How to Involve Your Audience in Your Feature Script

FeatureI 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.

Summary

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.

4 thoughts on “How to Involve Your Audience in Your Feature Script

  1. Lindiwe Mogale

    I must say that I agree. The moment I am watching a film I try to make sure that I relate to the character and this helps as I get to understand and follow what the story is about all because of this character. This post is really helpful as I am a first year student who has Screenwriting as a subject and I must say that I enjoy the subject a lot.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Glad to hear, Lindiwe. A sympathetic character, especially, is essential to a story as a point of entry.

      Reply
  2. Gerhard Pistorius

    Great post , I can really benefit from this. Sophie’s Choice, a 1979 novel by American author William Styron. The plot ultimately centers on a tragic decision that Sophie was forced to make on her entry, with her children, into Auschwitz. It’s engaging to any reader because it poses a moral question : How do you pick between your children.

    Another example : Life of Pi a 2012 American survival drama film based on Yann Martel’s 2001 novel . The story line revolves around an Indian man named “Pi” Patel, telling a novelist about his life story, and how at 16 he survives a shipwreck in which his family dies, and is stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

    He tells a different story, in which the animals are replaced by human survivors of the shipwreck: his mother for the orangutan, an amiable sailor for the zebra, and the ship’s brutish cook for the hyena. In this story, Pi kills the cook and feeds on his flesh until he reaches Mexico.

    The parallels between the two stories pose a moral question : When we are challenged to survive we convert to our savage ways ( Same moral situation In William Golding’s book Lord of the flies)

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Glad you found the article useful, Gerhard. And yes, stories that involve a strong moral conflict between two or more choices, as in the examples you mention, make for great reading and viewing! Ultimately, all great stories are about exploring a moral theme.

      Reply

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