Which material is suitable for an engaging story?
Excitement results from contrast
Everything our prospective viewer finds extraordinary, important, or unusual is suitable material for a satisfying film.
Attention-grabbing material often involves the invasion of an unknown world or the collision of two different worlds. It can also consist of a radically changing point of view of a known world.
Invasion of an unknown world: a convent opens in a red-light district; a beggar wins 50 Million in the lottery; a successful career man is fired; aliens visit the earth.
Collision of two worlds: a female company manager falls in love with a tramp; a man dresses as a woman (or the other way around); an old bachelor must cope with a toddler.
Radically changing point of view on a known world: a minor clerk decides to take his life into his own hands after being stepped on one time too many. He sees his past now with different eyes. It does not seem normal anymore. Or someone gives up a very promising career to dedicate himself to something completely different, which now seems more normal to him than what he did before.
A dramatic story doesn’t wait to be noticed, it draws attention to itself. It grabs the audience by its peculiarity, like a poster one cannot ignore.
Further, an audience feels intrigued by stories which appeal to its assertive, intellectual or selfless passions – stories, in other words, that are either about winning a victory (conquering a powerful enemy), or clearing up a mystery, or supporting / sacrificing oneself for a worthy cause.
The audience’s soul can furthermore be reliably captured by horrifying, dreadful, even bloodthirsty contents or portrayals of evil.
Winning a victory: Every fight for an objective, for example, for property, a lover, the decision of a judge. The most exciting stories involve fighting an opponent, a danger or a disadvantageous situation. Two men fight for a woman, a mother fights for her child, the hero fights against the powers of darkness.
Clearing up a mystery: Who is the unknown, who doped the watchdog every night?
Supporting / sacrificing oneself for a worthy cause: a teacher fights for the standards of his pupils; a doctor fights for the health of his patients.
Horrifying, dreadful contents: even when the hero of a story does not reach his goal, the description of his failure may captivate the audience. For example the failed life of a housewife, or of a foolish uncle, who, after his plans for life fall flat, becomes a burden to his family and eventually is freighted off to an old people’s home by the bride of his nephew. Even more dramatic (from Boccaccio’s Decameron): an irascible father kills the lover of his daughter and sends her his heart in a golden dish; she, however, pours poisoned water over it, drinks it, and dies.
Whether or not material is suitable for a dramatic story can finally be recognized by whether or not it has an ending. In contrast to real events, material suitable for filming always has a resolution, an end which decides everything and wraps it up. In reality, problems often remain unsolved. Not so in a story! In a story they always have an ending, whether good or bad.
Only with an ending in mind is it possible for the author to give a plot its indispensably logical order of events. Only with an ending in mind can he construct his story so that it can be fully resolved (like a mathematical equation). In a story, everything is connected like the elements necessary to prove something, and nothing simply runs unrelated and parallel, like in real life. In reality, two families can live at opposite ends of the town or province and never meet their whole lives. Should these families appear in a film, however, they would certainly become involved with one another, either directly or through shared acquaintances. In a film, nothing exists for itself, but is always connected to everything else.
Of decisive importance for the suitability of material for a dramatic story, in the end, is that which the targeted audience considers spectacular or extraordinary. For example, pampered children in secure surroundings dream of running away and experiencing wild adventures whereas children in uncomfortable, insecure surroundings dream of a safe, comfortable family. People who have enough to eat find adventure and deprival spectacular. For hungry people, eating and luxury is extraordinary. In order to recognize what makes a particular material suitable for one’s dramatic story, one must know what the targeted audience finds extraordinary.
Basic dramatic patterns
Material suitable for filming most often takes the form of one or several of the following story patterns:
Two people are meant for each other, but they are kept apart by extreme barriers. Right from the beginning, it goes without saying that they will have to come together or live thwarted lives.
A hero decides to do something and carries this out against resistance. He is either successful or fails.
Uncovering the circumstances, reasons and those responsible for a mysterious act.
Someone is being ruthlessly hunted for something which he did or is presumed to have done.
Complicated circumstances and relationships are revealed. (A boss, for example, suspects and then discovers that his subordinates are deceiving him. – Or: two men fight for a woman; it is revealed that one of them is her brother.)
The basic material has weird qualities. Space, time and characters transform into unusual, maybe horrifying forms. The course of the story consists of a series of tremendous effects brought about by plot and set design.
Aristotle’s dramatic patterns
The Greek philosopher Aristotle differentiates between four plot patterns: simple, complicated, gripping and sentimental.
A story runs its course steadily and unified. For example, a woman awaits the return of her long-absent lover, the desired guest, who comes ever nearer and then finally enters. Such expectation and fulfilment, uninterrupted by reversal, is the trademark of the simple plot pattern.
Aristotle said a complicated plot is better than a simple one. In order to understand what he meant by that, one must see that simple and complicated plot patterns have the same basis. Both are based on moving towards a desired or feared event. In the simple plot, the event happens as expected. In the complicated plot, the opposite to what one expected, happens. For example, a man wants to chase away a beggar who besieges his house. The simple version: the man tries various means to scare away the beggar and in the end, he chases him away. The complicated version: the man gets ready to chase away the beggar; it is revealed the beggar is the brother of the man; the man invites him into his house. Or: the beggar chases the man away and moves into his house. The unexpected turn of events is the hallmark of the complicated plot.
The viewer is drawn into a dramatic development by the expectation of an eventual occurrence. With the simple plot pattern, what he expects to happen finally happens. For example, the lovers find one another. Or the hero triumphs over the antagonist. Or the mysterious opening situation is explained.
In the complicated pattern, however, something other than the expected happens. For example, the hero‘s original intention is not realised. Perhaps he had originally intended to convict the neighbour of robbery, but instead convicts his own spoiled and favourite son. – Or it’s revealed at the end of a story of pursuit, that the pursuers don’t actually want to kill our hero, but rescue him from his companion, who turns out to be the actual antagonist.
The complicated pattern initially creates the expectation of a resolution which is different from that which is actually realised. When, for example, one wants to use the complicated pattern to tell how two lovers find each other, the likelihood of this happening has to appear almost impossible right up until just before the end. Or one wants to tell how a hero conquers his enemy (antagonist). If one uses the complicated drama pattern here, it must appear for as long as possible that the antagonist will win. At the climax, the hero unexpectedly wins, a turning point typical of the complicated pattern.
According to Aristotle, this reversal must be on the one hand surprising, while on the other hand it must not appear accidental or unjustified. Its causes must appear in the course of the events and in retrospect be recognizable. They were simply overseen until they effected the reversal. That’s why the reversal at the end of the complicated drama, according to Aristotle, always brings with it an increase in knowledge: by enabling the understanding of its occurrence’s causes. When the pursued character’s companion (in the example mentioned above) suddenly turns against the pursued, signs and reasons for this reversal have to appear in the course of events as one looks back on them. – When the favourite son (in the other example) reveals himself as the thief being searched for, there must be signs pointing to this in the past events, which until now have been overlooked.
A complete example for a complicated pattern (from the Decameron): In order to win the love of a beautiful widow, a young man spares no effort. But the widow doesn’t care at all about what is being done in her honour. The young man becomes impoverished because of his efforts to win her. All he has left is a small hut in the country and a falcon, of which there is no more noble in the world. The widow visits a friend in the country. Her small son, who loves animals, becomes friends with the young man. The more often he sees the falcon fly, the more he likes it, so much so that it becomes his greatest wish to own it. But he doesn’t trust himself to ask for it, because he sees how valuable it is to his owner. The son becomes ill. The mother, who has only this one son, asks if he is not longing for something. She would do anything possible to get it for him! The boy wants the falcon. The widow knows that the owner of the falcon has loved her for a long time, without ever winning even one glance from her. She hesitates to ask him for that which he loves most, after he has already ruined himself for her, although she’s certain she would get it from him. She sends him a message that she will come and eat the midday meal with him, and make good all the trouble he has suffered on her account. The ecstatic young man hosts her as best he can. After she has eaten, she asks him in the name of her son, who is deathly ill, for the falcon. The young man bursts into tears. He cannot unfortunately give her the falcon. She has just eaten it. He had nothing better with which to serve her. The widow chides him for killing such a noble falcon just to feed her. In silence, however, she admires the magnitude of his conviction, which even bitter poverty could not dull. The son dies. The widow marries the young man.
The story sets up the expectation that the widow will get even the falcon as the very last possession of the young man, while her admirer is left utterly without means. The reversal (turning point): She does n o t get the falcon (at least not as she imagined…) and marries the young man. This is the opposite of what one expected in the beginning. This development is on the one hand totally surprising, on the other hand not without reasons, but rather the logical result of the previous events, when one once again runs them through one’s mind. In this way the complicated drama deepens the story it represents.
With “gripping”, Aristotle is referring mainly to that which further above has been treated as “capturing the audience’s soul by horrifying, dreadful, even bloodthirsty contents or portrayals of evil” (the “sublime” pattern). The awe-inspiring can, according to Aristotle, either be effective in that one exhibits (shows) it, or through the particular way of choosing and connecting events to a plot. For example, one can show a kiss between a man and a woman, or develop the plot in a way that when both disappear behind a waterfall, nothing else is possible but that they kiss there. In this moment, we imagine the kiss, which we don’t see. The same applies for other sensational content, such as acts of cruelty or mutilation. Aristotle holds the view that they are more gripping the more they’re transferred in the imagination of the viewer by the way the plot is put together. For example, someone’s hand is to be hacked off. One can show this explicitly or one can show how the victim is led into a room, while the viewer (in film, the camera) remains outside. One sees only the dark opening of the door, and hears what’s happening inside. A scream. Then a dog runs out the door with something in its mouth. In this way, everything actually happens in the imagination of the viewer. Aristotle considers this to be the most effective and exciting way.
Here the viewer is not so much intrigued as touched – infected with performed feelings or by the depiction of life situations or fates which arouse pity.
Dramatic patterns such as love stories, adventure stories, or stories of pursuit do not appear before the eyes of the public like paintings. When one looks at a painting, one sees all parts of it simultaneously. One cannot perceive all parts of a dramatic pattern at once, but only, as with music, one after the other. Similar to a melody, a story needs time to develop, i.e., to proceed from its beginning to its end.
One can also compare dramatic patterns (love, adventure, investigation or pursuit stories) with something which is behind a curtain. The plot is actually the opening of the curtain. Bit by bit the story reveals itself, until it stands complete before the eyes of the viewer. Then its plot is complete.
Because films as well only can be perceived bit by bit in a certain framework of time, unlike paintings but similar to music, every film needs a plot as its basis. The screenplay of a film describes this plot in words the way a melody is written in notes. The filmmaker translates the screenplay’s descriptions into a series of images the way a musician translates written notes into the consecutive tones of a melody.
As with different melodies, different plots have different sequences of events, which have different effects on the perceiver. For example, a plot can develop in such a way as to “retrace” or to “progress”. It can inform or surprise one, make one curious. Plots can work, like music, with premonitions which promise a definite ending and at the same time hold it back. The following paragraphs describe ways one has as author to develop and optimize one’s story’s plot.
Once the viewer is interested in a story’s material the most effective means of pulling him further into a story’s action is its development with suspense.
Example I: A man walks along streets, enters a house, and then a room. Another man enters the room. He tells the first man that he gets the job.
Example II: The same man is stopped by his wife at the door of their apartment before he leaves. She has selected a new shirt for him. It is important that he makes a good impression today so that he gets the job. They could use the money. – Wearing the new shirt, the man walks along streets, enters a house, then enters a room, etc.
The sequence of scenes in II has more suspense than Sequence I. Because our attention is directed to the future. In Sequence I all we can do is observe what happens, but we don’t expect anything. We are not told, for example, what the man intends and how important it is for him. Therefore we barely participate in what happens.
Suspense draws a viewer into a story by predicting something. In Example I, nothing is predicted. In Example II a scene is predicted in which it will be decided if the man will get the job he urgently needs. That is why II is more “suspense-packed” than I.
A viewer feels suspense when he is waiting for something definite to happen or to be decided. He can only have this expectation when the story prepares him accordingly. In Example II, this preparation is performed by the scene with the wife. There are various methods of preparation, and they will be explained in the further course of this text. (This last sentence, by the way, is also a preparation which promises something to come.)
The audience’s suspense remains engaged as long as the scene which one has promised is still being awaited. This kind of suspense can be maintained throughout an entire film. Perhaps the film deals with the love between a young man and a girl. Their parents are against it. The audience‘s interest in this story persists until the question of whether or not they come together is decided. The scene in which this question is decided is the scene about which the viewer is feeling suspense. The clever author therefore positions this scene as close to the end of his plot as possible so that the audience’s interest does not expire too early.
Another film deals with the struggle between a hero, for example the owner of a small shop, and an antagonist, perhaps the owner of a bigger shop. They fight over some kind of valuable object (a piece of land, money, maybe a woman as well, perhaps the pretty flower seller across the way, whom each wants to win for himself). The interest in this struggle persists until the question of which of the two men wins is decided. The scene in which this question of power is decided is the scene to which the viewer’s suspense is directed. The clever author therefore positions it as close to the end of his plot as possible, so that the audience does not go home untimely.
Yet another film deals with an innocent victim of pursuit. The scene in which it is decided whether or not the hero escapes his pursuers is the scene that enables the viewer’s suspense. It is therefore best positioned at the end of the plot as well.
An author who wants to grip his audience with his story achieves this best through suspense. To do this, he must promise his audience a scene which they must absolutely want to see. The audience, therefore, feels suspense, because it has an approximate idea of how the story will end, mostly with the deciding of the question of power between the hero and the antagonist.
Suspense regarding an occurrence or decision
Already the title of a story can announce something worth seeing. “The Buried Beauty” promises the tracking down of a secret which has to do with love. “The Corpse in the Chapel” or “Scream” creates the image of something horrible which one will be shown. “Uncle Toby” will probably deal with the fate of a relative who is in some way or other impressive.
The most commonly used method of directing the audience’s interest to the future is to have a character in a story set a goal for himself. The hero says: “I want …”, and everything that can be substituted for the three dots is the goal he sets himself, for example, “I want to marry the flower girl”, “ …to be a rich man”, “ …bring the murderer of my brother to justice”, “ …escape my pursuers” etc.
The goal indicates what sort of decisive scene the viewer can expect. This scene will show whether or not the goal has been reached. And the viewer awaits this decision with suspense. (As long as the goal interests him. When someone decides to paint his house blue, he sets himself a goal, but it’s questionable which viewer can warm up to such a prospect).
The objective can be quite simple. Sometimes it’s enough just to show someone waiting for a certain event. A woman waits for her lover. This scene arouses our suspense, if we know for whom she is waiting. Would she just be sitting around, this would hardly interest us.
On the other hand, goals can be set for the long term. Perhaps a young and jobless man wants to make a better future for his children. Such an objective controls the main suspense right up to the decisive scene at the end of the story, even when other goals appear in between. Intermediary goals could for example consist of trying to get an expensive therapy for the dangerously ill son, or getting money back from a crook. Interim goals create interim suspense.
Setting a goal usually takes the form of a decision or clear intention. A deaf and dumb girl decides to become a lawyer. – A nephew decides to find out why his uncle is killing the pets of strangers.
However, even the clearest goal is made unsure through the “not-yet” of the future. On the one hand, without the image of a certain future no suspense is possible, but on the other hand, the suspense regarding a decisive scene always includes an agonizing half-knowledge. For one can never know for sure what the future brings.
Other methods of creating suspense are less clear in effect than the setting of goals. The environment or the appearance of a character can predict something, for example, the strangely unhealthy climate of a certain area or the monstrous figure of a person. A plot which begins with the description of a beautiful autumn day, bright, clear sunshine and a variety of colours is hardly going to introduce a catastrophe; one can expect that something joyful is waiting at the end and may feel suspense as to its occurrence.
Less clear than setting a goal, but aiming in the same direction are the effects of initial warnings, prophecies, dreams or premonitions which imply to the viewer about what he may be in suspense. A fortune teller prophesies to a young woman that she will marry “a man with golden hair”. In this way, an image is created, even if indefinite, about the occurrence of which one can then feel suspense.
Suspense regarding a clarification or meaning
The methods described until now for awakening interest in the action consist of creating in the mind of the viewer an image of a future decisive event. In a state of suspense, he then awaits its occurrence. The action „progresses“ – step by step – towards the implied event.
“Retracing” action, on the other hand, excites the interest of the viewer in a different way. The decisive event towards which progressive action develops happens at the beginning of a retracing action. It’s the first thing the viewer comes face to face with, but without the preparatory steps leading up to such result. Therefore, it surprises, even astonishes. The viewer is then primarily waiting for the explanation of the causes of this surprise. He is awaiting a scene which will provide this explanation.
Whereas in a progressive story we see a fate unfolding itself and being sealed in real time, the major incidents of a retracing plot have taken place before the beginning of its telling, during which comprehension successively occurs.
For example, the main character of a story discovers that something has been stolen from him. No suspense preceded this misfortune, i.e. the character didn’t expect to be robbed. Almost like in a blind person who has been slapped, the unexpected stroke of fate causes suspense regarding the answer of the question: Who robbed me? When did it happen? How did it happen? The robbery victim looks here and there. Maybe he discovers tell-tale footprints in front of his door, and asks the neighbours if they have seen anyone. He retraces the course of what happened, i.e. its history.
By comparison, in another story, the plan or goal set by the hero at the beginning leads him to carry it out bit by bit until at the end he completes the plan or reaches his goal. The deaf and dumb woman decides to study law, ignores her father’s resistance, successfully registers at the university although she is already 30, studies and practices until she can finally pass the state exams. This action is not retracing or explanatory but instead, progressive, because its decisive event, passing the state exams, waits in the future. In order to make retracing action out of it, one must conceive the development differently; for example, the father of the young woman gets into difficulties with the law. His daughter warns him about a certain procedure and thereby saves his interests. Her knowledge of the correctness of a certain procedure is only possible when she is in the position to interpret the law. But she has no idea about these matters! Or maybe she does? Retracing action begins with just such an amazing fact, and then searches for an explanation, which is usually to be found when discovering the causes or history of the surprising event. Just such a cause could be spotted in the case of the daughter with the amazing abilities, in the fact that she secretly studied law.
Progressive action usually begins with the goal-oriented intention of a deed and creates suspense regarding its execution and fate. Retracing action usually begins with a (surprising) deed and creates suspense regarding the clearing up of its causes (history). With the retracing method of storytelling, the decisive events already occurred, and it is now mainly a question of the interpretation or explanation of their conditions. For example, there is an old man who is known all over town. Everybody around can tell a story about his guests, his deeds, his craziness. He embarrasses people and gets beaten up for his trouble. When one asks him why he puts up with that, he laughs and says: Because I am fond of dying! In this way we experience a growing, interested suspense in finding out the circumstances of the old man’s behaviour – they may be “retraced” or discovered in the further course of the story.
Retracing action begins with an accomplished fact that strikes the viewer like a slap in the face strikes a blind man and creates suspense regarding its explanation. An accomplished fact is explained by its causes, which lie in the past or history of a fact and which are discovered in the course of a retracing plot. For example, a wedding: the bride sees someone amongst the guests and suddenly becomes rigid. From that moment she cannot utter a word. What robbed her of speech? Or who? The story consists of discovering and understanding the causes of the bride’s silence. One is awaiting the explanation with intense suspense. The bride perhaps dies soon after the wedding. Then more and more new abysses open as the case gradually deepens. Was she maybe buried alive? Did her brother-in-law murder her? Or was it the jealous son of the mayor? The further action discloses causes and reasons for a current mystery and is thereby retracing.
The retracing method of storytelling discovers a history which has caused something in the present and thereby also explains it; the progressive method of storytelling aims for something beyond the present: a future state of affairs or goal. Both can also be interwoven with each other, for example the revelation of a past history sets up the conditions necessary to reach something aimed for in the future. A young man falls in love with the sister of the murderer of his brother. When the young man discovers that, in past history, his brother was actually murdered by someone else, this may smooth the way for his future with his beloved girlfriend.
The difference between retracing and progressive action repeats itself in the difference between surprise and suspense. Suspense is directed towards the future, towards something one is awaiting there. Surprise, on the other hand, means something happens which is unexpected or different than expected. Hence, surprise seems to be completely separate from suspense-packed expectation or even opposed to it. On the other hand, nothing ever happens without causes; in the case of surprise, these are simply concealed. One can only call a fact “surprising” if its history is unknown. What happened in the past must be understood in order that the surprise is dissolved, namely by explaining its preconditions.
In the end, surprise, like suspense, initiates an expectation. The person in a state of suspense awaits a decisive event. The surprised person awaits the explanation of an event which has already happened.
Surprises lose their effect when one experiences them repeatedly, for example, by seeing a film twice. The second time around, one remembers the explanation which was given the first time one saw the film, usually at the end of the story. That’s why the surprising event at the beginning, which is explained by the rest of the action, is no longer surprising. Usually at the end of retracing action which often begins with something being stolen or someone being killed, the guilty one is convicted. Circumstances and author of the puzzling events are thus cleared up. When one experiences the same story a second time, one can no longer feel suspense regarding the explanation. One knows it already from the first time.
Progressive action, which creates suspense not regarding explanations but as to decisive events, also has a different effect the second time it is perceived. The new effect is however not, as in the case of surprise, weaker than the old, but instead rather the opposite.
When we see progressive action for the second time, we already know the ending. Through this we experience the individual processes en route to the ending differently, more deeply. For example: the story of the deaf and dumb woman, who wants to study law. Two endings are possible: she makes it, or she doesn’t make it.
- She makes it. When we see this version for the second time, we experience all the episodes secure in the knowledge of her later success. There is, for example, a scene in which she stands up to her father’s disdain. When we see this scene for the first time, it intensifies our doubt about whether she will reach her goal. When we see it a second time, it feeds our admiration of the heroine’s strength of will. Our experience changes, deepens.
- She doesn’t make it. When we see this version for the second time, we experience all the episodes secure in the knowledge of later failure. There is, for example, a scene describing how she passes her first interim exam. When we first see this scene, it intensifies our hope with regard to her goal. When we see it for a second time, it arouses our pity for the still trusting heroine. She believes she has taken a big step forward; we know, however, that she will fail. And her failure is intensified by the hope she feels in this moment. Here as well the viewer’s experience with the film the second time around changes, deepens.
With action primarily determined by surprise, intensifying the experience through repetition functions less well, because the episodes do not change the meaning when one sees them for a second time. Surprises function best the first time around. Anyone who plans a story in which it should really explode once, impress the viewers and then be forgotten, should bank on surprises. Many successful entertainment films bank on surprises, are seen by everyone, and then never again. – Films containing the expectation of a decisive future event, however, have the potential to be seen many times as an ever-deepening experience.
Starting at the End
In case one’s story stays too flat, suspense – not as to a promised occurrence (or decision) but with regard to clarification (or meaning) – can be brought about or heightened by starting at the end. In this case, the end of a story is exhibited right at the beginning. The action could for example start with us seeing a mountaineer carrying a dead woman on his back through snow high in the mountains. We then go back in time to the real beginning in time of the story. The woman is still alive. The young mountaineer appears. He courts her. Through the exhibition of the end of their relationship, the scene in the snow, the viewer feels suspense as to the steps leading up to such an outcome.
Another example: A man is promoted to president of his company. Then the story returns to the past. We now see the man, younger, just as he gets a job there as doorman. Armed with the knowledge of the ending, namely his promotion to CEO, the viewer feels now suspense as to how the hero can go from doorman to such an honour.
By being told the ending first, the audience is in a state of suspense as to the full truth, every single detail of the situation, especially an explanation of all decisive steps leading up to such an outcome.
Starting with the ending, resembles the accomplished fact at the beginning of a retracing story. The difference consists in the manner of satisfaction which the viewer is expecting. After the surprise at the beginning of a retracing action, he is generally anxious to get an understandable explanation of the hidden causes. Who or what is at the root of this situation and can be made responsible? Starting with the ending, -mentioned ending, he experiences every detail of the further course of events as an expression of a certain fate. The viewer’s feeling thereby resembles that of an omniscient power and is correspondingly less determined by curiosity than by empathy.
In addition, the viewer of the anticipated ending always knows more than the dramatic character. Only at the very end does that character catch up to the viewer, in that the character finally arrives at the place where the viewer already saw him, at the beginning. This is the moment the viewer has been waiting for. He is not tensely awaiting an explanation but rather the arrival of something he knows for sure.
Varying levels of knowledge between the audience and the hero
By first mentioning the ending, the author doesn’t just arouse the viewer’s tendency to participation and empathy but also his inclination to always know better. Like everyone else, the viewer likes to know more than the others, and in this case, more than the characters in a story, and absolutely wants to tell them what he knows, too. But they cannot hear him. He has to wait until they finally understand for themselves, and until they do, he feels as if he’s sitting on hot coals.
For example, the viewer witnesses how the antagonist and his helpers plan an attack on the hero. They wait for their victim, hidden. The innocent hero enters. At this moment the viewer wants to yell at him, “Watch out! The bad guys are right behind you! “ And if there are children in the audience, they’ll do it, too. But the hero cannot hear them.
A viewer who is informed in advance like this participates intensively in the action. Anticipation is therefore a powerful method of pulling a viewer into some perhaps otherwise boring action. Like titles, setting goals, prophecies, dreams or premonitions, anticipation creates an image in a viewer’s soul, the arrival of which he is anxiously awaiting: the scene in which the main figure finally experiences or understands what he, the viewer, has known, or even known better.
Varying levels of knowledge between the characters
But one can also use the difference in knowledge of the figures inside a story to increase the feeling of suspense with the regard to a plot. For example, a girl is undyingly in love with a boy, and vice versa. Neither knows, however, if the other loves in return. The boy asks the cousin of the girl to find out for him. However, the cousin is also in love with the girl. When the girl tells the cousin that she loves the other boy, the cousin becomes jealous. He tells the girl the boy doesn’t give a damn about her. He also tells the boy that the girl finds him ridiculous. Now the boy meets the girl on the street. He feels embarrassed because he thinks she finds him ridiculous. To save face, he is rude and insults her. That convinces the girl’s fear that he doesn’t like her. To save face and hide how hurt she is, she gives him the cold shoulder. The viewer, who knows more than the likeable main characters, will absolutely want to see a scene in which they discover their mistakes and are united. He cannot help but to feel strong suspense as to it.
Another example: the friend of our hero learns that the antagonist is setting a trap for the hero. The friend informs some helpers. They agree that he should hide and fire an alarm shot as soon as the antagonist attacks. The helpers want to leap out at this signal and come to the rescue. The figures all have different amounts of information. The friend of the hero and the antagonist know more than the hero, who suspects nothing of the attack. The friend knows more than the antagonist, who knows nothing about the hiding helpers. The viewer, in the end, knows the most of all, for the hero, unbeknownst to his friend, is an enemy of the helpers, and “help” from them would be only trouble. Such different levels of knowledge always create a strong feeling of suspense in the viewer.
An extreme possibility for foreknowledge consists in the viewer knowing more about the protagonist than that character does. The character, for example, says that she hates someone; the viewer feels, however, that it’s probably more disappointed love – perhaps following a misunderstanding – which is causing her to feel like this towards the other character. In reality, she is still in love with him. And the viewer feverishly desires that the character finally realises this herself.
Foreknowledge is, finally, also one of the conditions for funny stories or comedies. A comedy often has a plot in which a person is thought of by the viewer as being “stupid” or foolish only because that person knows less that others do. A fool, for the viewer, is not only someone who wants to reach something in life that the viewer regards as ridiculous, but also someone who gets into a situation which the viewer feels he himself would never be foolish enough to land in, and so he laughs at the fool. For example: a woman hides her lover in a large container when her husband suddenly comes home. The husband says he has sold the container, and she answers she is about to sell it to someone who has just climbed into it to check its sturdiness. The lover emerges, has the container cleaned by the husband and carried by him into his own house. In this story the husband is the fool, because he does not have our foreknowledge, and we amuse ourselves at his expense.
Expectation vs. Doubt
Suspense, as we have seen in all its forms, has to do with expectation, i.e. with an approaching occurrence in which the viewer is passionately interested. In a suspense-packed story, every scene therefore should at best have something to do with the future: how one is hoping for or fearing it. Will, for example, the deaf and dumb woman previously mentioned succeed at studying law, or not?
What the viewer undergoes when he is in the state of suspense is essentially divided into two emotional camps: the stronger feeling of expectancy and the weaker feeling of doubt. The expectancy is closely connected to a future occurrence. And because every imagined future cannot actually come to be, every expectation is always bound up with the possibility of it not being fulfilled. In suspense, the viewer’s fantasy jumps between opposite images of the future, between fear and hope, back and forth.
Suspense grips the viewer all the more, the further apart that which he hopes and that which he fears, lie. When one, as author, wants to increase the suspense in one’s story, one must contrast more strongly that which the viewer should fear and that which he should hope for by increasing its dissimilarity.
Course of action
Bearing in mind these requirements, one ultimately develops an action in the following stages: “Tensing Up”, ”Enter Doubt”, “Complications”, and “Relief”.
The future hoped-for event is established in the fantasy of the viewer.
The antagonist appears to have been underestimated.
All requirements for the fulfilment of the hoped-for event take place, one after the other, interrupted by new, doubt-inspiring events. The antagonist has unsuspected tricks up his sleeve.
Everything necessary has happened, so that according to the laws of experience, the hoped-for must happen.
Steps to create and optimize a dramatic story
To develop or test a story for a screenplay, one may find the answers to the following questions:
Who are my viewers?
What would be unusual for them?
In what way does my material contain this unusualness?
In what way does it show the intrusion of an unknown world?
In what way does everyday life appear in a new light?
How would my material draw attention to itself if it was seen on a poster?
In what way does my material handle solving a mystery?
In what way does my material handle winning a victory?
In what way is the antagonist opposed?
How does my material handle someone fighting for a worthy cause?
How does my material arouse through the presence of something tremendous?
How does my story close?
How is everything decided and wrapped up through this closure?
Is my story a love story?
Is my story an adventure story?
Is my story a crime story?
Is my story a chase story?
Is my story a story of insight?
Is my story a thriller?
Am I using a simple action pattern?
Am I using a complicated action pattern?
What does the viewer expect to begin with?
What happens instead of what is expected?
Through which circumstances is this surprising occurrence of the opposite justified?
What sort of scene does my title promise?
How does my main figure set him|herself a goal?
In what way is the goal’s purpose a physical object or fact?
In what way is the goal’s objective a belief or attitude?
Which scene is predicted to the viewer: the decision about the…
…restoration of the initial situation?
…overcoming the initial situation?
…continuation of the initial situation (for example: the belief of someone else in something)?
How is the main figure defined by a perhaps unconscious desire?
Are there interim goals?
How is my action progressive (promising the entrance of a certain occurrence)?
With regard to what occurrence does my action create suspense?
How does my action create suspense through surroundings which imply something?
How does my action create suspense through someone’s looks which imply something?
How does the outcome appear in prophecies?
How does the outcome appear in warnings?
How does the outcome appear in premonitions?
How does the outcome appear in an analogy?
In what way do I have a retracing action (promising the explanation of a surprising occurrence)?
Through what does my action becomes surprising?
What is the viewer awaiting an explanation for?
Does my plot anticipate its ending?
How does the viewer know more than the main figure?
How does one dramatic figure know more than the others?
How does the viewer’s feeling of suspense resolve into expectation and doubt?
What is he hoping for?
What does he fear ?
How does his fantasy jump between hope and fear?
How far apart do the contents of this fear and hope lie?
In what way could the cause of fear be increased, so that it stands out even more against that what makes us hope?
In what way could the cause of hope be increased, so that it stands out even more against that which makes us fear?
How is the promised end planted in the viewer’s mind?
How is it then shown that the antagonist (wanting an opposite end) has been underestimated?
How do the conditions necessary to the fulfilment of the promised end take place, one after the other?
How are they interrupted by new, doubt-causing events (helping the antagonist)?
Which unsuspected tricks does the antagonist have up his sleeve?
How is the last condition fulfilled so that according to the laws of experience, the promised end must take place?
Working with this questionnaire, one gets a sense of one’s story, and the more it emerges, the more advisable it becomes to boil it down into a coherent action idea, composed of very few sentences. – Examples of action ideas:
ODYSSEY (as summarized by Aristotle, Poetics, Part 17) – Somebody is absent from home for many years. He is jealously watched by Poseidon, and left desolate. Meanwhile at his home suitors are wasting his substance and plotting against his son. Getting through many distresses he returns home unrecognized and discloses his identity to certain friends; he attacks his enemies, and stays himself unharmed while he destroys them.
THE GODFATHER – After an attempt on his father’s life, Michael, who had forsaken the family Mafia business, kills a mobster and a corrupt police officer, to save his family, then takes over the family business, kills all his rivals, soon rises to the top of the American Mafia, and becomes the new Godfather. He then kills all the enemies he has inside his family. His fate as Godfather is sealed.
DEAD POETS SOCIETY – Professor of literature inspires young students to live for their dreams, which causes them to start a poetry society. One boy defies his father dictatorial father and takes up acting, then kills himself when he’s transferred to military school, which causes the professor to get fired. The boys stand on their desks and honour their teacher as he exits.
ROCKY – ROCKY desires to be more than a bum from the neighbourhood and tries to accomplish this in many ways. He gets offered a chance to fight the champion, and decides he only wants to last fifteen rounds to prove he’s not a bum. He trains for the match and does last fifteen rounds.
AMERICAN BEAUTY – LESTER, a middle-aged man, whose wife and daughter think he’s a loser, has lost all desire for life. He gets infatuated with sixteen-year-old class mate of his daughter, causing him to get fired, smoke pot, and work out. He catches the eye of his neighbour, a Neo-Nazi homophobe. After rejecting a sexual advance from the neighbour, Lester almost has sex with the sixteen year old but learns she’s a virgin, decides not to have sex with her, and regains his dignity. Then the neighbour murders him, and in his dying moments Lester realizes the beauty of just being alive.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB – Five stereotypical high school students, a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a hoodlum, are sent to Saturday detention. After initial tension and arguing they open up to each other and discover each has similar alienations, problems with parents, and difficulty living up to their stereotype. This day changes each of them, causing them to realize that they are not that different from each other.
THE TERMINATOR – A robot from the future is sent back to the present to kill SARAH CONNER because she is destined to give birth to the future saviour of the world. A rebel from the future comes to help safe her, impregnates her, and before he is killed, helps her destroy the robot so she can give birth to their son, the future saviour of the world.
ROSEMARY’S BABY – ROSEMARY’s husband makes a deal with Satan worshippers to have her raped by the devil and breed his child, so that he can advance as an actor. Afterward, Rosemary tries to discover why her pregnancy is difficult, and what her weird neighbours want from her foetus, until she gives birth to the devil’s child and decides to mother it.
GLADIATOR – MAXIMUS, a brilliant Roman general, refuses to honour a corrupt emperor, and is sentenced to die. He escapes execution, and becomes a slave, a star gladiator, and returns to Rome to avenge the murder of his family by the emperor. He kills him in the arena after being mortally wounded in the back by him, restoring Rome to the senate as he dies.
The action idea is eventually fleshed out into a step outline. The step outline sums up each scene of a story in a few words, about 2 minutes of action amounting to one two-line paragraph of step outline (a 90-minutes-film thus yielding or resting on 45 steps, 24 minutes = 12 steps and so on …). 20 paragraphs amount to one page of step outline. With a step outline, one has developed the prerequisites for a screenplay. A step outline suffices to determine whether or not one’s story functions. It is less work to check whether a story works from a step outline than from a screenplay, which has many more pages. In order to test if one’s story works, one takes its step outline and tells it to someone. One can derive from the listener’s reactions where the story works and where it doesn’t. If it doesn’t captivate by means of step outline, it won’t captivate as screenplay or film.
Although a step outline should not take up more than one page for 40 minutes of film and is far less extensive than a screenplay, it is very difficult to produce. It takes much longer to get a step outline together that works, than to write down the corresponding screenplay. Producing a functioning step outline takes almost 80% of the time one needs to turn an idea into a screenplay. Once one has such functioning step outline, writing the screenplay from it is no longer difficult. Some filmmakers don’t even write a screenplay, but take the step outline as the basis for filming their story. One can film a story without a screenplay, but not without the step outline.
One can also use the step outline from another film to check one’s own story. In this case, one finds finished films with stories similar to the one one wants to film oneself. At best, eight good films and two bad ones. One works out the step outlines of these ten films, and compares them with one another and with the step outline of one’s own story idea. According to the motto of the Spanish dramatist Lope de Vega: “I read, and imitate what I read, and write down what I imitate, and what I wrote, I improve, and from the improved material, I choose.”
As a model, here is the step outline of the Philippine film Lucia by Lino Brocka, followed by two sample scenes:
- Fishermen come ashore, among them Lucia’s husband, her son-in-law and her older son.
- A good catch, it sells on the market and brings money to the family.
- At dinner around their hut we get to know the rest of Lucia’s family: the grandfather, the middle daughter and her admirer from the neighbouring village, the elder daughter and her two little sons, the daughter-in-law, the younger son (around 16) and the youngest daughter (15) who is bored by village life and wants to experience the city.
- Before dawn, the men depart with their nets.
- The fishing boats set out.
- Yelling wakes Lucia. A strange smell.
- The whole village is down at the shore. Oil, leaked from a tanker, soils the beach. Dead fish everywhere.
- The oil company sends a representative.
- The villagers are fed with hopes. A little boy who has eaten a bit of the fish gets cramps.
- Villagers leave their homes for the capital. They suggest to Lucia to join them.
- Lucia’s sister lives in the capital. The family discusses moving – and decides to stay with the grandfather by the sea.
- Next dawn, there are no more fish. The men want to break into the enclosures of an industrial fish farm.
- Lucia finds the grandfather at the beach. He remembers the times when there were no combines, drag-nets, licences and the sea belonged to everyone.
- The boats approach the enclosures. Machine-gun fire.
- The bodies of the dead men at the shore, among them Lucia’s husband and her son-in-law. His wife, Lucia’s elder daughter, makes her little sons look at their murdered father. They shall never forget!
- Lucia decides that they will all depart. The middle daughter asks her mother’s permission to marry. Lucia agrees.
- The farmer parents of the middle daughter’s admirer have hardly enough money for a marriage.
- Still, it is a warm and heart-rending ceremony.
- Leaving her home, Lucia is stopped by a village woman to whom she owes money. Lucia pays her with some pots and their buffalo. The woman will come to the city to get the rest.
- The capital – traffic, exhaust and slums. A beggar boy accosts Lucia’s family – and insults them as they give too little.
- In a shanty town, Lucia’s sister welcomes them. Everything is cramped and narrow. The younger brother and sister are excited about all the new things to be seen and anticipated.
- The elder daughter has found work in a sewing factory and is abused by the forewoman.
- The fifteen year old daughter on the move with the grandfather. She’s fascinated by the neon nightlife. A pimp pays her compliments she’s never heard before.
- The older son is not content that he has to go fishing again. Aren’t there better jobs? Maybe in a factory?
- Lucia calculates their income and expenses. They can even put something aside now.
- The younger daughter and the grandfather witness a funeral near their place.
- Behind a thin curtain, the older son gratifies his desires with his wife even though she’s highly pregnant. Lucia smiles at such development of life.
- In the alley of the slum, a young boy has been shot.
- While selling snacks at a plaza, Lucia talks her younger son into going to school, becoming an engineer.
- Lucia praises the intelligence of her younger son to a high school principal.
- Her younger son doesn’t have to pay school fees! Lucia equips him. The younger daughter wants to know what’s in it for her. Lucia rebukes her.
- Witnessing how their fisher-foreman on the polluted shores of the slums has to bribe an official chief to „license“ their work, the older son leaves.
- Summoning her younger son from a tv-booth to do his homework, Lucia catches her fifteen year old daughter in a mini skirt and wipes off her make-up.
- The village woman to whom Lucia still owes money shows up to collect the rest of her loan. She has a letter from Lucia’s middle daughter.
- The younger son reads aloud to the others: rebels and government forces upset the country life. The men are in danger.
- The older son now works in a restaurant behind the bar. He’s reminded to keep the scraps for the owner’s pigs instead of eating them himself. A beautiful hooker on the lookout for a protector makes eyes at him.
- The slum is to be razed to make room for a supermarket. Resisters meet, among them Lucia’s elder daughter.
- Her younger daughter has sexy pictures taken of herself by a European tourist.
- Lucia drags her away from there.
- The daughter reproaches her mother with granting everything to the brother while forbidding her to use her last asset: her body. Lucia throws her out.
- Lucia cries at the statue of the Virgin Mary.
- Bulldozers show up to flatten the slum. Resisting, the grandfather is shot.
- Lucia and the others mourn at the grave. The outcast daughter looks on from behind the gate …
- …and witnesses the sad exodus of the slum dwellers.
- Lucia now mines the city garbage dump. Territorial fights.
- The kids at the new slum beat up Lucia’s „careerist“ younger son as he returns from school.
- Lucia dresses his wounds, assisted by her highly pregnant daughter-in-law who doesn’t know where her husband is these days.
- He drinks at a gambling alley. The younger beaten-up brother looks to him for his moral support and advice. The older brother’s advice: not to become like him!
- For lack of a better idea, the younger brother tries to be admitted to the gang that beat him up and passes the entrance examination by taking drugs.
- The forewoman admonishes the elder daughter for her union activities. They have an eye on her.
- Lucia confronts her elder daughter coming home late at night. She is not to do business that’s up to the government. Not as long as they live under the same roof.
- From the platform of a pick-up bus, Lucia sees her dressed-up younger daughter heading for a stranger’s car. Their eyes meet- for a moment – then the daughter climbs in with a man who could be her grandfather.
- Lucia cries, wants to get her daughter out of there. He older son says they should understand her.
- At the sewing factory the elder daughter gets a message that her middle sister is hiding with comrades in the city.
- They meet. The village has been destroyed, all men abducted.
- The younger son – together with the rest of the gang – gets drugs to sell.
- Lucia beats him when he wants to impress her with the money he made. „Don’t ever think you can bribe me!“
- Brought by her elder daughter, Lucia embraces her middle daughter who has to move on. Even though it’s hard for her to understand, Lucia reassures her about her cause.
- The daughter-in-law gives birth to a little boy.
- The drug police shoots Lucia’s youngest son on the garbage dump.
- Lucia rocks the dead body of her youngest son.
- Funeral of the youngest son. The fifteen year old daughter shows up. Lucia embraces her.
- The mourners are gone. The family, reunited, sit around the coffin. Lucia decides that they must move to another place.
- The family on the move, carrying their goods. Lucia carries the statue of the virgin Mary.
Scenes 61 and 62. Note that characters, appearing the first time in a scene, are written in CAPITALs. The same applies to SOUNDs. This way it can be seen at one glance how many actors and effects are necessary to film a scene.
- EXT. SLUM / CITY GARBAGE DUMP – DAY
KIDs and ADULTS come running up a dirty alley. LUCIA follows the excited crowd.
She climbs the varicoloured mountain of garbage and runs against the backdrop of the city harbour below.
The distorted body of her YOUNGER SON lies there in a blue T-shirt and orange shorts. A CURIOUS CROWD surrounds him. Their heads start to move as Lucia clears her way. She sees her son amidst the rubbish, dried blood in the corner of his mouth. She staggers, doesn’t know where to put her hands. In front of everybody she sinks on her knees, pulls the limp body towards her, clasps his neck. Her face distorts but no sound comes from her lips. She rocks the body as if it was her baby.
Oh – oh – oh …
Her OLDER SON works his way through the crowd. He kneels down and gropes towards his dead brother.
(to the crowd)
What happened? Who shot him?
WOMEN FROM THE CROWD
There was a bust. The police say your brother was a courier.
Her dead son at her chest, Lucia YELLS OUT her pain. The older brother strokes the head of his dead younger brother. Lucia presses her forehead against the forehead of her dead son.
- EXT. SLUM / BACKYARD – NIGHT
Under a plastic canopy illuminated by light bulbs the MOURNERS are gathered around wooden tables. In the background beside the ELDEST DAUGHTER with her BIGGER SONS a GUITAR BAND sings
I went to see a shanty house: Fifteen in a tiny hut huddled for warmth in their wood and cardboard crates…
MORE GUESTS arrive.
…they’re trapped beneath roofs of rusty iron and rubber wheels…
HELPERS with tablets go around offering food and beverages. LUCIA sits in the front row beside her OLDER SON who has his LITTLE NEPHEWS on his lap. She rises to her feet
…rubbish and rubble – yet they call this home…
Lucia walks up to a candlelit shrine
I’ve only written down what my eyes have seen…
Lucia looks down. Through glass over a coffin the upper body of her YOUNGER SON can be seen. Her fingers push against the glass as if to reach his face. Behind the guitar players the eldest daughter notices somebody passing. She and her son follow with their eyes. Scanning the guests and clutching her handbag the FIFTEEN YEAR OLD DAUGHTER appears behind her mother. She stands still.
FIFTEEN YEAR OLD DAUGHTER
WARM MUSIC – as Lucia turns around – stretching her left arm towards the lost sheep. The daughter starts to cry.
FIFTEEN YEAR OLD DAUGHTER
(coming towards Lucia)
Lucia takes her in her arms.
Your brother has left us. He has gone from us.
The fifteen year old daughter looks down, MURMURING the name of her brother.
Her red painted fingers rest on the edge of the coffin beside the pale face of her dead brother.
She cries at the shoulder of her mother. In a corner the helpers sort the plates and wash the glasses.