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MEET THE READER: Main Elements of Dramatic Storytelling - Suspenseful Surprises

Ray Morton explains the power of using suspense and surprise in dramatic storytelling.

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Ray Morton explains the power of using suspense and surprise in dramatic storytelling.

In the course of doing some research on an upcoming project, I recently came across an interview with the late Harve Bennett (1930-2015). Bennett was a former network television executive who worked at both CBS and ABC before moving into television production in the late 1960s with The Mod Squad. He followed up that landmark series with other popular mini-series and shows including Rich Man, Poor Man, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, and A Woman Called Golda. Bennett moved into features in 1982 when he began producing and helping write the Star Trek movie series: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.

In the interview, Bennett offered his theory that the two main elements of dramatic storytelling were suspense and surprise, with suspense being defined as storytelling that keeps the audience guessing as to what will happen next and surprise being defined as storytelling that has something happen that the audience didn’t expect.

Renowned film editor and later renowned film director Karel Reisz once gave marvelous examples of both concepts in his classic 1953 text The Technique of Film Editing. In his book, Reisz asks us to imagine two pieces of film – the first shows a man walking down the street and then suddenly falling down and the second shows a static close-up of a banana peel laying on a sidewalk. If you show the close-up of the banana peel first and then show the man walking down the street, you create suspense – the audience is on the edge of its seat wondering if the man will slip on the banana peel or not. The actual fall pays off the suspense. If you show the footage of the man walking down the street first and the close-up of the banana peel second, you create surprise – the man walks down the street and then suddenly slips and falls. What happened? Seeing that he slipped on a banana peel punctuates the surprise with an explanation and (hopefully) a strong reaction from the audience (in this case, presumably a laugh).

I agree with Bennett – suspense and surprise are the key elements of dramatic storytelling.

Screenplays employ suspense and surprise in some obvious ways:

  • In the suspenseful set pieces in the thriller in which the hero pursues the villain or the villain pursues the hero and we are on the edge of our seats as we wait to see who will catch who; in the horror movie in which the monster pursues the college kids through the haunted house and we try to guess who will be killed next; in the sci-fi movie in which the young protagonist tries to blow up the Death Star and we bite out nails in anticipation as we wait to see if he will drop the bomb into the exhaust vent before the Dark Lord blasts him to smithereens; in the legal drama in which the attorneys for both sides argue their case and we wait to see what the jury decides; in the sports movie in which we watch with bated breath as we await the outcome of the race/match/game; in the romantic comedy in which one lover races to the airport and we hope against hope that she or he will make it to the gate before their inamorata leaves for Paris forever; and so on.
  • In the surprising moments in a horror movie in which the cat jumps out instead of the monster and then the monster jumps out and kills the person who just got scared by the cat; in the thriller when we find out that the protagonist’s kindly old mentor is actually the villainous mastermind who has been manipulating events from the beginning; in the romantic comedy when we discover that the inamorata never got on the plane in the first place; in the drama in which the wealthy hero finds out he’s penniless or the penniless hero wins the lottery, etc.

However, screenplays also employ surprise and suspense in more intrinsic ways. No narrative writing can be successful if readers don’t stick with the story to the end (and, further down the pike, no narrative film can be successful if the audience walks out before the end). So, no matter what tale is being told, the goal of every screenwriter is to hook the audience on the first page of their script and keep them hooked until the last page. This is done by employing suspense – by crafting the individual scenes and the overall narrative in ways that make the audience want to see what comes next so that readers will keep turning the pages and viewers will remain firmly planted in their theater seats. To do this:

  • Every dramatic narrative asks a central question: will the mystery be solved? Will the lovers reunite? Will the bad man turn good? Will the hero triumph? Do not definitively answer that question until the final scene of the movie. Doing this will keep the audience in suspense until the very end wondering what the answer to the narrative’s big question will be.
  • Craft each scene in the piece so that it asks a smaller question that is then answered in a future scene. This will keep the audience in suspense as they wait for those questions to be answered. As an example, consider the sequence in Star Wars that begins when Luke Skywalker is attacked by a sandperson. The attack is cut off when a load roar is heard. Who or what made the roar? The next scene shows us that the roar was made by an old man. Who is this old man? The next scene tells us that he is a Jedi Knight named Ben Kenobi. What is a Jedi Knight? That question is answered in bits and pieces over several ensuing scenes. Taking this approach – rather than explaining everything in a scene during that scene – will (hopefully) keep the readers/viewers hooked as they follow the thread.
  • Make sure that every scene in the script advances the narrative. Cut any scene that does not do this so that the string of questions and answers is never interrupted. This will keep the narrative suspense and momentum going from beginning to end.

As for surprise – well, that’s the engine of all we do, isn’t it? Audiences crave the new and the novel and it’s our job to give it to them by dreaming up original concepts, inventive premises, and clever storylines. To avoid the same old same old, it’s our job to avoid the rote, the cliché, and the predictable. Instead, we must strive to tell stories in unexpected ways, to present fresh ideas, and when the ideas are familiar to give them an innovative spin. Our characters must always be surprising and our endings should always be unexpected (albeit satisfying). To create successful screenplays and movies, we must always surprise the audience with our stories and within our stories.


Copyright © 2019 by Ray Morton
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