Monday, March 10, 2008

The Power of Withholding Information

I’ve been following and immensely enjoying Damages on the BBC. It has great acting, snappy dialogue, convincing conflicts and relationships, but it’s something else that keeps bringing me back to watch the next episode: I’m dying to know exactly what happens in the end because of all the hints that have been dropped along the way.

Using flash-forwards, each episode reveals a tiny bit more about where all the action is leading. The most intriguing clues are the constantly recurring shots of the sympathetic young attorney Ellen Parsons (played by Rose Byrne) in a prison cell. The images are grainy and the colours faint, almost black and white, dreamlike.

Normally, Ellen Parsons is dedicated, honest, ambitious and totally in awe of her boss and mentor Patty Hewes (Glenn Close). But in the flash-forwards she looks completely haggard, shambolic, defeated. Clad in ill-fitting, formless, convict garb, her hair a mess, her eyes desperate, she’s the total opposite of the carefully groomed and likeable persona we see in the “present.”

We are repeatedly shown snippets of her being interrogated and of her being visited by various characters we’ve gotten to know along the way. We also see vague images of a murder taking place in which she is somehow involved.

This use of flash-forwards is very clever in a paradoxical way.

To create suspense and excitement, you have to withhold information, keep the audience guessing. However, giving away information in advance, makes the mystery and drama that much more exciting. It tantalizes, confuses, intrigues. It makes you care about the fate of the characters.

A bit like teasing a child by giving them clues about what you bought them for their birthday, before they receive the actual present.

I’m not usually a loyal tv show fan, but I have my seat booked well in advance for the next episode of Damages!

P.S. For a more detailed piece on set-ups and pay-offs, check out my blog Great Screenwriting. There I use one of the storylines from Paul Haggis’s amazing Crash screenplay to illustrate the technique of withholding information in order to create suspense.


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