Allow me to point out a universal human weakness: the ball in the air.
You're watching baseball on TV. The batter swings, the ball is hit who would change the channel?
The ball in the air commands our attention. Especially if we are invested in its destination. Especially if we are to catch it, or to block its passage into the net or hoop or if we have money, or pride, riding on its entrance or failure to enter the glove, net or hoop.
A ball suspended in the air is irresistably fascinating. We are subjects of gravity and fascinated with its effects. This is the key to suspense, the dramatic equivalent of the ball in the air.
Tallulah Bankhead was getting crap from an upstart young actress who declared she could upstage Tallulah anytime. "Dahling," said Miss Bankhead, "I can upstage you without even being onstage."
The next night, she set out to prove it.
Life is a continual process of suspense. We all have several things in various stages of outcome going on in our lives. The future is hidden; the outcome is uncertain.
There are always things dangling over our heads. There's always a person somewhere dangling from a cliff, always a fly ball, dangling at the top of its arc, heading down to an uncertain outcome.
And not just one, but many our lives are composed of several storylines in various states of completion. They are virtually always dangling, waiting for an outcome or new development.
While the upstart actress acted a long telephone conversation, Miss Bankhead made her exit - not before placing her champagne glass on the edge of the table, precariously balanced half-on, half-off.
A dangler is any unanswered question or unresolved situation which captures the audience's attention and pins them to their seat.
They'll wait around to see what happens. Meanwhile you will switch to something else, just the way we do in life. You'll leave them hanging.
They'll wait, suspended, to see the outcome. While they're waiting, you're servicing another part of your story. This is how it's done these days in books, television and films.
People multitask every day. People have multiple storylines in their lives at all times. We expect them in our filmed entertainment.
The audience began to notice the dangling glass, and whisper in a hubbub. The upstart actress was completely upstaged. And Miss Bankhead nowhere in sight.
There are all kinds of danglers in a movie.
Some are large questions whose answers remain obscure until the denouement. These drive the story. Some are hidden agendas or uncertain outcomes these drive your scenes.
Others are curiosities which add spice to your story. These are the danglers which we're talking about here. An added feature which helps drive your story along. It's boring when story is all straightforward you need a digression now and then. Some comic relief. A new slant. An extra dimension.
Afterward, the secret was revealed: Miss Bankhead had put sticky tape on the bottom of the glass.
What's this have to do with danglers? The glass dangled, and the suspense of that focused your attention. But that's a red herring. The dangler in this article was the story itself.
Like "Rosebud" in Citizen Kane, or Capt. Miller's civilian occupation in Saving Private Ryan, or even the two racing brothers in Better Off Dead, danglers help you sustain audience interest and provide variety to your scripts. Use them wisely!
dangler · n. A anecdote or refrain, parceled out in snippets over the course of your script. Use them to add value and variety, intrigue your audience, and keep them engaged.
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