Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Elements of the Future in The Usual Suspects

(SPOILERS: The Usual Suspects)

So far I’ve been analyzing The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie) in terms of its complex narrative structure. Today I want to look at some techniques that I group under the heading “Elements of the Future.” These are things that help bind the story together and maintain the audience’s forward momentum.

One of the things that interests me about The Usual Suspects is how it dealt with the challenge of keeping momentum when neither the audience nor the characters know what the big job will be or about Keyser Soze until half way through the chronological story.

The complex structure of the movie becomes an element of the future itself. We get hints of where the story’s going which builds anticipation. By flipping back and forth through time we are constantly made aware of how events in the past affect events in the future and of the overall impact of the story. But there are more traditional elements of the future that reinforce the momentum as well.


Advertising is a technique that lets the audience know that big things are coming and can build up those events so they have greater impact. For example, the final boat robbery is heavily advertised. When Kobayashi gives them the assignment he mentions that Soze does not expect them all to live. And when they scout the boat Keaton opines, “it can’t be done.” Plus which, we’ve already seen the aftermath which serves as advertising in its own right.

Soze is also advertised. First, there’s the question of whether he exists or is just a myth. Then Verbal describes the terrifying legend he’s heard of where Soze came from. Also, the reaction of our gang of crooks upon being told Soze is Kobayashi’s employer shows that even these tough guys are afraid of him. This is reinforced when Fenster tries to run and is killed. All of this heightens our desire to know who Soze is.

Plant and Payoff

Every mystery story makes extensive use of planting and payoff – that’s what clues are. The investigator discovers something (the plant) that’s paid off when the solution is presented. And The Usual Suspects has lots of those.

There are other plants and payoffs in The Usual Suspects, though, that don’t carry any real story weight but serve to unify the story. For example, when Kobayashi reveals that Hockney was the guy who robbed the truck that got them all arrested in the beginning of the film. Or that the individual in the extradition case on which Kobayashi had Edie consult is also the target of the final boat invasion.

These kinds of plants and payoffs help connect the disparate pieces of a sprawling story. They subtly cue the audience that even if they haven’t followed everything they can trust that it all makes sense. Audience trust is important in a complex story.

Another nifty use of planting and payoff in The Usual Suspects is at the end when we see the words Quartet and Skokie and Kobayashi on various things around the office. Most of those were planted in seemingly innocuous ways – what does Verbal singing in a barbershop quartet in Skokie have to do with anything? But when they’re paid off we, along with Kujan, realize Verbal has been lying to us.

Preparation and Aftermath

Scenes of preparation and aftermath also help bind the movie together as well as giving us a chance to check in with what the characters are feeling. Scenes of aftermath often become scenes of preparation.

For example, after the gang commits the first job – robbing the New York’s Finest Taxi Service – they retreat to a warehouse to celebrate and look at what they’ve got. Then McManus reveals that his fence is in L.A. The others are not happy to hear that so they make a plan to go off to L.A. together.

The scenes with the fence, Redfoot, serve a similar purpose – when they meet him the first time he tells them of the courier job. The follow up aftermath meeting where our heroes vent their anger over the outcome of that job becomes a preparation when Redfoot tells them that Kobayashi wants to meet them. These scenes link one heist to another so that the momentum doesn’t dissipate before we find out the bigger picture.

Another example is the aforementioned preparation scene where they scout the boat. One touch I particularly like is McManus mentioning that the news says it’s raining in New York. It might seem extraneous but it’s a great way to give us insight into his character. He’s homesick, his mind on where he’d rather be. It’s not on-the-nose dialogue but we grasp the melancholy he’s feeling.

All of these techniques help bind a potentially episodic story into a cohesive whole with solid momentum.

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!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Narrator in The Usual Suspects

(SPOILERS: The Usual Suspects)

To continue my examination of The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie), I’m going to look at how the film uses Verbal Kint as a viewpoint character and narrator for much of the story.

Using a viewpoint character is a narrative device. It’s putting the audience in a particular character’s shoes (not the main character) to observe the events of the story. Sometimes this means an honest view but with that character’s specific perspective; sometimes it means a limited view so information can be hidden from the audience (because it’s also hidden from the viewpoint character); and sometimes the viewpoint character is not trustworthy, as in this movie, which allows the film to “lie” to the audience without pissing them off.

One of the most interesting things about the movie, of course, is that by the end we realize Verbal has been lying. Obviously some basics of the story must be true since we’ve seen the aftermath, but he’s also manipulating Agent Kujan to hide his actual role in the events. In other words, he’s an unreliable narrator. This is part of the fun of the movie – at the end we re-examine the story we’ve been told based on what we learn about Verbal in the final moments.

You could also say that Agent Kujan is a viewpoint character. After all, we’re hearing Verbal’s story along with him. Kujan is a character we trust which gives us some reliable access into the movie. Ultimately we never learn anything that Kujan doesn’t learn.

Some of the things Verbal tells us are also second hand. For example, he wasn’t there when Keaton got arrested, so when he describes that scene it must be something Keaton told him off screen. The Usual Suspects actually has several layers of viewpoints – Kujan is our viewpoint on Verbal who is our viewpoint into the past events and other people’s stories. Which plays into the slippery nature of the mystery at the story’s heart.

Another narrative device that’s related to the use of Verbal as a viewpoint character is voiceover. Not every viewpoint character uses voiceover, of course, but it is a way to emphasize that that character is telling us the story. In The Usual Suspects this helps us separate reliable and unreliable scenes – scenes with Kujan are presumably accurate while scenes told by Verbal, the only ones with voiceover, may or may not be true.

There’s more voiceover early in the movie than later. This helps speed us through the initial character introductions and the mechanics of all the guys getting thrown into jail together. It also clearly establishes Verbal as the storyteller. As the movie progresses we more often just cut to scenes of Verbal’s story without any voiceover since the audience now understands those time shifts.

We continue to get a little voiceover periodically to ease some transitions and compress exposition. By the last third of the movie there’s barely any voiceover at all. This serves to draw us more emotionally into the tale Verbal is telling. In the latter part of the movie it may be best not to remind the audience so explicitly that they’re watching someone’s story.

One place we get extended voiceover is when Verbal relates the story he believes about Keyser Soze’s origins. In that case these are not Verbal’s memories but rather a myth so using the voiceover instead of the sound from the scene distances us even further from the events we see. The Usual Suspects is using multiple levels of narrative and it employs the voiceover to help us keep straight what level we’re on.

Which is important in this kind of complex storytelling. If you’re going to depart from a straightforward, chronological, objective telling of the story you need to give the audience clues to follow the jumps. Otherwise we’ll feel lost and tune out of the movie.

There’s a saying in screenwriting: “Ambiguity is good. Confusion is bad.”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Structure of Usual Suspects

(SPOILERS: The Usual Suspects)

I’ve been writing a lot this summer about narrative devices. I want to spend a few posts now examining a movie that employs several complex narrative devices: The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie). Let’s start by taking a look at the basic structure of the film.

The Usual Suspects is a mystery. This means it works primarily on an intellectual level. It’s a puzzle to be solved. Sure there are some exciting action scenes and a nod at emotion with the relationship between Edie and Keaton. But what we’re most interested in is the mystery: who is Keyser Soze?

Even complex, non-chronological stories like this fit the three-act structural paradigm. The first question we have to ask for our breakdown is who is the main character? It’s a little tricky in this movie. On the one hand we have Verbal Kent. He’s the narrating the story of the heist so we’re seeing most of the events through his eyes

Then there’s Agent Kujan. He certainly has a goal that helps drive the movie forward – he’s trying to figure out who’s behind the crime. As the detective in a mystery story we’d tend to expect him to be the main character.

But neither of these characters are providing the primary engine of the narrative. For the most part Verbal is simply an observer to the action (despite the fact we learn at the end that he actually set the whole thing in motion.) He functions as a viewpoint character, not the main character. And Kujan provides the impetus for the actual telling of the story but isn’t involved in the main narrative line.

That main narrative line is the story of Dean Keaton struggling to get out of the complex criminal plot he’s caught up in. Dean Keaton is our main character. Interestingly we see Keaton get killed at the beginning of the movie. And that introduces the mystery - we want to know who killed Keaton. And when we learn it was Keyser Soze then the question becomes who is Keyser Soze?

So with that in mind, let me identify the main structural beats:

Catalyst: Keaton is arrested at his dinner meeting. He wants to go straight but the cops aren’t going to let him. We have our character and his problem. This introduces the…

Dramatic Question (AKA Main Tension): Can Keaton extract himself from his criminal lifestyle and go straight?

Act One Break: Keaton agrees to join the gang for one – and only one – job.

Midpoint: Keaton and the others are given an “offer” from Kobayashi that they can’t refuse. They are to stop a drug deal on a boat. If they won’t, they’re going to jail. The tension is spun in a new direction and the stakes are raised.

Act Two Break: Keaton and the gang successfully infiltrate the boat. Note that since this is going to end badly for Keaton the end of Act Two is a high point (and the midpoint is a low point) in terms of the dramatic question.

Twist: There’s no dope on the boat. They’ve been set up.

Resolution: Keyser Soze kills Keaton. That ends the dramatic question of the movie but not the question of the mystery. The dramatic question provides the spine that defines the story. At this point, however, it’s the mystery question we’re most interested in as the audience. Fortunately we get the answer soon after and then the credits roll. If the dramatic question was answered and then a significant amount of time passed before we learned who Soze was, then the movie would start to unravel.

So even a complex story like The Usual Suspects ends up having a pretty simple spine. That’s a really helpful thing to be aware of when you attempt something narratively ambitious like this. Solid structure is critical to a well-made movie but it is never the reason we enjoy the movie.