Wednesday, November 18, 2009


(Spoilers: Halloween, Aliens, Star Wars, Children of Men, The Hangover)

Last post I talked about suspense. This post I want to discuss what is in some ways the opposite side of the same coin: surprise.

Suspense builds tension through anticipation. The audience knows what could be coming and watches to see if the character can avoid it. With surprise the audience is caught completely off guard by the event. Surprise gives you a big bang in one moment of a scene where suspense gives you impact throughout the scene. Good movies tend to use both techniques to great effect.

The most obvious examples of surprise are when things jump out at the audience unexpectedly in a horror movie. It’s the old cliché…we think the killer’s dead, the character relaxes, and then BAM – Michael Myers jumps up from behind the couch in Halloween (screenplay by John Carpenter and Debra Hill).

There’s a similar example in the opening scene from Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby). A terrorist bomb goes off at a completely unexpected moment, causing the audience to jump out of their seat – and immediately engaging us with the story in a very visceral way.

Surprise isn't just used to startle or scare the audience. Remember the scene in The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) where Alan walks into the bathroom, starts to urinate, then hears a growl? He looks over to see a tiger lounging on the bathroom floor. Surprising and hilarious.

Effective surprise often requires balancing two competing needs. Naturally, the audience must not see the event coming or it won’t be a surprise. However, the event must be believable or the audience won’t buy it – you’ll lose them instead of drawing them deeper into the story. So often you have to plant the surprise but distract the audience from both the plant and the surprise itself.

For example, there’s a great surprise moment at the end of Star Wars (written by George Lucas): Han Solo sweeps in from out of nowhere to blast some pesky tie fighters just before they can shoot down Luke’s X-wing in the Death Star trench. It’s surprising because we’ve been told Han Solo has left to pay off the price on his head. But we believe it because throughout the movie Han has been impulsive, and we’ve seen the growing bond of friendship and duty that has grown inside of him. We believe he’s the kind of guy who might change his mind and race back to help.

Another example I like is at the ending of Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron). We think Ripley and Bishop have made it safely back to their ship. Bishop apologizes for appearing to abandon Ripley and she assures him he did well. Then there’s a drip of acid…and suddenly an alien tail spikes through Bishop’s chest, tearing him in half. Mama Alien climbs out of the landing gear of the drop ship.

This is a more elegant version of “the killer’s not really dead.” It’s set up in an earlier scene when we see the drop ship’s landing gear get tangled in a bunch of debris on a platform near where we know the Mama Alien is lurking. At the time, we don’t think much of it, but it gives us a logical explanation for how the alien got where it was.

This moment also demonstrates another good surprise technique: preparation in opposition. The Mama Alien attack comes in the midst of a calm scene where two characters who have been fighting are making peace. The audience is lulled into relaxing, thinking the action is over. If Mama Alien had attacked when they were in the middle of an alien nest it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

Preparation in Opposition can also be used to heighten emotional impact. If a character is going to get bad news, deliver it in a scene where they’re exceptionally happy, and vice versa. This is why the cliché developed that whenever a cop is going to die he’s always two weeks from retirement.

Not every surprise requires preparation in opposition or a disguised plant, but they do need to be unexpected yet believable. There’s a screenwriting axiom: coincidence that works against your main character is okay, but coincidence that works in his favor is unacceptable.

Surprise is especially important in mystery, farce and horror. Those genres rely on unexpected twists and turns that keep the audience off balance. Good surprises puncture any sense the audience may have that they know what’s coming.

As long as you play by the rules surprise can make your scripts seem unpredictable in a good way.

1 comment:

Sanket said...

In regards to co-incidence that works against the character,
just thought of mentioning the example of LittleMissSunshine, when SteveCarelle meets his ex-lover in the gas-station in the first half of the movie. He gets devastated seeing him with his arch-rival. And, gets super embarrassed for his failed suicide attempt.