Thursday, 16 October 2008


England vs Argentina, World Cup, 1998. I watched it in a pub in Bristol. Probably the smallest pub in Bristol. The place was packed.

Normally, football leaves me cold. But England's clash with Argentina at St Etienne was something else. Ninety nail-biting minutes, followed by extra time, followed by a penalty shootout. A young David Beckham (whatever happened to him?) got sent off. The community of emotion was incredible.

There were groans. There were mutterings. There were roars. There was armchair analysis. There were anxious faces. We sat, transfixed. We stood, punching the air. We held our breaths.

We lost. But watching that match I wondered, through the ever-thickening alcoholic haze - why can't drama be more like this?

People from all backgrounds, stopping everything they're doing, to concentrate on an event, a trial, a contest. Rapt attention. Ratchetting tension. A nation's heart in its mouth.

Why can't drama be more like that?

Deep down, I believe that it can be. And it's the scriptwriter's job to ensure that it is.

There's a lot we can learn from major sporting events.

First of all, there's the matter of identification. The audience has to identify with the hero. We have to make the audience invest in the hero, just as fans invest, emotionally, in the fortunes of their team. The audience must cheer the hero on, hoping and praying that the hero will succeed.

To achieve this, make your hero good at what they do. We admire people who are good at what they do. Give them a good, clear, positive objective. Let the audience know, as early as possible, what your hero wants, what they're setting out to achieve, why it's important to them. And make sure that the obstacles are formidable.

Secondly, the outcome of the story must be unpredictable. The history of sport is a history of unexpected outcomes. The audience must be desperate to know how the story ends.

This is quite tricky. We've all seen, heard and read so many stories that we know how they tend to work out. Unconsciously, readers and viewers are constantly anticipating where the story's going, what's going to happen next, how it will all end. They're like those armchair pundits with their constant, knowing predictions.

Our job is to keep them guessing. Avoid the soft option. Don't be predictable.

Lastly, a great sports match is a story of ups and downs, of dramatic twists, of sudden reversals, of heart-stopping moments, of despair followed by euphoria. It's a rollercoaster ride. A real emotional journey.

You've got to be cruel to your characters. Love them, but torture them. Give them their triumphs, then make their world collapse. Make their journey, their struggle to achieve their objectives in the face of their obstacles, as eventful as you dare. Reward every positive step with a bigger problem for them to overcome. Surprise them, and the audience, and yourself. Make the stakes as high as you can, and keep piling on the pressure, right up until the end.

These are three areas in which many scripts are deficient. We must care about the hero. We must want them to succeed. We must be gripped by the story, unable to guess what happens next. We must be buffeted, just like the hero, by the vagaries of fortune, by a range of emotions of increasing intensity.

We must invest in the hero, identifying with their cause, cheering them on, suffering their highs and lows. We must be kept in suspense. We need to feel our hearts sink and our spirits soar. We need to be on the edge of our seats, our nerves in shreds, willing them on.

If you can achieve that with your scripts, you've got it made.


Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

yes. Which is why I precisely hate Bollywood, most Bollywood films are pure crap and have no hook, just predictable plots with boring, predictable characters.

I do look forward to seeing Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire... and there was a good post over at Mystery Man's film blog about how many films rarely have suspense in their plots anymore, almost like what you just described here.

script doc said...

Hmmnnn ... maybe a posting, some time, about the art of suspense, do you think?
I guess Bollywood is such a huge industry that the same old stuff gets churned out. But there must be (he says, arguing from a position of ignorance) some filmmakers in Bollywood who do things a bit differently - or is that just wishful thinking?