In writing look for something that’s pretty basic. Does your story grab your reader and does it flow, does it have a natural flow? Does it make the reader want to turn the pages?
Learn the techniques that you can actually use. There are tools you can use to keep the audience engaged, but beyond something that grabs you and keeps your attention. Add to that the cleverness of the writing and the way the characters are so sharp. Does the writing have a fresh voice. Maybe that’s too strong? Maybe it’s not too strong.
The mode of production at least for big movies is a problem. Because when you have a big movie there is just so much pressure that it work. There is so much at stake that it has an effect on the product and it can become incoherent. There is always going to be (even in the best of circumstances) you can have a great writer, director, producer, cast and script and it can still fall flat.
Storytelling tends to flatten out in these situations because one of the element of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is, of course, what Alfred Hitchcock used it to create suspense, to create a story that involves withholding some information from the audience, withholding some information from the characters when you reveal it. That requires someone who is really watching it and imagining it in their own mind at the time. If you want to be a screenwriter be sure the audience is going to get what you are writing. If it’s too clear, it risks being boring.
The three questions that still apply to any story are: 1) what does the main character want and what are they trying to avoid? 2) What does the main character know and what does the main character not know? 3) what does the audience know? What does the audience not know?
Most writers realize that you have control over those second two. The audience doesn’t have to know everything all the time. And the characters don’t have to know everything all the time. You can withhold some information, you can play games. Sometimes applying constructivist psychology to the storytelling process adds to the story. That simply means that most of our experience in life, most of our experience in reality is based not on knowledge but on inferences we make based on clues. So that you have what is called top down processing. Top down is you see something in the world and your brain automatically compares what you’ve experienced before with what you are seeing and then you make a conclusion.
Bottom up processing is you see things and it goes into your brain and you make note of it and you store information. There are short cuts that we’re doing all of the time. You’ve never seen the back of this chair but you’ve seen chairs so you assume the back looks like any other chair. It would be a surprise twist if the back of this chair had a dragon hiding out there because that’s not normal (what you’re normally associating with that concept).
When you’re telling a story, if you understand that is how audiences are responding, how they experience a movie is they are looking for clues and they are going to put them together and they are actively involved in constructing a reality.
You are the one as a screenwriter you are giving them the clues, you are turning them, you’re making them the smartest person in the room. You are making them brilliant because they are seeing all of these clues. You are the one actually giving it to them. But they think they are figuring it out and they are going to try to anticipate where you are going because they have seen movies before.
This is a conceptual framework called a schema. They’ve seen a movie. They know how movies are. They know they tend to have a character that does this or that. When you know that you can play games with them that’s the most fun thing about screenwriting. Creating worlds and driving people crazy and getting in their heads. You can learn how to get into their heads.
Just a very simple example, suppose I show you a movie and there’s a husband and he’s buying his wife flowers, chocolate and an anniversary card on his way home from work, okay? Then meanwhile you see the wife has got something she’s hiding in the bedroom drawer. What are you going to think? Well it’s pretty obvious isn’t it? He wants to make love and she has other plans. That’s where the audience is going to go and you could play it off where he comes home with the flowers and she pulls out a knife when she is with him. Or you could then disclose later that he’s a knife collector and the surprise is this is a present for him. This is something he’s been looking for. She saved up for it and she wants to give it to him as an anniversary present. And then you find out that he poisoned the chocolate.
You just told a twist which is telling two stories at the same time. The one the audience thinks its seeing and the one it is actually seeing. You are relying when you do that kind of thing on the audiences propensity to figure it out and be smarter than you and once you’ve got them going that way you can have all kinds of fun.