Five Tools To Keep Your Audience Riveted

Human beings are naturally curious. As a screenwriter — as a storyteller — your job is to manipulate this curiosity to your advantage.

Sound like a cheap trick? Consider: the foundation of all storytelling is playing on your audience's expectations — getting them to expect something, then satisfying or frustrating those expectations. Audiences, really, are counting on you to manipulate them, and manipulate them good!

Below you'll find five tried and true principles of storytelling. These techniques should be familiar to you (that is, if you've ever watched a movie or heard a story). The names are not always the same, and the categories sometimes differ, but what they describe are the tools every screenwriter should know, and know well.

And all these examples are taken from The Silence Of The Lambs. Which just goes to show that when you use them, you might just wind up with an Academy Award.

Telegraphing is indicating what will happen in the future, either in dialogue or visually. Use telegraphing to create an expectation which points where the story is heading. All telegraphs have payoffs — either the expected payoff, or a reverse payoff.

Think of telegraphing as "telegraphing your intentions" to the audience — but, slippery you, you might not give them what they think they're going to get! (Not to be confused with the bad kind of telegraphing — like when you telegraph a punch or telegraph your intentions to your adversary. Inadvertent telegraphing is a mistake...intentional telegraphing is a powerful tool.)

Before Clarice even sees Lecter for the first time, there's a lot of talk about how fearsome he is, starting with "You spook easily, Starling?" This telegraphing creates anticipation and primes us for Clarice's (and our) first meeting.

A deadline or ticking clock — when someone puts a time limit on something — is telegraphing. Clarice has to hurry to catch the killer before he strikes again. At one point, the figure of three days is mentioned — to loosen their skin. After that, it's curtains!

A false telegraph is when you payoff with the unexpected. Lambs has several of these, obvious and not so obvious. The most effective one is when we're led to believe that Jack Crawford and his men are ringing the bell at Jame Gumb's house — but when Gumb goes to the door, he opens it on Clarice. The killer's house isn't in Illinois at all, it's in Ohio...and Clarice is in big trouble.

Then there's what I call a blind telegraph — when we're led to believe something will happen, but we have no idea what. Illustrated perfectly by Dr. Chilton's pen — we keep getting pointed to this pen (pointing is another word used for telegraphing). Ultimately Lecter fashions a lockpick out of the pen's pocket clip to unleash mayhem in  Memphis. It's much like a setup (see below), but ultimately it's a telegraph because we're made abundantly aware something will happen involving this pen.

The Setup
A setup is an unobtrusive detail which justifies its payoff — a detail without which the payoff would not make sense. Unlike telegraphing, a setup should not be brought to the audience's attention...but it should be there, hiding in plain sight, so that you'll remember it when the payoff happens.

If we hadn't seen the killer using night vision goggles earlier, the sequence at the end where he stalks Clarice in the dark would be out of the blue. Also, when Clarice visits Lecter the second time, he notes she's bleeding. She's quizzical, but then she remembers Lecter's sense of smell. And we should too, because he gave us a demonstration earlier.

The death's head moth symbolizes several things in the context of the script, which is why it makes such a good setup — if a setup is obvious, like this one, then it should serve double duty. When Clarice, in the house of the man she thinks is Jack Gordon, sees a moth lighting nearby..she knows. At that moment, she knows exactly where she is, and exactly who she's up against. We know she knows, because we've been set up!

Foreshadowing is a setup which symbolically prefigures a later development in the story. This helps lend thematic unity to your script. Clarice opens the movie running alone in an obstacle course. This foreshadows her struggle to come — alone, against great obstacles. The key to foreshadowing is to make it so subtle, it's almost subliminal. (Don't telegraph it, in other words!)

The Dangling Cause
A dangling cause is an unresolved issue dangling in the audience's mind as other events ensue. Generally coming from a character's mouth, it's a statement of intention, a prediction, a warning, a threat, or any other such promise that a character will do something.

Lecter: "I'll help you catch him, Clarice". Clarice: "You know who he is, don't you? Tell me who decapitated your patient, Doctor." Even Dr. Chilton, when we see he's listening, is a dangling cause, because from that moment on we know he's going to interfere somehow. The question is...when?

A dangling cause is waiting for the other shoe to fall. Something has been promised — a cause — and its effect is delayed. Dangling causes are usually large, script-wide, shaping the action (as in the above examples). Sometimes, though, they're quite small.

A dialogue hook dangles only long enough to hook us into the next scene. Lambs has several. Soon after the above, Lecter says, "Our little Billy must already be searching for that next special lady." We immediately cut to Catherine, driving along, singing along to the radio. A dialogue hook alerts us to anticipate something immediately before it happens, and draw a relation.

Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something the character onscreen does not. This always infuses a scene with a whole new level of meaning, and is irresistible to audiences, particularly in comedies — it's the comedic "misunderstanding" which has driven many a classic sitcom plot.

Clarice is in the killer's house. We know it — we've seen him before. We know she's in great danger, but she's got no clue. Then the moth lets her know. Now, she knows where she is, but he doesn't know she knows. So there's another level of dramatic irony keeping us on the edge of our seats.

Dramatic Tension
The engine of all good scripts. Dramatic tension comes from the simple question: Will the characters get what they want? This forms a question, which leads to a deliberation, which leads to an answer. Three pieces...three acts.

Will Clarice find the killer? This drives The Silence Of The Lambs. But there are other dramatic tensions at work too: Will Lecter get his view? Will Dr. Chilton break Lecter? Will Buffalo Bill get his suit completed? All these questions form the dramatic tension of the script.

Ideally, dramatic tension should also be, in miniature, a part of every scene you construct. In every scene, someone wants something — will they get it?

A Final Word
This has only been an introduction to these notions — a cheat sheet, if you will. This list was enlarged from material in The Sequence Approach, by Paul Gulino, but you can find more information about these techniques, and detailed discussions and analyses, in any number of places. (Search Google Books, for example.)

But whatever you do, do your best to internalize these techniques and let them become a part of your screenwriting. Use them, and use them well, to mess with your audience's minds and keep their butts nailed to their seats...they'll love you for it!

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