Have you ever known the plot of a movie before you even saw it? Has there ever been a pop-out scare that you saw coming from a mile away? Filmmaking is an eternal struggle to always stay one step ahead of the audience—Get too far ahead and they’re confused, fall behind and you’ve got a boring, predictable movie. Here are seven practices that can help you stay ahead of your audience.
1. Be A Skeptic
If you have even the slightest doubt about a scene, a page or a line of dialogue, chances are high the audience will notice. Everything you put on the page will be magnified on the screen, and it’s better to ask questions now so your viewer won’t be asking them in the theater.
2. Give Everything a purpose
This includes people, places and things. If Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, give him a snake pit to explore. If a paleontologist hates kids, throw a couple little brats at him. If you have an exploding pen, use it! We tend to see “purpose” in the broader sense of a hero’s journey, but even Batman’s gadgets are setup to have some kind of conclusion in their own right.
3. Red Herringz
Take advantage of stereotypes to trick the audience. Don’t use this too often, though, otherwise everything becomes a trick and nothing will seem genuine.
4. No Evil Deed Goes Unpunished
Give evil its comeuppance. Viewers demand justice, this is why Disney villains have a tendency to always fall off of cliffs. It even happens on smaller scales. Justice doesn’t always have to mean death, and it’s not always waiting just for the villain. The entire second half of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is built on this principle. Getting what you deserve can be as small as an inconvenience or a humiliation.
5. Give Action Consequences
It seems like this should be obvious, but people seem to overlook it all the time. Run through your script, and every time a character does something ask yourself: “Would it change anything if this never happened?” Or maybe the repercussions aren’t proportional to what the character does. Don’t be afraid to punish your protagonists for the decisions they make.
6. Know Your Genre
Keep your tone consistent. Different genres will warrant different expectations. If someone plants a bomb in a comedy, that will create expectations that are different from a drama. Genre can also dictate what the audience will allow you to get away with. Remember in “Airplane!” when the frantic passenger is slapped over and over again by a line of people waiting to slap her? Can you imagine any other genre that would allow that to happen?
7. Watch Movies
This can basically sum up all you’ll ever need to know. We’ve all grown up with the same movies and the same tropes. Some have aged better than others, but the only way to know is by seeing them for yourself. Watch older movies too: What still holds up? What’s become cliché? Just like movies change, audiences change as well, and it’s important to keep your finger on the pulse.