The Power of Next

‘Being in the moment’ may be a way to keep your mental sanity; it is not where you want your audience to be during the film. If they start enjoying the music or image, fair chance they’re out of the story. In cinema there’s no place for zen.

The Dept Revisited – A rerun of the best of the Story Dept.

I believe that the cinematic poetry of that floating bag in American Beauty is really an exception in the storytelling flow. It offers a momentary breather, when the story has effectively stopped and two characters Jane and Ricky experience a moment together. It is much less about us (the audience) losing ourselves in it. In any case, this can never last for very long. Get your audience into the ‘now’ for too long and your movie is dead. Storytelling for the screen is not about what is NOW but about what comes NEXT.

It is mind-boggling how many filmmakers still don’t get this. A couple of weeks ago I overheard a conversation between a government funding agent and an eager filmmaker.

Storytelling for the screen is not about what is NOW
but about what comes NEXT.

She was explaining to him what a wonderful movie she had seen. She also explained how the movie had bombed at the box office.

Wonderful style, fabulous photography. No word about the story. She maintained that it was a “really good movie”.

It was such a shame the stupid audience didn’t get it.

She didn’t literally say this but it was in the subtext.

Many writer/directors and people outside the commercial reality of the film business struggle with this essential aspect of storytelling for the screen. They want the audience to admire what is on the screen NOW rather than worry about what is coming NEXT.

This is one of the key aspects that set film apart from other media. And it is exactly where disasters happen when visual art lovers meddle with movies too much.

Screen emotions are about ANTICIPATION.

Antipation means: hope for a good/better outcome, fear over what might happen to the hero, curiosity over how things will turn out. Nothing of this has to do with the NOW.

dreamstimefree_547641Once an audience starts enjoying the beautiful picture, the great music, even an amazing performance (“the actor was really in the moment”), your audience has stopped worrying about what is happening next – and you’ve lost them.  Zen is about being content in the now. Screen story is not.

Zen is about being content in the now.
Screen story is not.

It’s rather about being unhappy. About wanting to know, see, experience what will come next. If your audience is content about what’s on the screen NOW, paradoxically, there is no reason to continue watching. On the contrary they will happily leave the theater and go home.

(Two good screenwriting books that deal specifically with the power of anticipation are THE TOOLS OF SCREENWRITING and Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach)

– Karel Segers

[this post was originally published on July 7 2009 and selected for rerun by Adrian]

4 thoughts on “The Power of Next”

  1. very interesting and quite an inspirational piece of writing. there are also two levels to this i would argue. the intellectual next a’la Inception/Memento etc and the emotional next a’la Million Dollar Baby/No Country for Old Men etc…

  2. Hey Karel, another thought provoking read. I agree in part with your thesis, but not sure about the evidence put forward.

    “Being in the moment”, the teachings of Stanislavski, were very important as he discovered that a major problem in acting derives from ‘anticipation’. If the actor has not surrendered to the imaginary situation then they will indicate and will fail in being authentic or believable to the audience. So for the film to work the actor HAS to ‘be in the moment’.

    Its pedantic I know but it can be confusing when the term is used differently or of out of context.

    Although I strongly agree with what you are saying, if the film makers have not created suitable tension then your mind will drift or worse you will start to see the wheels turning. You guess what is coming up next or fail to believe your characters are really in any danger, because, yes the hero wins (Iron Man 2….).


    • As playwrights we are not actors – we provide the material for actors so the process is different. I have heard a playwright say they did no research into their characters and the actors saw it as an excuse to slack off and not do any research and the result was bland and uninspiring. As playwrights we need to capture the imagination of the reader (producer, director, actor, DOP and a host of others) who then work on the script with their own processes – not ours – to bring the script to life for film (and stage if that is what you have written – stage is probably closer to the actor’s process because you are writing for them not a host of others and this then goes into audience reception theory and the differnt ways the media are read/ interpreted by an audience and meaning is made.) I remember having a discussion with Karel a long time ago over “The lives of others” in which Karel maintained that the actor was not acting because that is what he heard that the director had told the actor not to act. What he forgot was that acting and reacting are two sides of the same coin and the actor flips between them. By not acting that director probably meant simply react to what what was happening and don’t try for subtext or to impose meaning on the script – just allow it to be and happen – in short react. As playwrights we react to a stimuli which we then turn into a series of reactions to events that unfold in a structured manner which will hopefully spring out of the moment before in unpredictable ways through characterisation and visual storytelling. And just as we have the concept and treatment to guide us through our writing process the actors (and the techs and other creatives) have the script to guide them through the performance and the art of what is being done. Same words different perspective a bit like Camera left is stage right.

  3. Spot on. Actors and the public are in the moment but the writer needs the art of anticipation and taking the script in unexpected places. Don’t you hate it when you know what is about to come out of a character’s mouth before they say it. All to often these days I know how a story will unfold and simply watch it to see if it does what I expect and unfortunately it often does. This is where the journey (sorry taught HSC English and drama for too long) sorry Karel – the audience needs to go on a journey not just the main character (and all the minor characters too – story and character arcs). The story and character arcs may be plotted but the journey must come from the characters – their strengths and weaknesses, and from layering them so they are not two dimensional – as I often state Shakespeare killed off the hero usually in the first act because they were boring – the better character study was the villain. Unfortunately if you watch too much American film you see how blandly two dimensional the villains are and how anti-heroic the main characters (heroes?) are. We like cheeky, we like intelligent, we like unusual and we hate stereotypic unless we like the genre and don’t really care about the character or their journey and we are watching for special effects or because we have seen others in the series or because there is nothing else on (or because of the great cinematography.


Leave a Comment