Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why The Audience Likes To Know Stuff Characters Don’t

I often dip into a book while my PC boots up. It’s one of those rituals writers have. To this end I always have three or four tomes lying around on my desk. The other day I was browsing through Directing The Story, by Francis Glebas, when I happened on his chapter on Dramatic Irony.

Glebas starts the chapter by reminding the reader that it makes a big difference whether the audience or the character receives information first, and that it’s up to the filmmaker to determine this. A classic example is the intercut between people in an elevator and a fraying elevator cable. They’re oblivious, but you, the audience are not. It doesn’t much matter what’s going on inside the elevator, the suspense is there because of what these people don’t know.

All of which triggered an instant rewrite in my head of a sequence in a spec script I’m working on.

The situation, in brief: It’s the summer of 1945, we’re in Holland, the second world war has just ended, and a young Jewish boy who has been in hiding on an isolated farm, is about to be reunited with his mother, who has returned from the hell of the concentration camps.

Initially I had the foster parents, the couple who had been hiding the boy, preparing him for the reunion with his mother, to whom we cut away as she makes her way towards the farm. Then, after having my brain jolted by the above-mentioned read, I wondered: Wouldn’t it be more dramatic if the boy doesn’t know his mother is on her way to pick him up, but we, the audience, do?

So I rewrote the sequence in order to explore this possibility, and lo and behold, it now has much more tension and suspense. And the reason is simple, as Glebas puts it:

The audience can be ahead of what the characters know, creating tension from watching characters do something that may not be the right choice for them.

In this case the foster parents, convinced that the boy’s biological parents have both been killed, are about to go ahead with their plan to have him baptized and then formally adopt him. The fact that this isn’t the right choice for the boy is made all the more dramatic by the fact that we intercut with scenes of the mother trying to locate her son’s whereabouts and then physically approaching the farm.

It’s because the human brain is constantly working out what to expect on the basis of previous experience, that dramatic irony works so well. You, the audience, can’t help but feel for the character who is working on the wrong hypothesis, as it were. If only they knew what you know, then they would do the right thing!

If I’d left the sequence as it was, it would have been much flatter and less suspenseful. And if I hadn’t browsed Glebas’s book I wouldn’t have thought to make this change. And if I didn’t have this ritual of dipping into books while my PC boots up, I wouldn’t have browsed Glebas. Which is all rather Zen, actually, when you come to think of it…

So what information can you take away from one of your characters to make a sequence more exciting to watch?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,

The quote from your article...

"The audience can be ahead of what the characters know, creating tension from watching characters do something that may not be the right choice for them"

This is kind of nice Christmas script wisdom from you. Thank you.

When I write, I'm able to do some of that if I take breaks between writing.

For example, I could move in and out of characters and action when I mix writing with getting breakfast ready...,just one eg or juggle the circle of life...

It works.

Hey Dave...happy holidays. How's downtown Christmas celbration in you side of town...

Is it big?

Will you be at times square NYC this Christmas?