Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Storyteller’s Rulebook #109: Create Subconscious Anticipation

Yesterday, we left off on the idea that the best way to keep a reader reading is if they’re anticipating something that’s about to happen. This can be something dangerous, or it can be something minor that only has a subconscious effect on the reader and/or viewer. 

If you don’t have an excuse to yank one character away at the end, there are all sorts of subtle ways to create a minor climax within a scene: Begin a kitchen scene with the toaster lever being forced down... The audience will subconsciously sense that the scene will end with the toast popping up.
Or in a comedic scene, simply have a character unable to think of a word at the beginning, which is driving them crazy. Just when the audience has forgotten about that, the scene ends with their exclamation of the word.
There are lots of ways to add a little element that tells a complete story in every long-ish scene:
  • Add a dog that’s trying to get fed the whole time, from each character, and then finally comes up with a clever solution at the end. Think Asta in the Thin Man movies, or Momo on “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
  • If two characters are loudly arguing, add a meek person who keeps trying to get the attention of one of the two arguers the whole time, then comes up with a clever solution to get what he needs.
  • Have a character hastily cover up the evidence of some mistake they’ve made at the beginning of the scene, then let the audience forget about it, then have it pop up again and get revealed at the end of the scene, causing much embarrassment.
There’s no better example of this than the beloved Nazi monkey from Raiders of the Lost Ark, who gets hoist on his own poison petard. What could have been a dull exposition scene comes to life, only to end tragically for one poor monkey. Who is a Nazi.


j.s. said...

This rule really puts me in mind of Alexander Mackendrick who loved to tell his students:

"What is happening NOW is apt to be less dramatically interesting than what may or may not HAPPEN NEXT."

I like his book ON FILM-MAKING, but I tend to return to a nicely organized excerpt I have in PDF form with a two-page spread full of great aphorisms like the one above called "Slogans for A Screenwriter's Wall."

If you Google "scriptwriter march 2005 mackendrick" it should pop up as a PDF link about 5-6 links from the top.

I tested it, so it should work, but if you're curious and genuinely unable download it, I can always email you a copy.

(Btw, I finally got to the Jule Selbo book, which I'm really digging, and left a comment at that entry.)

Matt Bird said...

I saw that comment-- I'm glad you liked Selbo's book as much as I did.

Those Mackendrick aphorisms are fantastic! I should find an excuse to re-post them here soon.

rams said...


Anonymous said...

Hi, I just found your site and I'm totally amazed! I am reading my way through the Storytellers Rulebook at the moment - and the articles are truly great and helpful. When are you going to publish them as a book?

Please keep on writing. You really know your stuff - and I so appreciate to learn from you. Thanks! Katrin

P.S. I promise I am not your Mum or your Auntie or any disguised relative. Just a happy reader.