Like anything premature it’s, well … embarrassing. Whenever you set up strong anticipation, let it linger, keep the audience wondering how it is going to be resolved, then push it to a climax and rather than resolving, introduce a new, bigger problem.
A signature mistake of the beginning screenwriter is to introduce a suspenseful plot point and then to quickly defuse it with a resolution within the same scene or soon after.
In stead, the experienced screenwriter will milk the undercurrent of dramatic tension while feeding us exposition, introducing new plot strands or planting more obstacles.
In the Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel” written by Guillermo Arriaga, we see two kids with a rifle aim at a tourist bus.
Somebody’s going to get hurt real bad.
This is at page eight. Arriaga does not take us back to the bus until page nineteen. We are sitting there waiting for that bullet to penetrate that bus window and hit some innocent.
Yussef points at a yellow car driving along the road.
What’ll you give me if I hit that car?
Ahmed reloads. The empty cartridge falls to the ground. He fires again – the car keeps going. Yussef asks for the rifle.
You see? Nothing happens.
Let me shoot.
He also drops the used cartridge on the ground, reloads and shoots the traffic sign. He fires and nothing.
I told you. Hassan’s a liar.
A bus approaches. Ahmed points at it.
Shoot at that one...
Yussef loads the rifle parsimoniously, shuts the chamber, raises the weapon, aims and fires.
The bus drives on. Ahmed turns to his brother.
The bus drives on another three hundred yards and suddenly stops in the middle of the road.
Now we are at page nineteen.
Arriaga decides he wants to take us back to the bus. We see some old men sleeping peacefully. All is good in the world.
Then we see Susan Jones with her head against the window. I wouldn’t do that if I were her, because about ten pages ago we saw some lads with a gun and they’re aiming right towards the bus. But does she know that? What’s going to happen?
Well to find out I guess you’ll have to read on.
The bus drives on. Some of the old men sleep. Susan leans her head against the window and watches the landscape scroll past. Richard sits beside her silently.
Susan holds out her hand and takes Richard’s, as a sign of reconciliation. He holds hers and caresses it.
Susan gets comfortable to try to sleep. She closes her eyes when suddenly something smashes the window and Susan collapses forward.
Richard turns to look at the punctured glass and then Susan.
Susan, what’s wrong?
Susan doesn’t answer, limp on her seat.
Richard lifts her up and when he does he sees a thread of blood run down her neck. Richard yells at the driver.
Stop the bus, stop, my wife’s been hurt.
Think of ways to build anticipation to keep the reader at the edge of their seats. As Alfred Hitchcock once said, ‘There is no terror in a bang, only in the anticipation of it’.
Use the dramatic tension as an undercurrent for the story, while showing obstacles and reasons for a possible negative outcome.
If you found this tip useful, check out the Screenplay Checklist, an A-Z of commonly made mistakes by aspiring screenwriters.
Check this 12p. list of errors and annoyances to perfect your spec screenplay.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.