A pretty straight forward one today. But often it's the simple, seemingly obvious elements of screenwriting that we forget.
I read a lot of screenplays.
The majority of them are really quite good on one level or another. But the competition being what it is, good isn't good enough. Nor is 'really quite good.'
What a reader, or more importantly, what a producer is looking for is something that takes them by surprise. Something that pushes the bar, something that they weren't expecting.
Most readers/producers start reading a screenplay with a small amount of context. They will have read the logline. They have the title to go from. They will know the genre the script has supposedly been written in.
When the reader/producer has a logline, genre and a title to go from, they go into a read expecting certain things...
Now if you fail to meet that expectation (through poor writing), the results are, rejection. But even if you meet those expectations, odds are, you'll get rejection also. Why? Readers/producers want to be surprised. They want to be taken off guard.
One of the most common faults I see in screenplays is the predictability factor. When you read enough screenplays you can see the formula at work.
And while formula is a good thing on one hand, when formula is too pronounced in your writing, it detracts from your work, because the reader/producer are always two steps ahead of your story. When a reader/producer is expecting a scene to happen - and then it does, they start to check out.
Write the unexpected. Now obviously I need to hedge that with - don't write the unexpected for the sake of writing the unexpected - and don't go too far with your 'unexpected moment'.
Within the world you have created, try to write moments that will surprise your character, yourself, and ultimately readers/producers and some day - your audience.
What do I mean by don't go too far?
When you think about it, writing something unexpected is pretty damn easy.
You could write a romantic story for 15 pages, then suddenly introduce aliens that grow out one of the leads eyeballs. That's pretty unexpected. It's also stupid. It's too far.
Keep your unexpected moments within the boundaries of the world you've created.
The Crying Game is probably the very best example of the unexpected.
If you haven't seen the crying game. Do not read the rest of this post. If you're one of the lucky few who have not experienced that film. Do not google anything about it.
Simply get yourself a copy and watch.
For those that have seen it, you know what I'm talking about.
The moment that it's revealed the male lead has fallen in love with a transvestite - the film has done the unexpected. There's no way anyone saw that coming and the film is sensational because of it.
Can you imagine that film if the transvestite had simply been a woman?
You'd have another romantic film, that would have been lost to the ages. There's no way I'd be writing a post about it.
Now that unexpected moment is a great example of a MACRO unexpected beat. Macro unexpected beats are MAJOR unexpected moments that turn the direction of the film/story.
Simply put they're the twists.
Now a good twist is worth millions.
M. Night earned $2.5m for coming up with the idea for the Sixth Sense. He then built a career writing and directing films with Macro unexpected beats.
(He also then bombed majorly - but that's another story)
Macro unexpected moments fuel films, but coming up with a good macro unexpected beat that hasn't been done yet - that's getting harder and harder.
Micro unexpected beats, on the other hand, are much easier to write, and while they don't necessarily have the same clout that a macro unexpected beat does, they can be powerful on the scene level.
Give me an example I hear you say...
I was writing a scene in a new script I'm working on today, where the lead has to go to a public phone booth to phone a man that he's going to engage to kill his wife.
He has to use a public phone so the call can't be linked back to him.
Now the way I originally drafted this scene, was that he is driven to this public phone in a really bad neighborhood, in his limo (he'a a billionaire) then he makes the call and sets up the meet with the man who's going to kill his wife.
But when I looked at the scene - the expectation of the scene was met. Which means it's a dull scene.
Going into he scene, we already knew he was going to the public phone booth to phone the man to setup the meet. So if we already know that's going to happen, then we see it happen - it's boring as shit.
So I re-wrote the scene, this time - I inserted a moment halfway through the conversation with the killer, where a junkie grabs the Billionaire, puts a knife to his throat and demands his wallet.
Suddenly we have the unexpected.
Now, by adding this unexpected element, what I've also done, is added STAKES to the scene.
Previous - there were no scene stakes. You could argue that making the phone call and engaging the man to kill his wife carries stakes - being that he might be arrested for conspiracy to murder - but there's no urgency to those stakes, and they might also never come to be.
With a junkie holding a knife to his throat, there is the immediacy of the risk of life.
By adding this unexpected moment, I've also given the billionaire a moment to SHOW HIS FLAW.
Reminding the audience of the hero's flaw is a good idea. You just don't want to ram it down our throats too much.
My hero's flaw is that he allows the memory of his late father to control his life. And in this instance, as the junkie takes his wallet from him, the hero tries to barter to keep the wallet as it was given to him by his father.
I've shown the hero's flaw - he is willing to argue with a junkie over something that reminds him of his father. He's willing to risk his life for the sake of his father's memory.
The third thing it's done is to add urgency. Something had to be done about this situation that the hero is in.
The fourth thing - is it allowed me to change the charge of the scene.
What's the 'charge of the scene' I hear you ask?
Every scene should end at the opposite of where it started - emotionally speaking. Soooooo - to give an example - if your character starts the scene happy - it's good to finish sad. If they start composed, end the scene with them being flustered, or nervous.
What ever the emotional charge of the character at the start of the scene, try to flip that emotion by the end of the scene.
So in my given example - the hero started the scene composed and determined - and after the near death experience with the junkie - he is no longer as composed, cool, or calm. He's a nervous wreck.
This moment that I injected works because it fell within the bounds of the world I setup.
He had specifically driven into a really bad neighborhood to use a public phone. So when he's jumped by a junkie, it's not unrealistic within the context of the story.
If I had him at home, making the call from his cell, then someone broke in and put a knife to his throat, then left, and that break-in had nothing else to do with the story, then it would be unrealistic. It would feel like a 'movie moment.'
Coincidences happen all the time in real life. The moment you inject a coincidence into a film, the audience will groan, roll their eyes and call it what it is - cheap writing.
So what's the takeaway?
Go through the script you're working on. Look at each scene. Ask yourself - going into this scene what did the audience expect?
Then look at the scene - and if you deliver exactly what you promised - then rewrite it until something happens in that scene you were not expecting to happen.
If you can surprise yourself - as the writer - your reader will also be surprised and that is a good thing.