Engineering Suspsense

Engineering Suspsense

I’m coming to terms with the fact that much of my fiction work has one foot planted in the thriller genre. The defining ingredient of a thriller is its suspense which has me thinking whether we could isolate and examine that which makes a scene, and the overarching plot itself, suspenseful. I’m hopeful.

Here’s what Hitchcock has to say on the subject:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this 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 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: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

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. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

The most functional example of Suspense I can think of is the “Bad Dates” scene in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. A bad man who hangs out with bad monkeys poisons a bowl of dates before a little Belushi-child brings the dates to the table where Jones and Sallah are discussing boring-ass archaeologist bullshit. The audience knows that the dates are poisoned and feels a sense of dread as Jones carries the fruit around, pausing to reflect on the information dump Sallah is delivering. Jones pops the date in the air, the audience shits, Sallah sees the dead monkey (a traumatizing experience for every 90’s child) and catches the fruit before it hits Jones’s mouth. Bad Dates. It ends on a grim joke. This scene works to hide the exposition necessary for the plot– a kind of misdirection that engages the viewer while also cramming heavy plot points down their throats. Indiana Jones should be a boring movie (it’s about an archaeologist goofing off with Bible antiques for chrissakes) but it cleverly engages the audience with high-stakes suspense at every twist.

It’s all about information control. That scene wouldn’t have worked without showing the bad man adding the poison. Without it, there’s just a dead monkey and an asshole Sallah obstructing a tasty snack. But it also doesn’t work without a scene roughly ten minutes earlier when Indiana Jones offers Marion the fruit and tells her, “Hey babe, it’s dates, you eat ’em, what is you stupid?” By controlling that information and doling it out at the right time, the audience has been forced to ask the question, “What’s going to happen with those dates, bruh?”

Timing the information is key and where you position this information is going to force the audience to ask different questions. Let’s talk about Tarantino, as he has a flair for torquing suspense during long passages of dialogue.

The opening scene of Inglorious Basterds is a perfect example. You know it’s unsettling because of the historical subtext (uh, Nazis) and because of the direct subject matter of the conversation (Casual anti-semitism and the bureaucratic banality of  the Holocaust). You understand that there’s a power dynamic at play here, and certain elements are played comedically (the size of the pipes, par examplé), but essentially it’s just a friendly conversation between a German officer and a French farmer, the former asking the latter about his neighbors. And then the camera pans below the floorboards and the audience now understands what’s at stake and the tension skyrockets. Were you nervous when the Nazi’s arrived? Of course. But you weren’t afraid about the outcome of the conversation until the camera informed you that you had a reason to feel that way– and then the conversation continues and dangles the outcome on a taut wire.

Here’s a failure in suspense: The stadium scene of The Dark Knight Rises. The audience is told, via exposition, that Bane is laying explosive-laden concrete around Gotham and after some kid sings the national anthem, Bane detonates the lot and we cut around to the mayor dying, the stadium exploding, the tunnel exploding, and bridges collapsing. For so much destruction, the scene plays out fucking languid. We just learned that shit was about about to blow up and there was no countdown. It’s functional, I guess, to move the plot forward, but the destruction showed onscreen wasn’t necessarily in the viewer’s mind as a stake in the villain’s scheme. The audience was relatively uninformed and the result is a diminished legacy to what could have been a perfect Batman trilogy. It’s strange to think that this movie came from Christopher Nolan, given that his bread and butter is creating thrilling, unexpected filmic narratives, perhaps quintessentially achieved in Memento, which keeps asking the audience “How did we get here?” through a disciplined control of information sequencing through a believable, if not convenient, perspective.

So let’s talk about how perspective impacts the release of information to create suspense.

The revelation in Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill is making lady suits. The audience probably understands this before Clarice does, but only after a slow drip of clues allows the viewer to stitch it together for themselves. The way information is controlled in that narrative makes the viewer hink on the question “What the fuck?” while Clarice asks “Why the fuck?” and fills in the plot for us. Onward, the viewer is always ahead of Clarice. We know that Jame Gumb is the killer. She gets wise (because of moths and shit) and then the movie puts the audience further ahead by assuming the night-envisioned perspective of Gumb watching her stumble through the dark. Suspense is achieved by making us understand that the hero is vulnerable. However, in Lector’s escape plotline, the viewer is given only the information that Lector is alone with two unconscious guards and the film suddenly follows the perspectives of the police officers attempting to find and subdue him. We know nearly as little as they do and, although our hairs are up, we’re still trying to piece together the how? The reveal is a faceless corpse springing into an elevator car and we go, “Ohhhh fuuuuuu–” while our brains catch up to speed with everything we’ve been shown, even before Lector sits up to pull the skin from his face.

And I think it’s in perspective that we find how to measure the release of information to keep our audience enraptured, and to figure out what kinds of dilemmas are suitable for the story you’re trying to keep, well, suspended. The Raiders example couldn’t work without an omniscient camera. Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t work without limited perspective. Proper tool for the proper job.

It’s generally understood that this level of tension is harder to accomplish in writing than it is in film. What an insert shot on an object or an actor’s expression can accomplish can easily set up a certain expectation to prime the viewer’s attention. That being said, written narrative has more access to the reader’s direct psychology than film and that can be exploited to create similar, if not greater, experiences of suspension.

The question of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest moves from “Can the Continental Op persuade an entire town’s kingpins to murder each other?” to “Did the Continental Op become so tainted from his involvement with murderers that he murdered Dinah Brand with an ice-pick when he blacked out from gin and laudanum?” That question drives the third act of the novel, after the initial goal was seemingly achieved. The reader, who has no doubt come to like the main character’s wiles, has to wrestle with this unknown, internal quantity. What’s more, the reader knows as little as the Continental Op, narrating his experience. Information control within perspective.

Starting your third act with the main character’s hand around an icepick stuck into a gamblin’ woman’s tit is one way of injecting suspense into a story (editorial: it’s a pretty cool one). There are others.

First person is particularly a hard nut to crack with this– you only have the character’s point of view to play with, making the “bomb beneath the floorboards” harder to establish. But you also have a tool that objective POV’s do not– a breadth of interiority. Take it for granted that the character’s reactions to certain stimuli will generally bleed into the reader’s mind. Now make the character obliviously acknowledge something obviously dangerous. Or began stacking idiosyncrasies from the character’s perspective to make a person or object dubious. Have the character run gut-checks. Make the reader ask the question, “Why is this the focus?” before revealing the payoff.

A favorite device of mine is to employ several first person narratives. Where one experience is incomplete, another fills in the gaps and gives the other narrative a more pronounced sense of danger and vice versa. It is not unlike a game of tennis.

With Third Person Omniscient, you can establish anything you want in any sequential order which, unfortunately, does not make this job easier. The trick, again, is to control the amount of information. If you place a scene which follows a man planting a bomb in a post-office box and in the next scene it explodes, then just like The Dark Knight Rises, you’ve squandered your moment. However, if you wrote the same sequence of events from a removed perspective, where all you saw was a man who deposited a package into the box and looked over his shoulders before he walked away, well, then we’re watching the mailbox now, aren’t we? Remove it further. Let’s say a hotdog vendor with a hearing-aid can’t get a certain beeping out of head. He complains all day. Our hero buys a hotdog, says something dismissive to the man’s complaint and walks away– only to witness an explosion a dozen yards away, and he’s covered in letters and postcards.

To instill suspense, one must make the audience understand danger. To make that understood, one must inform the audience of that danger one way, or another. When and how you do that is up to you but you do need to realize the questions you are proposing to your audience. If they’re asking “What is happening?” then you’re either a surrealist, a lazy surrealist, or a lazy writer. If they’re asking “Why is this happening?” you can rest more assuredly that you’ve provided enough information to have them ask, “What’s going to happen next?”

 

Villain For A Day

Villain For A Day

Spoilers for Blade Runner, Westworld, Silence of the Lambs, Ace Ventura, The Dark Knight, and so much more. Basically, don’t watch anything. Or just don’t read this blog post.

I’ve got a theory about the purpose of fictional media and how it relates to the social consciousness of the human species as a whole. First, you could say that it is our social consciousness. Hollywood is the dream machine, and our culture provides the content of those dreams. But the way that we address and view antagonists is particularly interesting to me.

Godzilla (or Go-jira, if you prefer) is the filmic representation of Japan grappling with the horrors of having two cities decimated by Atomic power. It’s a coping strategy. By making the tragedy into a literal monster, the concept was easier for Japanese citizens to digest and then move on. Others have drawn the parallels between 9/11 and Hollywood’s fascination with destruction porn.

Hollywood’s bad guys generally represent what we’re afraid of. Blade Runner comes to mind because it gives us a villain who is so sympathetic and genuine in his fear of death that a sense of humanity is given to him; whereas Deckert’s humanity is questioned. Fast forward 34 years later to 2016, an age that is increasingly concerned about the potential dangers of AI and you get Westworld, a series that portrays “Hosts” with artificial consciousness as the protagonists and self-absorbed, slave-tasking humans as the antagonists. (Kind of). The question remains the same in both stories– How can you deny a being who is conscious the right to be alive– but the values have shifted from sympathetic villain to sympathetic heroes.

Another progression: Silence of the Lambs came out in 1991, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective 1994. The bad guys are a crossdresser (kind of) and a transitioning woman. A lot has changed since then in attitudes towards the LGBTQ community. Now, while I don’t want to defend the portrayals in those movies (which would be easier for Lambs, as Buffalo Bill was based, in part, on Ed Gein and possibly Jeffrey Dahmer), it would be naive to think that Hollywood would’ve nailed those portrayal right out of the gate, because, if you believe our culture creates the media we ingest, at the time, this was (and still is in many parts of the country) a scary, outsider element that we didn’t understand. However, for all of the damage that negative portrayals of certain demographics can incur, there might be a silver lining– in seeing through film that transexuality, at the end of the day, is harmless, audiences can drop their fearful attitudes and embrace more progressive ones.

If you take a look at Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back‘s famous twist (“No, I am your father.”) and sync it up to what was going on in American Divorce Law (1969, California passes no fault divorce, other states to follow in the ensuing decades, changing the structure of what a family looks like). In A New Hope, Luke is a twice-orphaned farm boy who goes up against an iconic evil (Vader). In Empire, we learn that Vader is Luke’s father and the space opera pretty much becomes a melodramatic family soap about the Skywalkers (with laser swords! fwoosh!) after these two near perfect movies. The reason, I think, that the series moved in this direction is because of the de-nuclearization of American families and Lucas and Company striking the vein of familial anxiety, attaching the uncertainty of fatherhood to the biggest badass in the galaxy. Lucas would argue that he had planned it this way all along. Lucas is a bit of a fibber. Vader wasn’t written in as a father character until the rewrites of Empire. By the end of Jedi, Darth Vader has redeemed himself, trading his own life to protect the life of his son’s and restoring a sense of paternal love to the Skywalker’s broken family. Likewise, divorce rates began falling in 1990, 7 years after the film’s release, enough time to digest the redemption message. Or I’m just stretching this. Moving on.

The other major favorite villain in the American pop culture zeitgeist: The Joker. He embodies chaos and in Nolan’s trilogy, playful nihilism. We fear him because he’s unpredictable, and his mind remains a black box, but his actions are at once calculated and random. The Dark Knight came out in 2008, and while a particularly successful politician ran on the platform of HOPE, the ensuing years embraced a darker paradigm, a reinvigorated apathy that put the early 1990’s to shame. 2016 seemed to personify this chaos and a sardonic sense of nihilism became our strategic coping mechanism as our news feeds filled with a relentless stories of death, violence and viral politics.

It becomes a chicken-egg problem as to whether our attitudes are shaped by media, or our media is shaped by our attitudes– but the general point I’m trying to get at is this: what’s scary now, will be the norm in a decade or two. So it merits some thought as to who/what we’re putting into the villain seat. I could also be waaay off base.

Bonus Lightning Round:

Jason Voorhees embodies sexual anxiety during a period of an HIV epidemic. Sexual attitudes relax concurrent with improved sex education. Jason’s relevancy in pop culture plummets. (This can be extended to nearly all slasher movie monsters)

The Terminator is the unflinching march of technology. As I linked to above, we live in a time in which Bill Gates is scared shitless of AI. So as to not be redundant, a different approach to read The Terminator is the shallow aspect of his humanity. His skin is just a thin veneer which he casts aside casually, without pain. This might be a stretch, but part of where our tech march has landed us is in a superficial sphere of human interaction via social media where your (genuine, presumably) human interactions are stored digitally, reduced to cold data to be mined monetarily later.

Voldemort is the embodiment of the fear of death (similar to Vader), a perennial fear that doesn’t have to be pinned down to any particular time in history. It also accompanies wizard racism. I think this is less about how hatred is going to be normalized, but it does speak to a sense of what’s going on in western Europe and America, where fear (in our case, of death by terrorism) is intrinsically linked to outsider hatred (personified as Islamophobia).

Current state of Super Hero movies: Internal fighting, villainizing your teammates (Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Daredevil vs The Punisher, etcetera) concurrent with the lead up to a divisive election cycle. It’ll be interesting where we go from there.

Happy New Year.

Actively Engaging Media

Actively Engaging Media

I’ll never understand people who don’t read. That’s not true. I’ll never understand people who passively ingest media. Thems the kind that just let the TV happen at ’em.

You’ve probably heard it said a good writer is a great reader. It’s an alright adage, despite having been repeated to the point of redundancy–and with good reason. Because whatever mechanism that drives human ambition is blind to the amount of work that goes into a piece of working literature. You may keep meeting the people that want to write a book who don’t read any books. You may keep running into people who call themselves writers who don’t actually produce anything. But if you meet a writer who does produce and doesn’t read? I don’t know, write their teachers from high school and inform them how much of a disappointment their students have become. The point is that this writing schtick takes work and that work primarily consists of reading a butt load. If you don’t like reading, then, Jesus, dude I don’t know why you’re here. But if you’ve been putting reading books on the backburner, remind yourself that it’s as much work as it is play and crack that sucker open.

So rejoice, all ye wordsmiths, for yer work be entertaining and usually pretty fun. Reading is a good time and don’t forget to enjoy it. But lets take it a step further. I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog about the worth of analyzing films and video games.  I want to ruminate a little further on that, such that that in addition to becoming great readers, we also become great purveyors of art of all kinds. So maybe don’t take off your writing lenses when you treat yourself to a Netflix binge or video game marathon.

The good news is that you were probably going to watch movies and television shows anyway. The challenge is sussing out a lesson in works that exist for us to disappear into– and feel free to become absorbed into a film, that means the storytellers are doing something right. It’s up to you, however, to figure out why it was so effective in ensnaring your attention.

We’re all brothers and sisters in this world of storytelling and there’s a lot to be learned from analyzing other mediums. Think critically of how a film is shot–think of the technical nightmare it takes to pull off a scene like this. This is important to pay attention to because, to dust off another overused adage, “Writing is like directing a movie in someone else’s mind.”

Think about how a single frame can tell a story by its composition:

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

 

By this screen grab alone, you see evidence of Norma’s vanity (the mirror), her break from reality (as she’s not even looking at herself, or the police in the mirror but somewhere far away) . You understand the severity of the situation– there’s been a murder (gun being held as evidence) and Norma’s suspect (police. duh.). And as far as tone goes? An unsettling clash of dark darks and bright lights.

How would you write this scene in a book? How would you write it in a short story? A poem? A song? You’d write it differently for each, I’m sure, because you aren’t half-assing this. Do you get a different feeling from the writing? How so? What details are you leaving in? Out? Why? What changes? Asking ourselves a lot of questions helps to understand the choices being made in other’s work and asking the same question of our own work leads to bigger realizations and (ideally) a clearer focus of what we’re trying to achieve.

So we’re paying attention now, effectively “reading” all forms of art. But where to start? What does a balanced media diet look like? You already know what you like to read, right? Start there and keep at it. And if you find yourself merely entertained and reamin unchallenged, hit up a booklist and maybe pick up one or two of those the next time you’re strolling past your book store. Film? How many of IMDB’s top 250 have you viewed?  Read analyses of film, film, video games. (Hell, I watch hour long videos summarizing Final Fantasy plot lines, because I remember being moved by them as a kid and want to identify the successful elements those stories hit upon.) Read The AV Club after your favorite episode of whatever airs and get your brain juices flowing.

We live in an age when criticism outnumbers content 1000:1 and there’s a lot of content out there. Identifying the useful, educational criticism should help cultivate storytelling instincts and give you the tools and vocabulary to dissect your own stories and see what’s working and what is not.

Read. Watch. Listen. Read.

And don’t forget to write.