A great movie has tons of drama and excitement — and a skilled scriptwriter knows precisely how to pace and parcel clues and climaxes to keep viewers rivetted to their seats. Just think of one of Hitchcock’s thrillers and how expertly the master director channels the emotions of the audience. There are any number of useful tips we can mine from screenwriting pros that can add energy and forward motion to our prose or dialogue. Recently, I came across a few pointers I wanted to pass on:
Make every word count: With only 90 pages to work with and lots of story to share, seasoned screenwriters ruthlessly edit out anything that doesn’t serve a film’s action. Every piece of dialogue or notes has to perform one of two or both of these imperatives: it has to reveal character or propel the story forward. The same is certainly true of plays.
Make us care: To sit in the dark and stay with a story, an audience has to know enough about a main character and care enough about him or her to keep watching. The same goes for any type of writing. We need to root or sympathize in some way with a character and we need to see that character developing and confronting difficulties that seem familiar and important to us. And again, every word has to reveal this information concisely.
Make us forge ahead with you: To succeed structurally and emotionally, a story has to grab our attention right away and keep it — not an easy task, as I’ve definitely learned in working on my YA novel. Then as a writer, we need to signal to our readers what the stakes are and why going on a journey with us will be emotionally fulfilling. Suspense is key, of course, and so is plotting: how and when key nuggets of information are revealed are critical to forward motion: It keeps viewers tense enough to keep watching and readers involved enough to keep reading.
As you are writing your dialogue or working on plotting, it may be useful to think about how you can use these tools to propel your story forward. Can you plant questions or bits of information that will intrigue and possibly even frustrate your audience enough to destabilize expectations and ratchet up the suspense about what’s going to happen next? Do you also reassure them that somehow, all will be well?