The element of mystery…

Ok, ok, so this is more about celebrities than it is about screenwriting, but I saw this at a news stand at the airport and I couldn’t help myself…

Way to stick it to People Magazine, Us Weekly.

Here’s the point: Last night I was watching Dark City, a mighty good film I believe, and it occurred to me that I’d like to learn how to better set up a mystery and hold the audience in suspense for a while before I go ahead spill the beans. If you watch Dark City for a second time, you notice all these moments, clues really, that eventually make sense when you learn the truth about the world the film takes place in.

A mistake I think I’ve made in the past is trying to start a mystery with a good beginning, and then working my way from there. And perhaps that’s the wrong way to go. Even in the outlining phase, I get stuck and eventually bored with my concept because I’m constantly trying to figure out “What next?” Unfortunately, “what next” usually leads me to less than compelling ideas that I try to force feed into my script because I think my beginning is so damn good, I can’t bear to let it go. This ultimately leads to me coming up with an underwhelming ending that might work in the logic department but gets a big, fat, “F” in the cool, sexy, I-can’t-keep-my-eyes-off-the-screen department.

Now, I’m mostly thinking about sci-fi thriller-type mysteries, but I bet this works out for regular old pipe-and-hat mysteries too. As soon as you come up with an awesome premise, consider whether your premise works better as an ending, or a beginning. If it works better as an ending, well then you’ve got yourself a mystery. If it works better as a beginning, or set-up to a beginning, then you’re better off trying to turn your idea into a comedy or drama. For example, in Sixth Sense, the premise obviously worked better as an ending. Same with Bourne Identity, another great suspense thriller. But look at a film like Idiocracy, which takes place in a world in the future where everyone’s an idiot. Now there’s a concept you’ve got to stuff in the beginning, because it’s too hilarious to do anything else with it.

Those are two obvious examples. But often, when I come up with a futuristic sci-fi or fantasy idea, I’m so excited about my premise, I want to show it off right away, in the first ten pages, so any readers lucky enough to get their hands on my script can witness the glory of my brilliance right off the bat. I never even consider, “Hey, maybe this idea would work better as an ending, instead.” So I’m gonna give that a shot. And if it’s something that any of you think might spice up your next great script, I invite you to do it as well.

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