I know some of you writers out there – yes, you know who you are — don’t like rules and formulas and are ruthlessly resistant to following any kind or paradigm in your script writing efforts but the simple truth is that patterns and methods exist in life and art and often it is the artist’s task to present them in such a way so that they enhance the drama but do not stand out like a sore thumb.
Even Gene Kelly used technique.. He didn’t just wake up one morning and do a back flip but he was such a master at his craft that he made every dazzling move look seamless and effortless through years of practice and applying technique to creativity.
The job is the same for the writer. To create a story that has technique and intention yet uses tried-and-tested screenwriting devices where necessary and the writer’s skill to present the events that unfold in an organic way so that we, as an audience, hook into the plot and the characters that inhabit the depicted fiction world before us.
So with that in mind, you, as a screenwriter, must learn that the “rule of three” doesn’t just apply to telling jokes. That’s right, you don’t have to be a comedian (but it sometimes helps) to use this technique in your own scripts to make your narrative and character development have more impact.
In order for an audience to remember an important piece of information or to fully understand and identify with your screenplay’s clever third-act twist, you first have to set it up, then you remind them (usually in a subtle way) and then you make that jaw-dropping pay-off! And it doesn’t just apply to your overall act structure but also to scenes and the dialogue within them. Just as a witty one-liner may have a beginning, middle and end, so does a monologue, a heated dialogue exchange, a fight and a car chase. The rules appear everywhere to varying degrees.
A crude example would be your hero entering a trendy club and noticing an ornate bowl of nuts on the bar. He takes one as he asks the bartender some questions. Then during the middle of the scene a seductive woman approaches him and they exchange some dialogue. He’s not interested but as she departs she mentions how the nuts he’s eating contain germs since people don’t wash their hands. As we approach the end of the scene, the hero comes face to face with the person that has been following him all day and they have a fist fight while everybody around them watches on. The hero ultimately wins by reaching behind him, grabbing the bowl of nuts and slamming it across the guy’s head.. maybe even ending the scene with a witty retort about how the woman was right and that the nuts are bad for your health.
Setup. Reminder. Pay-off.
Now, would the scene work as well with only the first and last visual of the nuts? Or perhaps just the last? No. One – Two – Three. Simple yet extremely effective.