The Art of Screenwriting – Part 3

Viewers go to the movies not just to see stories, but to see stories well told. The

screenwriter’s job is called story-telling, not story-making.”

– Frank Daniel in The Tools of Screenwriting

In the previous article, we discovered some of the essential skills of a screenwriter and today, we shall learn more!

The Skills of a Screenwriter

Telling a Story in an Exciting Manner

One of the most important aspects of a screenwriter’s job is telling a story. A fantastic story concept is useless if the scriptwriter does not tell the story well. Think back of a time when someone has shared something that happened to him or her with you or told you about something he or she saw. Sometimes, the contents of what your friend is telling you are interesting you still find yourself bored. The problem here is not the story but rather the manner in which the story is told. The same principle applies to screenwriting. The ability to tell a story in a manner that grips people and keeps their interest in the unfolding story is an important skill for a good scriptwriter.

What is a well-told story? It refers to how a story unfolds, how it is revealed to the audience, and how the audience experiences the telling of the story. As a result, you can say that story-telling deals with the way by which an audience becomes involved in a story and remains interested in this story until its conclusion.

There are various elements involved that can help screenwriters to master the skill of story-telling and these key elements are:

  • Empathy

    Why empathy? An audience needs to care about the main characters and the situation in which they are. This can only be achieved through empathy. If viewers stop caring about the characters, they will lose interest in the film. Therefore, the scriptwriter must be able to engage the audience to empathize with the characters at the start of the film and continually maintain and reinforce this throughout the whole movie.

  • Dramatic irony

    Dramatic irony can be defined as those instances when the audience knows something a character does not know. It creates a tension that can have both a comedic and dramatic effect. Let’s take an example of a group of people having a picnic. At one moment, they move away from their food and an animal sneakily eats their food. The audience knows before the characters that the food is gone, thereby resulting in a comedic effect.

    Another strong example of dramatic irony is in the epic movie “Titanic”, where Cal has promised Rose that he has room for himself and Jack on another boat. However, as soon as the lifeboat is being lowered, the audience learns that Cal has lied to Rose. This creates a powerful moment of suspense as the audience has become aware of a piece of information that Rose ignores.

  • Conflict

Conflict is an element that pushes the action forward. Conflict is drama and drama underpins all good scripts. Drama drives the action and allows it to develop in complexity. For example, conflict in a romantic story could include the differences in social class between two lovers. 

  • Timing and uncertainty

Timing and uncertainty is a concept which is linked to conflict. As a result of a conflict, a degree of suspense exists. The audience does not know who will win or how the main character will face

the conflict. The timing at which a conflict appears or the manner a conflict is revealed can create uncertainty. The scriptwriter does not create uncertainty by keeping the audience in the dark or by withholding information. Instead, they use the audience’s expectations, hoping that the character will succeed and fear that the character might fail. This keeps the audience waiting in anticipation for the rest of the film to know what happens.

  • Raising the stakes


    The concept of raising the stakes was borrowed from the theatre. The action of raising the stakes can most likely magnify an existing conflict. For example, in “Titanic”, there is a conflict of the upper class and the lower class. However, James Cameron drastically raises the stakes with the slowly sinking ship. By raising the stakes, a scriptwriter injects further drama into an already dramatic situation.

  • Backstory

The backstory can refer to events that happened before the story being told in the film. It includes past events that will most likely influence what happens in the film and the characters’ decisions. They inject color and depth to the story being told. The audience do not always learn events

that happen in their original chronological orders but discover past about events from the characters’ life as the film unfolds.

  • Tone

The tone of the film refers to the mood and atmosphere set by a scriptwriter through the use of pace and speed. A deft scriptwriter will continually change the speed at which a story is told. For example, a moment of quiet and peace will follow a moment of fast-paced, suspenseful sequence. A well-told story does not maintain the same pace from beginning to end. Why? Because the viewer can quickly lose interest. There must be valleys and peaks as the story unfolds.

Do you think that a good story depends on the skills of a screenwriter? Please share your comments!

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