Thursday, May 14, 2009


(SPOILERS: No Country for Old Men, Spider-Man, The Sixth Sense, Casablanca)

I have to admit, this is a big concept that I’m still wrestling with. It’s obviously unsatisfying in a movie when you can figure out what’s going to happen before it happens.

But on the other hand don’t we actually know how most movies are going to end when we walk into the theater? In an action movie we know the good guy will win and the bad guy will lose. In a romantic comedy we know the movie stars will end up together.  Does anybody really think the Green Goblin will beat Spider-Man when they buy their ticket?

And the truth is, we want it that way. How many people would enjoy a movie where the Green Goblin DOES beat Spider-Man? A few, I’m sure, but not many.

So here are some thoughts on the unpredictability paradox.

First of all, let’s acknowledge that there are a few movies where the ending is actually a surprise (Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense). That’s great when it grows organically out of the concept of the movie. But anyone who’s witnessed M. Night Shyamalan’s attempts to repeat the surprise element of The Sixth Sense knows that trying to force that kind of ending on a story is usually a recipe for disaster. And of course many of the greatest movies of all time end with the good guy winning and the lovers together so obviously surprise does not equate to quality.

Let’s also acknowledge, though, that not all good movies have happy endings. However I would suggest those that don’t aren’t always that unpredictable either. Take No Country for Old Men. Is it really a surprise that Josh Brolin’s character doesn’t get away with the money? How many movies have we seen where someone stumbles across mob or drug dealer money, tries to take it, and ends up dead? It’s actually the expected ending for a parable about greed and hubris that would sound familiar to Aristotle.

So how does the poor screenwriter deliver the ending the audience wants without being predictable?

The most common technique is to make the audience wonder HOW the hero is going to succeed (as opposed to WHETHER they are going to succeed). Typically at the end of Act Two you want the audience to be subconsciously thinking something like, “I know Spider-Man’s going to beat the Green Goblin but I sure can’t figure out how!”

You do this by putting your hero in an apparent no-win situation and then having him or her figure out an unexpected but plausible way out (and no deus ex machinas allowed!*) The more you can make it seem like all is lost, the more the audience will be on the edge of their seat – even if they know in their hearts that the hero will ultimately win.

In a romance story this is typically the moment where the love interest commits to the rival suitor or tells the hero that it’s finally over between them for good. In a horror movie it’s where the hero is trapped and defenseless with the monster closing in. In a movie that’s going to end badly for the main character, such as the prototypical gangster movie, the opposite happens: their success seems assured at the end of Act Two.

Somehow this is the most common – and often most satisfying – way for stories to work for the audience.

Another way to build unpredictability is to create a question in the audience’s mind around something besides success or failure. Spider-Man builds unpredictability through the sub-plot: will Peter Parker get the girl? And the ending in that regard is ultimately unhappy – yet we leave the theater satisfied because Spider-Man still beat the Green Goblin.

In every mystery the question isn't "will the detective solve the crime," it's "what's the solution to the crime?"  Can you imagine the outrage of an audience who went to a mystery movie and didn't learn whodunit?

That’s actually how Usual Suspects and Sixth Sense work. In Usual Suspects we see in the very beginning that Kaiser Sose will kill the hero, Dean Keaton – what we don’t know is who Kaiser Sose is. In The Sixth Sense the surprise isn’t the outcome of the main tension – can Dr. Crowe help Cole deal with the ghosts – it’s that Crowe himself is a ghost.

Now let’s consider Casablanca. I’ve heard it said that if Rick and Ilsa ended up together that movie would have long ago been forgotten. Perhaps, though there’s so much other good stuff in there I find that a little hard to believe.  So, is the ending truly unpredictable?

First of all, there is a robust genre of romantic tragedy where the lovers don’t end up together – Romeo and Juliet anyone? So it’s not actually that much of a surprise.

Secondly, if you look at the structure of the movie, it’s really about Rick’s redemption. And on that score the movie has a happy ending. The most important thing in the movie is that Rick does the right thing, not whether Ilsa gets on the plane. Would Casablanca be a classic if Rick had sold the letters of transit and let Ilsa’s husband be captured by the Germans (regardless of whether Rick and Ilsa ended up together)?

Of course a lot of the time when a movie feels predictable it’s not so much knowing the ultimate outcome that’s frustrating us, it’s that we can see each plot point leading up to it coming a mile away. I believe this is one of the key elements of the art of writing: controlling when the audience gets information.

You have to give them enough information that twists don’t seem capricious but not so much that they can figure the twists out ahead of time. You can’t underestimate or talk down to your audience but at the same time you have to make sure they can follow the story. It’s a balancing act for which there are no rules… just your talent.

One final topic that maybe deserves its own post: the difference between ambiguity and confusion.

Ambiguity in a movie is not bad. It can give your story moral complexity and a desirable unpredictability. Confusion, on the other hand, is bad. That’s when the audience can’t figure out what’s going on. You’ll lose them quickly that way.

In The Sixth Sense it’s ambiguous through much of the movie whether the ghosts need help or whether they are simply evil souls trapped on Earth. That ambiguity provides some delicious suspense when Cole first tries out Dr. Crowe’s plan for him to help the ghosts. Remember the scene when Cole goes into the blanket fort? Terrifying. We have no idea how that’s going to come out. Yet there’s never a point in the movie where we feel lost or have difficulty following the plot. We never once get confused.

Unpredictability, ambiguity, confusion. Difficult concepts to master, if anyone ever really can. But crucial things to think about if you want to be a good writer.

*Deus ex Machina is an old Aristotelian concept that describes a story where the main character doesn’t solve his own problem. It literally means “God in the Machine” because some bad Greek plays would have Zeus lowered in a basket at the climax to set everything right. We’ve known for thousands of years that that’s unsatisfying!

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