Wednesday, February 24, 2010

SPEAKING MYSTERY & SUSPENSE, FLUENTLY

“We live forwards but we understand backwards.”
– Soren Kierkegaard

Very few rules-of-thumb are of any use to writers apart from those they discover for themselves. In his novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, the novelist/poet, Nelson Algren, cites three basic rules for living: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Unfortunately, he didn’t have anything to say about writing screenplays; certainly nothing as profound as William Goldman’s insight, which long ago morphed into that proverbial chestnut of screenwriting wisdom, namely that “writing is re-writing”.

Interestingly enough, when it comes to dramatic screen storytelling, the writer that offered the most practical advice was Charles Dickens who never even saw a movie let alone wrote one. His salutary pronouncement to storytellers was founded – as might be expected – upon his deep appreciation of audience: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.” Sound advice, and a timely reminder to any screenwriter toying with the notion that audience is extraneous to the story that is trying to get itself told.

In forging an intimate relationship with one’s audience, the successful screenwriter invariably works with two, essential audience-related story elements, namely MYSTERY and SUSPENSE, which manifest as visual and verbal “utterances” that function to stimulate an audience’s interest in and identification and involvement with the characters.

The efficacy of these two elementals for evoking interest in and identification with the characters, as well as a passionate emotional involvement with the story, is proportional to the degree to which they encourage attention (a tension) and generate and build energy through the promotion of perplexity, anticipation and contrast.

Mystery is the presence that is not present – the hidden catalyst of choice and action that stands within, behind and beyond the goals and plans of every dramatic character. It is both secret and puzzle, the source of the audience’s most important questions and doubts concerning the identity of the characters, their back-stories and their present situation. When an audience is alert to the possibility that a character’s actions might actually hide more than they reveal, when questions concerning “what”, “why”, and “who” give rise to an uneasiness that provokes uncertainty and increasing anxiety, you can be sure that mystery is afoot.

Suspense, on the other hand, places the audience in a position of privileged perception. When an audience sees or hears something that threatens the well being of a character with which it identifies, but is not perceived by the character her/himself, suspense thrives. The shower scene in Psycho is an obvious example. The audience sees the murderer coming into the steamy bathroom; the woman in the shower doesn’t.

Mystery hides information from an audience in order to make it ask “how come?”. Suspense hides or withholds information from the characters (or dramatis personae) in order to make the audience wonder “what now?”.

Dramatic irony is often an ingredient of suspense insofar as the audience experiences a disparity between a character’s understanding of a situation and the situation itself. The audience is aware of the disparity; the character is not. The apprehension of dramatic irony works to conduct the audience into a more intense, emotional interaction with the characters by stimulating the audience’s anxieties.

The perceivable contrasts (ironies) that exist between what a character believes to be the case and what really is the case; the unresolved mystery of what is wondered at but not answered; and the unrelieved suspense of “what next?” build energy both inside and outside the script. Indeed, when successfully realised, mystery and suspense are capable of keeping an audience engaged and involved in the action even when the story itself lacks a substantial dramatic problem.

However, all of this begs the question: how is suspense, let alone mystery, possible short of a compelling problem that carries both risk and urgency for one or more of the characters? The character-based, Mexican feature, Blue Eyelids (Párpados azules), provides one, possible and illuminating answer.

Blue Eyelids is one of those off-beat, satiric films that might easily go unnoticed by the cinema-going public; its eccentricities and unusual storytelling style do not mark it as a film that would garner much attention, although it has done rather well, both critically and commercially. The story itself – as well as the way it is told - eschews the conventional grammar associated with dramatic screen storytelling, except for the curious quality it has of rather masterfully creating - in a black, satiric sort of way - the elements of mystery and suspense.

The story concerns the relationship of two lonely hearts, Marina and Victor. Marina is a meek wallflower who eeks out a desultory living working in a uniform company in Mexico City. When she unexpectedly discovers she has won an employee raffle for a beach holiday for two, her first inclination is to go on her own, but in a change of heart she decides to ring up old school friend to find someone who might want to accompany her. Marina’s pathetic attempts to find a travelling companion culminate in a meeting with Victor, for whom she has only the vaguest of memories. Though the two were at school together, they were anything but close, and when Marina asks him to accompany her on the holiday he is genuinely uncertain about her intentions and the wisdom of going on a trip with someone he hardly knows. He nevertheless agrees to go, but suggests they spend some time together beforehand to get to know one another better. From this point on, the true dimensions of both of their hang-ups and unspoken frustrations become simultaneously clearer and more mysterious.

When the couple sets out on their first date to a traditional dance club, they manage not only to lose their table, but also sour the whole evening with superficial conversation and an undercurrent of unspoken desiring that makes dancing seem rather irrelevant. They eventually end up back at her place where they indulge in what passes for a sexual act, but without any of the conventional passion or lust one might expect.

Because they are likable, and because their loneliness is obvious, we care about them. We want them to have more than what either has chosen for themselves. But all the time we are perplexed, even haunted, by the circumstances into which they have wandered; and their seeming inability to break out of the emotional and psychological cages they have constructed for themselves is so constricted the very tightness of their being seems to threaten an explosion.

Unlike conventional melodrama, Blue Eyelids sustains our interest primarily by evoking mystery and suspense out of the very unexpectedness of the characters' actions and reactions. The physical, historical, cultural and intellectual contexts - both real and suggested - in which the characters act provide the basis for a portrayal of loneliness, longing and dysfunctional self-esteem without ever explaining why the characters are unable to find comfort or even meaning in one another’s company let alone relieve the underlying tensions that their emotional incompetency has created. Why is Marina unable to consummate her desires? What makes her like this? What is she avoiding or striving to forget?

The film’s edginess – its suspense – is supplied by the unstated but ever-present questions “will she change?” , “will he change?”, and will either one of them break out of the malaise into which they have apparently fallen? Watching the film, one cannot help but think that something has to give, that at any moment one or the other will say something, do something, that will send them off on some extraordinary happening or adventure. One waits in expectation, and waits. And waits. Only nothing happens. The film simply ends.

While the ending neither relieves nor resolves the suspense and mystery – a result that initially enraged me, and continued to enrage me, for several days – I eventually realised that the ending, though not obvious, was the only emotionally logical (and I might say courageous) ending that was possible. In a subtle and unexpected way, the underlying irony of the situation into which these two characters had fallen forced me to look at my own understandings and misunderstandings concerning the nature and possible meanings of romantic love.

What is interesting about Blue Eyelids is that the relationship starts at a point where conventional movie relationships (as well as “real-life” ones) usually end – with a couple estranged from each other, not speaking. If one was to state it in formulistic terms – and this is certainly not a formulistic film – one might describe it as Boy meets Girl, Girl loses Boy, Boy and Girl lose themselves completely in marriage. By standing the entire phenomenon of romantic love on its head, it shows us how the end of an affair is already present in its beginning.

The film’s ironic take on modern love, by way of its sustained use of mystery and suspense, stimulates any number of questions and thoughts in a perceptive audience: who is it that we love when we say “I love you”?; to what extent is love a projection of one’s own needs and beliefs?; do we ever really know the person that sleeps next to us, that we wake up next to every morning?

In their own, unexpected way, the characters in Blue Eyelids calls our attention to the progression of our own, failed or aborted relationships, and compels us to wonder from whence they sprang and for what purpose. It is one of a handful of films – including Goddard’s Contempt - that simply and compellingly presents an honest, unromanticised account of human attachments and the power of karma to effect the most unlikely and unexpected connections and disconnections. What is most interesting, however, is the way in which it manages to hold our interest and maintain our emotional involvement despite de-tuning the usual Problem – Goal – Plan grammar. By hiding or withholding details concerning the character’s personal back stories whilst, at the same time, stimulating our anticipation that their present actions are certain to produce unexpected and perhaps life-changing events, the story induces us through very small, seemingly stake-less actions to identify with and care about the characters.

One of the more important jobs of dramatic characters is to nurture mystery and suspense through action. This does not mean “flogging a dead horse”. Mystery, too, has a shelf life. But the more profound the mystery, the longer the shelf life. One need not employ only one mystery per script. Some times the quest to solve one mystery leads the characters to the discovery of an even bigger mystery, and so on. The point is to keep mystery alive.

Likewise in the case of suspense, the challenge is to sustain it for as long as possible. In other words, don’t let your audience off the hook too quickly; make them suffer; “make them wait”. The greater the suffering, the greater the relief, when and if it comes.

Unfortunately, most films fall short of maximising their dramatic potential due to inherent failures in managing mystery and suspense. However, this must not be construed as a one-way communication, where the writer decides what the characters do and what it’s all going to look like as they do it. In order to find and maximise the energy, all of the characters must be interacting with one another.

It’s not very different from the experience of attending community meetings when I lived at Papunya Aboriginal Settlement in Central Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These were always large, outdoor affairs that occurred whenever there was a need to make a decision about some issue that affected the life or well being of the entire community, like whether to allow grog on the settlement, or what should be done about petrol sniffers, etc. Hundreds of men, women and children would turn up outside the settlement hospital, squatting or sitting on the ground or on blankets, usually in family groups. There was no facilitator, no spokesperson or master of ceremonies. People would simply sit, talking quietly to one another in their small groupings, until one person, a man or a woman, would stand and speak their mind about the issue. The statements were invariably short and powerful. When the speaker was finished he or she would sit down and after a few seconds or minutes someone else would stand and say their piece; and this was how it went, for an hour or two or longer, until everyone that wanted to express an opinion had had a chance to say what was on their mind. When no one else got up to speak, the entire group would rise and everyone would walk back to their various camps, knowing what the community’s decision had been. There was no counting of hands, no vote, no summing up by anyone; it wasn’t needed. The evidence of each individual had been heard and every person intuitively understood what had been “decided” – a silent consensus was acknowledged and the collective will was clear.

The interaction of the story’s internal characters and the story’s external characters produces a similar kind of consensus and understanding when apprehended intuitively, which is the only sure and powerful way of creating anything. There cannot be one, single character in charge of the process without skewering or in some way distorting or blocking the flow of emotional energy. Whenever the writer attempts to take over, as commonly happens, the story suffers. When one or more of the characters is not present at the “meeting”, the story suffers. Unless all of the characters are engaged with one another, sharing and interacting at an emotional level that is congruent with the actions of the characters in the script, the story suffers. Without this matrix of forces, which are both sympathetic and adversarial, the dramatisation of mystery and suspense cannot be energetically sustained.

The annihilation or dissipation of emotional energy due to the premature resolution of mystery and suspense is evidenced by a breathtaking number of film scripts and films, regardless of genre. A basic principle of dramatic grammar is never resolve a mystery unless it can be replaced by another mystery that is even more compelling. Don’t let the air out of the balloon.

The same applies to suspense, which should only be relieved for the purpose of giving one’s audience a chance to catch its breath. Having done this, the suspense should return and start building again, ought to start building again, or become the catalyst of even more compelling events that develop a new line of suspense, thus allowing the action of the story to move in a new direction with increasing stakes and an even greater sense of tension.

Figuratively speaking, far too many films fail because they lack the impetus to consistently and effectively build pressure through a variety of surprising and credible actions that flow from coherent, character choices.



In Jonathan Mostow’s film, Breakdown, a young married couple, Jeff and Amy, find themselves stranded in the desert when their new, 4-wheel drive suddenly breaks down. When a friendly truck driver shows up in an 18-wheeler offering help and advice, Amy decides to catch a lift to a nearby diner where she can ring for a tow truck. Her husband will watch over the car until she returns.

While waiting, Jeff discovers that the source of the mechanical failure is a disconnected wire. With the vehicle now restored, Jeff sets out for the diner where he expects to find his wife. Only she isn’t there. The mystery is further complicated by an unfriendly proprietor and an assortment of ne’er-do-well cowboys and solitary drinkers, none of whom have seen Amy. Thinking that perhaps she’s decided to go straight through to the closest town, Jeff returns to his car and heads off down the highway. En route, he spies the 18-wheeler on a side road, and is soon in hot pursuit, honking and shouting at the driver to stop. Risking his life, Jeff swerves in front of the big rig, forcing the driver to slow down and then stop to avoid an accident.

When confronted, the driver claims to have no idea what Jeff is talking about. “I don’t know anything about your wife.”, he says, which only serves to provoke Jeff’s anger. A heated argument ensues and is only relieved by the arrival of a policeman who dutifully searches the truck and, finding no evidence of Amy, let’s the driver go.

Later, in the sheriff’s office, Jeff files a missing person’s report, and stares at photos of the missing – mostly of women – on the office’s large bulletin board. Presumably, none have ever been found.

Back at the diner, a strange, seemingly simple-minded young man tells Jeff where he can find Amy, but warns him not to trust the police. Following the young man’s instructions, Jeff drives out along a secluded river road where he encounters some gun-toting rednecks that capture him and demand money if he wants to save his wife’s life.

At this point the mystery, along with most of the emotional energy, quickly dissipates. The intrigue created by not knowing what has happened to Amy, and whether or not her husband will ever see her again; the horror and helplessness posed by the unknown, and our acute puzzlement over why the truck driver denies seeing her, and what role the police might have in all of this, keep us watching and wondering and involved. What is it that has happened, and what will happen next? are important questions fuelling out interest. So long as these questions are alive in the audience, so too is the story. But as soon as the characters start giving us answers – you have money in your bank; we’re holding your wife until you withdraw it and give it to us, etc – the story loses its mystery, and its edge.

The same sort of thing happens in David Cronenberg’s, A History of Violence. The legendary opening shot is nothing if not intriguing - a four-minute, under-stated tour de force that lulls us into the lives of a couple of convertible-driving travellers and climaxes in blood, bodies and the execution murder of a five-year-old girl.

When the same two strangers turn up in a different car in a small Indiana town and make their way into Tom Stall’s little coffee shop on Main Street just on closing we know there’s bound to be trouble. In order to prevent one of the men from raping and probably killing his waitress, Tom to extreme violence, killing both men in an adrenalin rush, and propelling him into overnight celebrity.

Shortly after the story of Tom’s heroism hits the papers, and his face is featured on the six o’clock news, three more strangers come to town who claim that Tom is really a guy from Philadelphia named Joey. Tom strenuous denies this, but when the men kidnap his son and threaten to harm him if Joey doesn’t accompany them to Philadelphia, Tom is forced to reveal his true identity, and in so doing, acknowledge his own personal history of violence.

The response that his son and wife have to this is extreme, and not entirely credible, but their seemingly complete rejection – even hatred – of Tom is necessary motivation for what he must do if the film isn’t going to end at the 50-minute mark. With the mystery solved, and Tom’s wife and son hating him for not being the man he always claimed to be, the film settles down into a routine redemption story in which Tom must not only kill Joey (again) but also wipe out every vestige of his past in order to have a chance of saving his marriage.

Unfortunately the film never regains the intensity it possessed when the answers to the big questions were still uncertain, and in the end, Tom’s family is too easily and sentimentally restored to him by virtue – it would seem – of the very violence that his wife and son had previously found so repugnant. It is possible that Cronenberg wants to call our attention to the fundamental ambiguity of violence, but he does so by breaking faith with the emotional logic of his characters, whose behaviour at the end is unpaid for by the actions we have seen.


What is most important in all of this is the recognition of the roles that mystery and suspense play in stimulating an audience’s attention and willingness to enter in to the emotional life of the characters. If you lose mystery and allow the tautness that comes from real suspense, you abandon your audience to their own devices, which almost always results in them losing interest in the story.

1 comment:

Margit said...

Great article, thanks!

Just saw Breakdown for the first time last week. It reminded me of Spielberg's Duel which is very minimalist compared to Breakdown, but because of the plot similarities it's quite easy to see similarities in creating mystery and suspense as well.