Creating Surprise Every 5 Pages, Part 1
- June 13, 2011
- Posted by: HalCroasmun
- Category: Articles
Often, I'll interview a producer in front of a group of screenwriters and ask why they choose to produce a certain movie. Beyond the obvious answers about marketability, there's a few others that stand out and one of them is…
…"The script surprised me in many ways."
At first, I didn't think that much of that answer. But as producer after producer said it, I took another look.
Remember, they read 10 to 30 scripts a week. So reading scripts isn't a hobby; it is a tedious job for them. They are often disappointed and even more often, bored.
So if your script surprises them on a regular basis, you've made reading a script an adventure again. You've given them a treat!
PROBLEM: The structure and plotting of most scenes are the first version that pop into the writer's mind. Instead of thinking "Okay, I found the cliche version, now let me create something really interesting," they just write the first idea as if they don't know there may be a better choice.
RESULT: In many cases, we see screenplays where every single scene is predictable, ordinary, and unimaginative.
SOLUTION #1: Create some kind of surprise every five or so pages.
That's right. You want the reader to experience the emotion of surprise every five minutes or so.
Because that keeps them reading. It also increases the chance they'll recommend the script. Just as important, it identifies you as a professional screenwriter.
HOW TO CREATE SURPRISE IN A SCENE
Keep in mind that there are big surprise and small surprises. You don't have to have a major plot twist every five pages — just some kind of surprise.
The easiest way to do this is to write them as setup/payoff sequence, but not just any setup/payoff sequence. This one is better explained as…
You want the emotional reaction of surprise. While most people focus only on the surprise side, I believe that both sides of the equation are important.
Here are a few examples so you can see how it works.
Jake finally realizes he's in love with the main suspect, then finds a human hand in her garbage.
Scene Action Twist
Adam finally defeats the biker in a deadly martial arts fight and as he celebrates his dominance, 20 more bikers ride up to take revenge.
While preparing for the church picnic, Martha finds the collection plate money and steals 10% of it — for the first of many times.
New Character Twist
Jerry and Veronica sign the prenup agreement at their attorney's office. Jerry walks Veronica out to her car. As they kiss, a woman interrupts them — It's Jerry's soon-to-be ex-wife and she's happy because she now owns half of Jerry's business and will be torturing them every day from now on.
THE FORMULA — Setup/Surprise.
A SETUP is the information that sets a pattern or causes the reader's mind to go in a specific direction. It prepares the reader's mind for the surprise.
SURPRISE: An unexpected occurrence, appearance, or statement that causes you to feel wonder, astonishment, or amazement.
So the setup prepares the reader for the surprise and the surprise plays off of the setup to create astonishment.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR SCRIPT?
In the next part of this Article series, I'll give an easy process for increasing the impact of the surprise. Once you have it down, you can make any scene or sequence more interesting and you can do it quickly.
Between now and then, you may want to go through your current script and ask this question about each scene:
What is the setup in this scene?
What is the payoff?
List those two things about each scene and you'll get a clear picture of what a reader will experience. If your setup/payoff combination is dull, chances are the read is dull. But if you have this process down, your scripts will surprise and delight readers.
These kind of things are what make producers fall in love with your screenplays and more important, with you as a writer. The more you have in your screenwriting toolbox, the faster you will become a sought after writer.
Is there more to this?