Mystery vs Clarity

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  • Mystery vs Clarity

    Hello all, would love your thoughts on the following...

    I'm in a treatment phase right now. I'm working on a project with notes from a producer, and I think I've pinpointed the thing that seems to bug me but not him.

    I feel like the setup is a bit too mysterious. Too many things to figure out. A guy works for a secret organization, that sort of thing. But at this point, my gut is telling me I'd be making a reader work too hard.

    Mysteries don't really play into my strengths but I'm open to try this approach.

    I'm just curious when writing suspenseful scenes, do you have any advice for keeping your clarity and intent with each scene?

  • #2
    Re: Mystery vs Clarity

    Mysteries are very hard to pull off in Treatment form. Leave too much out, and people are confused. Put too much in, and it reads like expository mumbo-jumbo.

    I am assuming you questions pertain to the screenplay itself.

    I would look at Lynch's BLUE VELVET. It's the perfect blend of exposition and mystery, as far as I am concerned. He goes way off the rails with other movies, but that one is basically a noir mystery about a curious cat, and the two women (light/dark) that reflect his personality. The main tension of the movie is "what is Dorothy hiding" - specifically the ear, her kid, Frank's relationship with her etc.

    Overall it's important to pick your expository moments carefully. They are inevitable, and you should actually have fun with them. Look at BLADE RUNNER. Atrocious voice-over aside, it tells us everything we need to know regarding the replicants with two moments: the scroll at the beginning, and Deckard's visit to Tyrell.

    It's all about what your protagonist knows, vs. what the audience knows. That's kind of the key. If you are telling it subjectively, then you are peeling layers and the script will feature many reveals (hopefully visual ones!!) and big turning points that are a surprise to both the protagonist AND the audience. If you tell it objectively, on the other hand- it's more about dramatic irony. So we (and the other characters in the film) could very well know things that the protagonist doesn't, but the joy comes in seeing that tension play out.

    Oh and pick great locations. Mysteries are about mood, lighting, the weather, culture etc. so make sure that you don't stick the characters in "Cold, Sterile Corporation With Aloof Men in Suits"

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    • #3
      Re: Mystery vs Clarity

      My rule of thumb is this:

      I avoid situations where the audience has no clue what the character they're watching is trying to do.

      The ability to keep of distracted from that, via process, only works if the process is really interesting. Even then you'll find that sort of thing very rarely gets carried in a film for more than 30 seconds.

      We don't need to know about his secret organization. We don't need to know about all sorts of thing. We do need a dramatic question to connect with: "What is he trying to do? What are the things that are likely to stop him?"

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      • #4
        Re: Mystery vs Clarity

        In the first section of CHINATOWN, Gittes is pushed from one location to the next, each revealing something to be discovered / a mystery.

        What keeps me interested at that stage is the drama of each push / situation.

        The clarity is in the clear, sequential progression, not any revelation.

        I think if it's done well, the reader is hooked into waiting for the later sections, where solutions begin to be sought.
        Last edited by Timmy; 12-02-2012, 07:15 PM.
        Story Structure 1
        Story Structure 2
        Story Structure 3

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        • #5
          Re: Mystery vs Clarity

          Originally posted by Ronaldinho View Post
          I avoid situations where the audience has no clue what the character they're watching is trying to do ... We do need a dramatic question to connect with ...
          I think this is kind of the essence of it. What the character is doing has to make sense, so there's enough information to understand his/her dilemma but enough unresolved information to keep it intriguing. The reader needs be able to understand the character's situation without necessarily knowing all the answers. A treatment often has the shape of a short story with a more clinical literary style and some writers find that a useful way to approach the task of writing a treatment.
          "Friends make the worst enemies." Frank Underwood

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          • #6
            Re: Mystery vs Clarity

            I'd approach it by having a each beat clear, but not necessarily the big picture - EG will the protag succeed in breaking in to the apartment? Then will he find what he's after (doesn't matter we don't know what it is)? Then will he get out? Then deal with the whys and wherefores later. That way, the audience at least has some kind of hook right from the start and be gagging for the info when you give it to them.

            I *think* All The President's Men starts a bit like this: the burglary, then we find out the context later.

            Tricky to do in a treatment though, unless it's really long.

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            • #7
              Re: Mystery vs Clarity

              Originally posted by madworld View Post
              Hello all, would love your thoughts on the following...

              I'm in a treatment phase right now. I'm working on a project with notes from a producer, and I think I've pinpointed the thing that seems to bug me but not him.

              I feel like the setup is a bit too mysterious. Too many things to figure out. A guy works for a secret organization, that sort of thing. But at this point, my gut is telling me I'd be making a reader work too hard.

              Mysteries don't really play into my strengths but I'm open to try this approach.

              I'm just curious when writing suspenseful scenes, do you have any advice for keeping your clarity and intent with each scene?
              At some point you have to have a sense of what you're trying to make the audience feel/think/believe and the ability to pull it off.

              That's the bottom line.

              Go with your gut. I bet you're right.

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: Mystery vs Clarity

                I read in a book once that a good writer knows how to write a mystery. Because all good storytelling is done through mystery. I wonder what is gonna happen next? Is how you get someone through your story whether it is action, comedy, drama, or mystery.

                Writers have to sort out what parts of the mystery to be blunt about, and what parts to clandestinely slide in.

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                • #9
                  Re: Mystery vs Clarity

                  Originally posted by Cyfress View Post
                  I read in a book once that a good writer knows how to write a mystery. Because all good storytelling is done through mystery. I wonder what is gonna happen next? Is how you get someone through your story whether it is action, comedy, drama, or mystery.
                  I think this is being sloppy with semantics, using the word mystery in contexts where it means different things as if it didn't.

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                  • #10
                    Re: Mystery vs Clarity

                    I just finished an assignment that gave me the same concerns. It's so hard to achieve that perfect balance of mystery vs. reveal. But in the end, I think it's exactly that balance that makes all great thrillers great, when well executed, and what makes all the others horrible or mediocre.

                    Andrew Stanton's TED talk on story really gave me some guidance. One quote from William Archer: "Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.- As long as the uncertainty you're creating provokes anticipation in the audience, I think it'll work. But uncertainty without anything pulling you to the next scene will just leave the audience frustrated, bored, uninterested. Earn every reveal. Hold suspense out as long as you can without breaking. That'll give you the tension you want.

                    Also, whatever uncertainty you do establish, make sure it's essential to the protagonist that he/she figure out the puzzle for his or her own sake. Make the mystery integral to character. That way we care more. And whatever reveals you do have, make sure they happen with innovative action, well-motivated action, and not just a lame speech or conversation.

                    As for how to craft it. I drafted a treatment for mine and I made sure I understood where the finish line was, even if the characters didn't, until the end. Then, when it comes time to actually crafting the moments in the script, like BDZ said, just go with your filmmaking gut. If you have good instincts and have seen enough movies to know what works and what doesn't, you should hit the right rhythm.

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                    • #11
                      Re: Mystery vs Clarity

                      Originally posted by BenJacoby View Post
                      It's so hard to achieve that perfect balance of mystery vs. reveal. But in the end, I think it's exactly that balance that makes all great thrillers great
                      Put both the CHINATOWN and NORTH BY NORTHWEST screenplays under the microscope and you'll see they both use the same process of laying out mystery, searching for clues, reveals....
                      Story Structure 1
                      Story Structure 2
                      Story Structure 3

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                      • #12
                        Re: Mystery vs Clarity

                        Wow, everyone thanks very much for these responses. Much appreciated and very helpful.

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                        • #13
                          Re: Mystery vs Clarity

                          Character is what keeps you interested. Mystery can range from barely there to mind-boggling, depending on your taste, genre and premise.

                          But it's character that keeps people turning the page.

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