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Newsletter Tip (June 04):
Be Careful What You Promise

by Jeff Bollow


Stories are self-contained worlds. The rules of everyday life still apply (unless you establish alternate rules), but aside from the obvious, every single element in your story must make sense to that world.

This leads to an unusual problem: You're making promises, whether you know it or not. And if you don't live up to those promises, the audience is disappointed.

When they read your screenplay, even the most subtle scene, look, action, movement, character, line of dialogue, innuendo... or moment of any kind, puts a thought in your reader's head. It could be an expectation, or an understanding, or even an emotion.

But whatever it is, it implies a promise of what's to come. And you'd better deliver.

For example, in your opening scene, a brother and sister are having an argument when their father comes in. Immediately, both fall silent. The father demands to know who's responsible for breaking the front window. The teenagers trade glances, silently agreeing to say nothing. The father's anger flares.

As the father and son stare at each other, the son's eyes give it away -- intentionally. He accuses his sister, without her ever knowing, and the father has his answer.

This is clearly an act of betrayal. But in establishing that in our story, we've made a promise to the audience that we'll re-visit this act of betrayal later in the story. Maybe the sister will betray the brother. Or the brother might continue to betray his sister, to dire consequences. Or the story may go in a different direction entirely.

But one way or another, we've promised to re-visit that. We made the promise when we introduced it into this self-contained world. If your story never touches upon that betrayal again, the audience will sense something is missing, and won't respond to your work.

As you look over your story, look carefully. What have you promised? Is it what you deliver? Or are you making empty promises?

Be careful what you promise. You WILL have to live up to it.

Keep on writing!

Jeff Bollow

Jeff Bollow, founder of, is an award-winning filmmaker, acclaimed screenwriting teacher, creator of FAST Screenplay, co-founder of New Zealand's Big Mountain Short Film Festival, and author of two best-selling books.

This article is copyright © 2004 by Jeff Bollow, and may not be reprinted without permission. You are free to link to this page, provided it is not within a frame on an external site.







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