I recently consulted on a feature script that was nearing pre-production. The script had many things going for it – a social and historical context, a strong uplifting theme, driven characters. Certainly, there were tweaks and shimmies still needed to bring it to a final draft, but the bulk of the structural work had been done.
It just needed to amp up audience involvement in the story. The problem was that the solution had been wrongly identified as the need for more action.
Ramping up Audience Involvement in Your Feature
Sometimes writers mistake involvement for action. They erroneously add a fight scene here, a chase scene there in the belief that it will suck audiences in through sheer pace. They fail to realise that action works best only if it is built upon the foundation of rising stakes, anticipation, suspense.
Firstly, the audience has to care about the character whose life is placed in peril. This means the character has to be finely crafted to solicit sympathy, at the very least. Crafting sympathetic characters in a feature film or novel is crucial if we are to care about the story at all. I have written about this topic extensively on this site.
Additionally, at the level of plot, the story benefits through setbacks that delay the hero’s achieving the story goal. Like the drawing back of an arrow, a setback allows the shaft to travel all the faster when released. It take several forms – barriers and reversals being the most common.
Think about the number of barriers that Sam Gerard encounters in trying to find Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. Each ramps up the tension by allowing Kimble to stay one step ahead and increases our involvement in the story.
How about the reversal in Edge of Tomorrow when Major William Cage meets with General Brigham who is in charge of operations?
The General wants Cage to film the Allied assault against the enemy for purposes of morale. Cage wants no part of it. When Cage tries to blackmail Brigham to force him to reconsider his decision, he ends up being stripped of his rank and sent to the front as a lowly private instead. It is a reversal that sets up the entire story.
In my science fiction novel, Scarab, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler, is confronted with a devastating choice in trying to rescue the woman he loves. He can save her from certain death, but only if stays away from her forever. It is a reversal that increases our involvement in the story.
With regard to the script I consulted on, I suggested that we replace a couple of poorly motivated ‘action’ incidents with two ‘barrier’ events and a reversal and leave it at that. That seemed to do the trick.
A sympathetic hero, in a feature film or novel, who encounters obstacles and reversals in trying to achieve his goal increases audience involvement in a story.