The Unexpected Is Expected in Your Screenplay


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by Naomi Write + Co. in pre-writing, screenplay concepts, screenwriting, theme

The element of surprise isn’t icing on your screenplay cake, it’s a necessary ingredient.

We talk so much about craft basics that you might have the impression that nailing the basics is all it takes to deliver a great script, but that’s not quite the case.

Yes, you should absolutely pay attention to the fundamentals. Hone your craft.

But my argument today is that you also need something “extra” to have a project that makes the cut. (In terms of winning awards, getting represented, getting interest from legit producers, etc.)

You don’t get noticed for delivering the basics. That’s expected. You get noticed when your screenplay stands out. It goes above and beyond. When you show you have a mastery of the basics, PLUS.

Plus what?

…Plus you know how to tell a story.
…Plus you can entertain us.
…Plus you deliver something fresh – something we haven’t seen before – something unexpected.

In that way, the industry folks you may want reading your script (managers, producers) already expect the unexpected. If you give them a script that delivers the basics and that’s it? They might acknowledge that you have some solid screenwriting skills, sure. But will they be WOWED?

If there was nothing surprising in or about your screenplay, then probably not.

So, how can you deliver something unexpected along with your well-constructed screenplay? Here are a few areas to target:

1. Evaluate the unexpected in the concept.

We’re not necessarily talking about having a “high concept” idea, although there’s some overlap there. More importantly, think about the “fresh but familiar” standard. We like story ideas that immediately give us a clear sense of what kind of story we’ll be in for (familiar), but are also unique or unexpected in some way (fresh).

Sometimes writers veer too far in one direction. The concept involves too many strange or disparate elements for our brains to wrap around easily. Or every aspect feels done before, there’s nothing new enough to spark our interest. The sweet spot to aim for is in the middle.

When you’re vetting your ideas or trying to improve upon them, consider:

  • What’s “familiar”: Is it a classic heist? Is it an epic romance? A road trip?
  • What’s “fresh”: What’s unique about the idea? Does it have an unusual hook or “strange attractor”?

How to improve your screenplay concept

If your ideas are feeling bland, uninspired, or cliched, try brainstorming isolated elements to find a fresh hook. Try starting with these:

  • Perspective – Do we commonly see this type of story from one point of view? What other possible POVs are there?
  • Opposite (or unexpected) profession – Instead of a cop hunting the killer, what if it’s another killer? Or an obsessed podcaster?
  • Opposite (or unexpected) social standing – What if the presidential candidate in your story was a homeless person?
  • Unexpected Gender
  • Unexpected Age / phase-of-life
  • Location – Can you make this either the fresh or familiar element to balance the other aspects of your concept?
  • Juxtaposition between character and arena – a more extreme juxtaposition can add interest (and drama or humor)
  • Time period
  • Stakes
  • Fantasy and Science Fiction elements
  • And don’t overlook the “method” element – how the protagonist goes about trying to achieve his story goal – as a place to bring something unexpected, as in Silence of the Lambs, Hell or High Water, or Ocean’s Eleven.

(And here are some additional ways to “level up” your concepts.)

2. Identify tropes, and then subvert them.

What is a trope? From

“Merriam-Webster gives a definition of “trope” as a “figure of speech.” In storytelling, a trope is just that — a conceptual figure of speech, a storytelling shorthand for a concept that the audience will recognize and understand instantly.

Above all, a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom… you know it when you see it. Tropes are not inherently disruptive to a story; however, when the trope itself becomes intrusive, distracting the viewer rather than serving as shorthand, it has become a cliché.”

There are some general movie tropes, and some tropes that are genre-specific. Tropes are tropes because we’ve seen them so many times. They are now expected, which is exactly what we’re trying to target and subvert.

The important questions to ask of your screenplay are:

  1. Have I seen this before?
  2. What do we expect to happen here?

Even a slight change to the expected can be enough to breathe new life into your script or scene.

3. Pay attention to set pieces.

What is a set piece? From “An energetic, original, extended sequence that contains a big payoff for the audience—be it laughs, adrenaline-pumping action, or dazzling visuals.”

Set pieces often provide the “trailer moments” in a movie. They are scenes or sequences that exploit the premise, genre, or entertainment hooks.

If you’re looking at where to concentrate your “unexpected” efforts, set pieces may give you the most bang for your buck since they can work like tentpoles for the movie as a whole. Give us something we haven’t seen before in the set pieces and it’ll go a long way to making your movie feel unique and surprising.

4. Surprise in every scene.

If your scene is the first version that came to your mind when you were deciding how to write it, it’s probably something that other writers have come up with too. Which means the reader has probably seen it before, many times. You’ll have to dig a little deeper in order to stand out from the crowd.

By all means – in your first draft, write that scene where we see the main character wake up in the morning, roll out of bed, and examine himself in the bathroom mirror. Or that scene where the guy comes home early from work to find his wife in bed with another guy.

But in rewrites, challenge yourself to come up with something that moves the story or showcases your character in a more unique or unexpected way. Or, if a seen-it-before scene is truly the best choice, at least find a fresh angle on it. Let it play out in a unique and unexpected way.

Professional readers go through dozens of scripts per week. Giving your reader something fresh and different will – when done well, of course – cut through the sea of sameness, grab their attention, and get them on your side.

What goes wrong is the story

Make sure things don’t go according to your protagonist’s plans in every scene. (Or even in most scenes.) And that doesn’t just mean adding obstacles or conflict. We also want those obstacles and conflicts to create lasting or domino effects so your story doesn’t revert to the expected too quickly or easily.

If the protagonist can recover from an obstacle or conflict and get right back to doing things the way he always planned to, then that conflict had no real effect, and the events feel inconsequential (because they are). So make sure your characters have to (at least some of the time) make new plans, take new actions they didn’t expect to.

5. Think thematically.

If every scene contributes to or is informed by the story’s theme (which is the ideal, really) then you can use that as a good jumping-off point to think about how to create scenes that are specific to your movie. (Specificity and surprise often go hand in hand.)

For example, if you’ve read the script for or seen the recently released movie Fresh (TW: violence; it is not for the faint of heart), you may have noticed that many of the scenes felt fresh (no pun intended) despite being pretty common setups and situations for the genre and story type.

The “fresh” or unexpected element in those scenes is how the theme is expressed. You might also think of it as the writer’s voice or point of view. It gives the screenplay a different spin.

6. How does it end?

The Climax in Act Three shows the protagonist’s final confrontation with the primary force of opposition. It’s the battle that determines the outcome of the war, once and for all. It also answers the question that the audience has been tracking through the movie:

  • No, the boy doesn’t get the girl.
  • Yes, the brothers get the money to the bank on time.
  • Yes, the woman catches the serial killer.

So the audience wants you to close that loop that was opened when the question was formed in Act 1 – that’s what they’re waiting for. But in addition to that, the best endings often throw in something we didn’t see coming.

As screenwriter William Goldman and screenwriting guru Robert McKee have said, respectively, endings should be “satisfying and surprising” and “inevitable and unexpected.”


  • No, the boy doesn’t get the girl – but here comes another, and maybe she’s “The One.”
  • Yes, the brothers get the money to the bank on time – but one of them dies before the task is complete.
  • Yes, the woman catches the serial killer – but another serial killer goes free in the process.

This extra “but…” might say something about the theme, it might add a little irony for entertainment value, or it might be a way to deliver the desired emotional experience before the lights come up.

Sometimes we write the expected version of things because we’re leaning on our own mental references, e.g. stuff we’ve seen before. But that’s the whole point of thinking about the unexpected. If we’ve seen it before, we want to try something new or different. Subvert expectations. Surprise the audience. Add to the conversation.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.