How many times have you asked yourself, “Self, what’s the most important thing to have on page one of my script?” And, asking that question, did you start to feel…tense? Like you’re feeling now, wondering about where this article will go? Hehehehehehe…gotcha, didn’t we? And in Sentence One, no less. Here’s the deal:
by Todd Klick
Whether it’s action, drama, comedy, horror, western, or suspense thriller, all successful movies start with tension: Anxiety, apprehension, danger, discomfort, crisis, distress, hostility, or sexual tension. Tension grabs attention, as the classic theater adage goes. When you hear the couple arguing in the apartment below you, it grabs your attention. When you see an overturned school bus on the highway, it grabs your attention. Even though you try not to look, a man and woman kissing passionately in a parked car draws your eye (sexual tension). Other people’s tension peaks our curiosity, it yanks us from our everyday existence and injects us with a sudden rush of adrenaline.
One of the most popular tension-grabbers in film is DANGER.
In Halloween, someone creeps toward an average-looking house and secretly watches the teenagers make out in the kitchen. In Jaws, something ominous moves through the water. In Knocked Up, Ben and his friends fight with boxing gloves that are on fire. In Star Wars, the opening text warns of Civil War. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his crew head deep into a dangerous jungle. In Scream, a mysterious stranger calls Casey when she’s home by herself.
When we see something dangerous happening to others, our attention peaks because we feel, deep down, that we have to keep an eye on it for self-preservation. If Ben and his buddies are fighting with on-fire boxing gloves, they could accidentally stumble over to where I’m sitting and catch meon fire! So I’d better pay attention. If someone warns of war, I’d better pay attention, because that war could end up in my own backyard, or I may get drafted. If a guy creeps toward someone else’s house and peers through their windows, someone could be looking through my windows, too.
Another attention grabber is ANXIETY.
Most of us do not enjoy feeling anxious, but boy are we intrigued to see others experiencing it. In Die Hard’s first minute, John McClane, who’s afraid of flying, death-grips the plane’s armrest. In Little Miss Sunshine, anxious beauty contestants wait to see who will be voted Miss America. In Spider-Man, Peter Parker sprints after the bus, anxious because he might be late for school. In Rashomon, an angst-ridden commoner says to the priest, “I don’t understand.”
HOSTILITY also grabs our attention. When we’re at the store and we see a customer yelling at the cashier, our eyes snap toward the yeller. Why? Because we’re curious how the cashier is going to handle the situation. Will she get the manager? Will she yell back? Hostility comes in two forms: Verbal and physical. Say the customer throws a punch at the manager. Now they have our undivided attention — that fight might spill over to my lane and I could get a broken nose. I better keep my eye on the situation.
Another attention grabber is SEXUAL TENSION.
Say we’re hiking in the woods and we see, in the distance, a naked couple having sex. It immediately grabs our attention, doesn’t it? It’s something forbidden. It’s something we’re not supposed to watch, but we’re drawn to it. Basic Instinct’s first minute begins with a rock star having sex with a beautiful blonde woman in his mansion. We know we shouldn’t be looking, but we can’t help it.
Learn more about Todd’s book, from which this article is taken, HERE