Isn't it funny how the suspense thriller continues as a favorite spec screenplay genre? One reason for this attraction is that in thrillers, suspense is mandatory. You can't write a thriller without taking intense care to keep the audience uncertain. In other genres however, screenwriters often fail to stay ahead of the audience. Many writers lag far behind their audience by relying on plot clich?s or failing to time plot revelations properly. They underestimate their audience and write a boring script.
Granted, audiences today are sophisticated (although you wouldn't know this from the average box office report). If you want to please the smarties in the crowd you've got to be pretty clever. When people claimed that they figured out the twist of THE SIXTH SENSE long before the ending I was surprised, although in retrospect it wasn't exactly impossible to guess. Unlike me, many audiences don't get totally wrapped up in the emotions of a movie. Rather, their minds are working constantly to guess the plot before it is fully revealed. I don't want to be one of these people; I'd rather not try to speed ahead of a writer or filmmaker. I want to be surprised. But some writers make even me frustrated by underestimating what I'm capable of figuring out.
For example, writers typically mishandle the difference between what the characters know versus what the audience knows. Often a writer will clue the audience in to a key fact that the main character doesn't know, then proceed to ignore the fact that the audience knows! The main character continues on through the plot, slowly discovering pieces of a puzzle that the audience already knows, leading to the conclusion that is already known, revealing a killer that we already know. The audience needs to be continually surprised throughout the script. We won't always be riveted watching a character realize the obvious. If you choose to clue your audience in ahead of the characters, you must somehow return that audience to a state of suspense for them to remain emotionally involved.
The use of clich?s must also be addressed when talking about audience lag. If you flatly employ a clich?, you immediately underestimate your audience. Don't do it, even if you're just trying to write a classic thriller or romantic comedy or whatever. Challenge yourself to find new ways to smite your villain and see your hero to victory. Even if you want your audience to feel that they're in cozy, familiar territory, you must find an original way to have the boy get the girl back or the serial killer come after the detective's girlfriend (and feel free not to have the serial killer come after the detective's girlfriend at all. Please).
Beyond the avoidance of clich?s, you should also avoid the common tendency to make characters dumber than you are. Would you have figured out the mystery? Would you make the mistakes your characters make? If the answer's no, take the time to restructure your story or scene. Audiences have watched enough television and movies to know that when a character does something ridiculously foolish or unbelievable it's because the writer needs the character to service the plot. Once an audience realizes this, they tend to disengage with the character and try to guess what's going to happen next. Horror movies use this tendency to play good-naturedly with their audience -- waiting for the stupid kids to die is half the fun. But in a more serious thriller or drama, audience detachment is deadly.
Repeating the same beat in your script can also be a dire mistake. Aside from being a space-waster, repeated beats also waste emotional space in your reader. One script I read offered three scenes that showed a female character "kicking ass" just to show that she could. Instead of building on why she needed to prove herself, or why the bad guys were coming after her, the writer just repeated the "she doesn't take any crap" beat. She kicked the same bad guys' butts, with the same moves, for the same reasons, at the same stakes.
Continuously ask yourself: "What does my audience know, and when do they know it?" Turn a clich? on its head. Don't have your villain twirl his moustache or your hero pound his chest. For every bit of extra information you give your audience, take something away from them. Give a friend your completed script but only let them read half. Then ask them not only what they think is going to happen, but how. Are they right? Do they even need to read the rest of the script?
I can't emphasize enough the importance of cutting out the audience lag in your spec script. When readers are kept enticingly uncertain they slow down and read the script closer, willing and eager to notice all the little details. They may even pay you the best compliment: flipping the cover back to look at the author's name.