but the audience is generally still open and receptive to learning more, even if they stakes haven’t yet become life-and-death.
When your hero is pursuing a goal in every scene, a question is always being asked: Will he accomplish the goal or not? The question is answered when the hero succeeds or fails. This leads to another question, another answer, and so on. Each answer and resulting question moves the story in a new—and hopefully exciting—direction.
As you review your screenplay, make it boredom-proof by analyzing what question is being asked and then answered in each sequence. There should also be an overall question that summarizes of the main goal of the film, but within this larger question, smaller, more specific questions will be posed.
The larger question of Beauty and the Beast is whether or not the Beast will get Belle to fall in love with him before the last rose petal falls and he and his household are stuck under the spell forever. But within each scene, smaller questions are asked and answered, which keeps pages turning. Will Belle ever get the adventure and true love she craves? What will she say when Gaston asks her to marry him? Will the townspeople believe Maurice and help him rescue Belle? Will Belle be able to teach the Beast to act in a more civilized manner? Does she love him-or as the song puts it, is there “something there that wasn’t there before?” Will the Gaston kill the beast? Will Belle’s love save him?
Paranormal Activity takes what are mundane, everyday activities and gives them a suspenseful, eerie quality by posing a question early on that is not answered until the end of the film: What is wrong with Katie? The couple tries to answer in various ways, and while they search for answers, other questions are posed: Will the psychic be able to help? What does it mean to be possessed by a demon versus a poltergeist? What has caused Katie to become possessed? What can Katie and Micah do to exorcise the demon? Will the Ouija board help or hurt? Will the demon leave footprints in the baby powder? Why did the demonologist leave and refuse to help? Since every moment is a possible clue to answering these questions, the film is exciting and the viewers anxiously hang on to every word, watch every movement, anticipating an answer to the overriding question.
Inglorious Basterds works well by using dramatic tension to continually pose questions that leave the audience breathless with anticipation and suspense. Without the questions, the movie would have been dialogue heavy and dull, but from the first scenes, questions are asked: Who are these people coming to the farm? Will Hans find the people hiding under the floorboards? Will Shoshanna make her desperate dash to freedom or will Hans shoot her? Will Fredrick realize she is a Jew? Will Hans remember who she is when they dine on strudel in the restaurant? Does he know who she is and wish to torment her by ordering a glass of milk for her? Will Raine be uncovered as an imposter at the movie premier? Will Shoshannna succeed in burning down the theater? Will they get Hitler? Will Raine and Utivich escape with their lives? The movie is fascinating because we are constantly wondering, waiting for the answer to these high-stakes questions. And the moment one is answered and the tension is relieved, a new question is posed with increasingly higher and more dramatic stakes.
All of these smaller questions are a part of the larger question that makes up the goal of the story. Without these mini-mysteries throughout, the story would fall flat and leave the audience bored. Constantly posing questions keeps pages turning, readers intrigued, and audiences on the edge of their seats.
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