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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.  (TL;DW: the unopened box presents infinite 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?


Consider 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 successful (along with other story reasons like relatability) while the sustained mystery makes LA Confidential more compelling, and its reveals more satisfying.

Another stellar example is Pulp Fiction‘s glowing unknown in the briefcase.

Adding Mystery to Your Script

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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