Primary screenwriting colours

Screenwriting is about timing. The timed release of facts to the audience. There are many techniques open to writers for refining their story, but when coming up with the initial structure, there are three effects available:

1. Dramatic tension
2. Dramatic Irony
3. Mystery

These define whether the audience is ahead, in sync with or behind the characters in knowing what is going on.

This post is another excerpt from my summary of last Monday’s Soho Screenwriters presentation.

E.M. Forster said that stories can only have one fault: the audience does not want to know what happens next. To be interesting, stories need to appeal to the intellect and the emotions. For the intellect there is tension (what will happen next), for the emotions there is a value system (what we want to happen next).

Dramatic tension

The audience learns what is happening in the story at the same time as the characters. The tension we feel is between our hope of what will happen as compared with what might happen. We feel curiosity about the emotional outcome, not the specific facts of the events about to unfold. As we discover things at the same time as the protagonist, it is a lot easier to feel empathy for him or her.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, after Indy and Marion discover the Ark, we discover at the same moment as they do that the Germans have captured Sallah and are waiting for them at the top of the rope.

Dramatic irony

This use of the word ‘irony’ is not the one usually used in fiction. The audience learns things before the characters do. Using the example above, we could have learned that the Germans were waiting for Indy and Marion during the scene where they discover the Ark – that would have introduced a different tension in the scene.

Ironic tension is resolved when the characters discover what the audience knows. But the trick is to deliver what the audience expects but not in the way they expect.


The least used method is when the audience knows less than the characters. Usually used in Agatha Christie whodunnits. The audience gets plenty of pieces of information, but they don’t know which to believe. Examples also include thrillers such as The Conversation (we’re not sure what Harry Caul is thinking) and The Godfather Part II (Michael’s relationship with Hyman Roth).

Once you’ve painted with these broad strokes, you have many other colours in your palette to use when writing scenes and rewriting…


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