Sunday, October 11, 2009

Secrets and Revelations

When I studied screenwriting at UCLA I was quite dubious about one teacher. I doubted whether he knew what he was talking about. He didn't explain the reasoning behind his principles very well, he just pronounced wisdom as if he were the Oracle of Delphi and we were to accept it on faith. He didn't give you the why behind his pronunciamentos, so they came off as Platonic ideals unconnected to the facts of reality.

One of his rules was "Don't keep secrets from the audience." This baffled me. What about plot twists? Reversals? Surprise endings? Whodunnits? There were enough obvious contradictions to his rule that I dismissed the teacher as a bizarre old coot.

Today I was working on a romantic drama plot that I've been struggling with for months. Part of the plot involves a spy, whose identity is revealed to the audience late in the play. Suddenly it occurred to me how much more interesting it would be to reveal his identity to the audience early and show his struggle with his duel loyalties. The plot twist would come around the end of Act I instead of the end of Act II -- which would give me more substance for those difficult stretches in Act II.

I realized that I was following the old coot's advice! When I kept the secret from the audience, I was creating a coup de theatre: melodrama. Now that I let the audience in on the secret, the spy's story becomes drama, as the audience sees his internal struggle.

I would put the old coot's pearl of wisdom like this: Consider not keeping a secret from the audience. Obviously, there are some secrets that should be kept from an audience, otherwise Agatha Christie would not have had much of a career. However, it is a good exercise to play around in your imagination with those late plot twists and see what happens if you let the audience in on something early.

Ayn Rand makes a fascinating identification in The Art of Fiction. She says suspense is letting the reader in on the author's intention. Little hints of what is to come create expectation -- suspense. You could say suspense comes from not keeping secrets from the audience.

Secrets and revelations tend to be the stuff of melodrama. To dramatize an internal conflict the audience has to be in on the facts and circumstances that create the conflict.


Amy said...

I just reread The Art of Fiction and was struck by this, too. I think the key is to let the reader in on the secret in just the right amounts, at just the right times. I find that the books that I enjoy the most are those in which I think I know what the resolution will be, and I turn out to be right, but only partially. So when I find out the full resolution, it feels "right" and doesn't contradict what I've pieced together, but it is also new, surprising, and deeper than I had realized.

pomponazzi said...

Insightful article!
I just wanted to know what's the difference between the plot of a novel and the story? Is the plot the outline and the story what we read?

Mike said...


That's essentially correct. The plot is the series of events that occur. The story is what we "see on the screen" -- the dramatized version of those events as presented to the reader/viewer.

Joel Marquez said...

Hi Bill,

Have you ever read what Hitchcock said to Truffaut about the difference between surprise and suspense?

This is one of my favorite statements about the nature of drama:

"There is a distinct difference between 'suspense' and surprise... I'll explain what I mean. We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath the table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen... In the first case, we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second, we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense."

Myrhaf said...

Oh, yes -- that is a great quote. I remember one scene in a British Hitchcock movie that involved a boy carrying a bomb in a package. The boy didn't know he was delivering a ticking time bomb, but the audience did. It was unbearable in suspense. I also remember some famous actor telling Hitchcock he'd never forgive him for that scene.