Does Your Movie Have Enough Mystery?

This post is a great companion piece to my Use of Reveals post, but with the added bonus of watching JJ Abrams talk about his Mystery Box: Not only does he talk about great scenes, and production tricks (always protect Tom Cruise’s nose), but he underlines the need for mystery. You’ve heard it said, “Nothing happens in a story without CONFLICT.”  Conflict is the primary tactic that keeps characters in motion.  Conflict against himself, man, society, nature, machines, God – it’s all good. But what keeps audiences watching is not conflict, but SUSPENSE.  Conflict can be interesting or impacting as we empathize with characters, but what makes conflict compelling, what invests an audience in the conflict, is suspense, that need to know what happens next. How do you build that? Mystery.

gangster-squad-laconfidentialConsider Gangster Squad and LA Confidential

Gangster Squad is about a violent cop who assembles a team of cop thugs to battle Mickey Cohen in Los Angeles. The audience is in on Cohen’s plan as we as the squad, so like a straight-forward boxing match, the suspense is only on HOW the squad brings Cohen to justice. LA Confidential is about 3 cops seeking justice for a hidden antagonist in post Mickey Cohen Los Angeles.  The audience is not in a superior position but follows our protagonists, asking the same question: what does the Night Owl massacre have to do with Fleur-de-Lis, a briefcase of missing heroin, and Hush Hush magazine’s war on potheads and homosexual politicians? The WHOdunit is unknown.  The WHYdunit is unknown, so like a great cat and mouse chase, our cops are constantly struggling to keep up with active mysteries all around them. As such, Gangster Squad wasn’t as successful (among other story reasons like relatability to the audience). Mystery makes LA Confidential more compelling, and its reveals more satisfying.

Adding Mystery to Your Script

  • First, never front-load your antagonist’s plan.  Even James Bond movies that start with the villain performing some outrageous mischief don’t reveal the villain’s motivations too early.
  • Don’t be obvious and simple.  Only politicians paint simple intentions on others.  Your characters’ motivations must NOT be expressed with one word, like greedy or evil.  Give your antagonists the respect of complexity, which means they, as other people, have mysteries beneath the surface.
  • Remember your journalism course: who – what – where – when – why –  how.  Something in all that can be the guiding question for a scene.  What does your protagonist not know but must find out “at all costs”?
  • Turn your theme and essential conflict into a question.  Nothing is more suspense-killing to an audience than knowing exactly what the story is about too early.  Developing your concept in the form of a question creates divergent options. For example, don’t write a movie to convince us abortion is wrong (convergent thinking).  Establish a character dilemma and a question about HOW to resolve the problem of unwanted pregnancy (divergent thinking).
  • Play surprise/suspense games with your audience.  That is, as Hitchcock explains, if two characters sit at a table and a bomb explodes, we’re surprised.  If we tell the audience the bomb is under the table but the characters don’t know, we establish suspense (we gotta know what happens next!). But what if one character reveals that he knows the bomb is there?  That surprise adds suspense! Now how many mysteries do we have?  Our minds race ahead to solve a more complex mystery – the character motivations as well as when and why the explosion will come.

Make sure your script stands out. As Jerry Cleaver, author of Immediate Fiction writes, “Revealing character is the number-one purpose of fiction.” But don’t use talking heads to do it.  Exposition is for novels.  Screenplays  use conflict, dynamic conflict creates suspense, builds mystery, and opens the door for a satisfying reveal.

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