Thursday, August 19, 2010

Non-Chronological Time in the Usual Suspects

(SPOILERS: The Usual Suspects)

The primary reason I wanted to examine The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie) was because of the non-chronological timeline of the movie. One of the powerful tools we have as storytellers is control over when information is given to the audience. This includes the ability to manipulate the chronology of events through things like flashbacks and framing stories. Now that I’ve broken down the structure of The Usual Suspects, let me take some time to explore the unusual chronology.

The Usual Suspects contains two primary timelines. The first is the “present” timeline of the investigation of the crime. This includes two narrative threads: Agent Kujan questioning Verbal Kint and an FBI agent questioning a victim. The second main timeline is the story Verbal’s telling about how the main crime came about. We also get a few other divergences from these two timelines, such as the opening scene where Keaton is killed.

The present day timeline could be considered a framing story but it seems to me in the context of this movie it actually serves as the conclusion of the same story Verbal’s telling. The dramatic question is “who killed Dean Keaton” which becomes “who is Keyser Soze.” Since we get the answer to this in the present day story I’d say both timelines are part of the same narrative, just one that is reordered chronologically.

That’s all well and good and probably fairly evident even to a casual viewer. As screenwriters we want to move beyond simple analysis and ask ourselves other questions. Let’s start with:

How does telling the story this way help the movie?

In other words, why might we make the choice to tell a story non-chronologically? I see several benefits to the approach in The Usual Suspects. First, imagine the story if it were told linearly. What would we lose? One thing is that the stakes and scope of the overarching story would not be clear for quite a while. None of the criminals knew they were going to get involved in the big suicide mission until halfway through the movie. The first half of the story would feel episodic and directionless if done chronologically.

By showing the present day investigation throughout the movie the audience knows these seemingly unrelated crimes are going to lead somewhere big and explosive. They know Keaton won’t survive and that dozens of other men will be killed. This engages the audience’s interest – we want to find out how things spun out of control. So if we find we have a story where the big issues aren’t apparent early in the chronology, we might try a non-chronological approach like The Usual Suspects.

The other big benefit is to give us an unreliable narrator in Verbal Kint. Many movies do this without such complicated chronology, of course. But since The Usual Suspects is a mystery it’s important to have a reliable investigator in Kujan. He represents the audience trying to get at the truth of what Verbal is saying. In mystery stories there are rules and one of the biggest is that the audience must have the same information as the investigator. So using two timelines allows the movie to have both a reliable investigator and an unreliable narrator.

Next question: What challenges must be overcome with this kind of story structure?

The biggest challenge in non-chronological storytelling is helping the audience track the shifting time. The Usual Suspects solves this largely by having Verbal as narrator of the "past" timeline. As I mentioned last time, the voiceover helps the audience distinguish between the two timelines until they understand how the movie’s working.

The Usual Suspects also has an advantage in that the two time periods do not share characters with the exception of Verbal. And in the present Verbal is confined to the police station. Once we understand this it becomes easy to determine when we are by who is on screen. If your story jumps around in time you might look for visual clues that can help the audience follow along.

Another challenge to non-chronological storytelling is balancing the various timelines. If you spend too long in any one time it can be jarring when you jump away. I think that’s why The Usual Suspects has the FBI agent interviewing the victim. It creates a small, active investigation story that we can cut back to regularly. This investigation leads to information that helps Kujan question Verbal.

I’ve seen many less successful movies that would simply cut back to the framing story for some kind of bland reminder that it exists. The equivalent in The Usual Suspects would have been cutting back to Kujan saying, “then what happened.” Boring.

On the rare occasions I’ve done a script with non-chronological storytelling what I usually do is lay out the story with index cards. This is a common approach – use roughly one index card for every scene of the story. My trick is I use different colored cards for each storyline. That way I can step back from my bulletin board and see how the different threads interweave. If I see a big stretch without a blue card, for example, I may rearrange the cards or add a scene from the "blue" timeline.

So there’s your secret inside screenwriting tip of the day!

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