One of the hardest decisions a screenwriter has to make is deciding what you need to tell your audience and what you need to keep from the audience. How do you keep an audience in suspense while also keeping them informed? How do you make sure they understand your story without spoon-feeding it to them in a way that feels patronizing and belittling? How do you make sure they’re in the dark about enough things to keep them guessing while also making sure they care enough to guess?
Your script needs to be mysterious. But your script also needs to be informative. It’s a bit of a pickle, isn’t it?
I do not claim to have mastered this paradox in all my own writing, but it is something I’m constantly aware of. I long for my writing to be unpredictable. But I am also constantly asking “okay but what does my audience need to know in order to really get it?” So here’s a few strategies I’ve come up with.
I’ve already said in The Four Things You Need To Know what I consider to be essential for telling a good story:
- What does my character want?
- Why does my character want that thing?
- What is my character’s plan to get this thing?
- What will happen if this particular plan doesn’t work?
I think it’s INCREDIBLY difficult to write engaging stuff if you are attempting to keep one of these factors a secret. Though it is worth mentioning that not necessarily ALL characters’ motives need to be evident from the get go. In a current piece I’m working on, I have a protagonist with a relatively straightforward mission while the antagonist has goals and plans far more sinister than they first appear. In general, I think it’s pretty much always easier to make the situation mysterious rather than making your main characters mysterious. If your audience knows enough about your protagonist to become invested in them, they’ll care when that character wanders into a mysterious house and we’re unsure what will happen next.
I also think this is another issue where you’re better off picking one extreme and then sticking to it. I’ve enjoyed some movies that falsely lured me into believing I was watching a formulaic, predictable story only to throw in a twist at the very end (Disney’s Frozen is a great example of this).
On the other end of the spectrum, we have one of my favorite films of recent memory, Bad Times at the El Royale. This one avoids giving you any background info until the exact moment that the story requires it to move forward. You watch with this constant feeling that anything can happen at any moment. There’s a confidence in the mysteries being laid out, as if the writer says “I know I’m not explaining much, but trust me. It’ll all be worth it.” Both are totally fine strategies that make for unpredictable movies.
What doesn’t work though are those stories that give you a lot of information, except it’s not all that relevant, or at least not relevant right now. While it’s kinda an apples-to-oranges comparison because this is a series instead of a film, American Horror Story: Murder House has this issue for me. I will grant you that the season is unpredictable, but it also gives you a fair amount of information that either doesn’t really need to be there at all or won’t be relevant for several more episodes. There were enough plot points on the table that I felt like I SHOULD be able to piece them together into a story and got confused and pissed off when I couldn’t. I got even MORE confused and pissed off when I reached the end of the season and realized just how much of it was pointless diversions. All the while the writing failed to give me information it probably SHOULD have given me. I wasn’t emotionally invested in most of the main characters and this was largely because every episode spent a fair amount of time on less relevant characters in an attempt to establish mystery.
Not every script really NEEDS a super dramatic plot twist, but it does need just enough mystery to make us say “hmm, I don’t know what will happen next but I want to.” When writing your script, ask yourself at the end of each scene “have I established a question about what will happen in another scene?” But also make sure you’ve made your characters interesting enough that people care enough to ask.