Screenwriting Tip #116: Raise Questions, Drop Hints, Leave Riddles Half-Solved…



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 Raise questions, drop hints, leave riddles half-solved — whatever it takes to keep them interested and turning the page. Novelists have a lot to teach us about this trick.

Imagine you’re playing a game with the script reader, and that game is called Keep Them Reading at All Costs. Ideally, the reader who picks up your script will not put it down again until she’s finished. When the phone rings, she ignores it. Her stomach growls, but there’s no time for food, because she has to see what happens on the next page. You’re communicating directly to that reader through your script, making her read at the pace you set. You’re the puppetmaster and the reader is your own personal marionette.

Sounds good, right? And the best part is that all those tricks you use to keep the reader reading? They’re also valuable narrative devices that will make your script more dramatic and your characters more dynamic and interesting.

But what about the slow parts of the story? Even a rollercoaster has boring points – slow uphill climbs and straight sections. How do you keep the reader’s attention through those quieter parts of the script?

Well, you could make sure you always have some kind of action going on, no matter how calmly paced or exposition-heavy the scene is. In Inception, when Cobb wants to explain the fairly complicated rules of the dreamworld to Ariadne, he takes her inside the dreamworld to show her directly. Their conversation is mostly conflict-less exposition, but it’s set against a backdrop of cool dream architecture, twisting streets, and exploding cafés. Interesting.

Or you could allow the audience to know something the characters don’t know. Hitchcock believed that was the essence of suspense – when the audience knows that fate is coming to screw with the protagonist, but she remains painfully oblivious. Hitchcock’s example was two people sitting at a café (hey, I’m sensing a theme here) having a perfectly average conversation … except that the audience knows there’s a bomb under their table. The characters could be talking about any old crap, but the audience would still be on the edge of their seats, hanging on every word, waiting for the bomb to go off.

And then there’s a third way, perhaps the trickiest of all: don’t let the audience know something very important. This is called adding mystery, and it can be extremely effective if done right.

How do you inject mystery into your scripts? Let me count the ways:

If you don’t read mystery novels, start. Novelists have been using mystery to keep readers on their toes ever since Edgar Allen Poe let an orangutan loose in a morgue. Conan Doyle, Hammett, and Chandler taught us to pay attention, trust nobody, and suspect everybody. But it’s not just mystery and crime genres that use this trick: the Song of Ice and Fire series opens by setting up an ambiguous supernatural enemy who is then barely explained. They’re just constantly there, lurking on the fringes of the narrative, casting a shroud of mystery and tension over the entire story. In fiction, and in your script, the unseen and the mysterious can make the reader sit up and pay attention to the seemingly mundane.

Let things remain unsaid and unexplained. Two characters are meeting again after years apart. They used to be lovers, but now there’s bad blood between them, and they both have secrets they’d rather not confide to the other. Now imagine you’re writing the scene where they meet. You could tell the audience all of that information up front…or you could throw them in at the deep end – maybe even in the middle of the conversation – and let them try to work out what’s going on.

Why are these two characters acting so evasive? Why are they avoiding talking about the past? What’s up with the sexual tension between them? Readers and audiences absolutely love deducing the relationship between characters through watching their actions and listening to their dialog. It makes them feel like little Sherlocks – they get a thrill just by figuring it out. If you told them all that information before the scene started, you’d be denying them their fun.

Create paranoia.One of the people in this room is a murderer.” “There’s a mole inside our unit.” “I’ll work with him, but I don’t trust him.” Whenever the story throws doubt on the status of one of the main characters – good guy or bad guy? loyal or informer? – the audience sits up and takes notice. They start seeing every scene and hearing every line in a new light.

Drip-feed the audience. Give them what they want…but only a little at a time. In Chinatown, Gittes is always learning a little bit more about Evelyn, only to find that there are other, deeper mysteries lurking underneath. Eventually, though, you’ll have to come out with the full secret or risk the audience feeling ripped off. When you hold out on the mystery too long, the relationship between you and the audience becomes adversarial. Just ask anyone who paid to watch The X-Files movie.

Learn from the best. Television handles mystery better than film, probably because it’s easier to parcel out your secrets and reveals over twenty hours than over two. Veronica Mars, Twin Peaks, The Prisoner, and Rubicon are just a few shows that were built entirely around a central mystery but still managed to tell compelling stories on an episode-by-episode basis. Other, weaker shows tend to prop up poor episodes by dangling the prospect of revealed secrets in front of the audience. By studying strong mystery narratives, you can learn when to hide your hand and when to play.

Be ruthless in the rewrite. This is the quickest, easiest way to create a sense of mystery: just stop explaining everything. Writers always overestimate how much information and explanation the audience needs to appreciate the story. You would be blown away by how much an attentive reader and audience can infer from just a few lines. So why not test it out? Go brutal on the rewrite – cut explanation and leave hints; change obvious setups into subtle clues. Give the new rewrite to your favorite reader friends. Can they still follow the story? If yes, then congratulations – you just made your script leaner and stronger, and you’ve allowed your audience to feel more involved by cultivating a sense of mystery.

Excerpted from Screenwriting Tips, You Hack by Xander Bennett © 2011 Elsevier.  All rights Reserved.

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