Monday, December 13, 2010

Yesterday when I was teaching the different emotions that screenwriters handle so very often, one of the aspirants asked me a pertinent query: How’s mystery different from suspense?

This is a question asked by many students of screenwriting at my studio – Screenwrite.In. The answer is very similar to a Court's definition (and I can’t remember which Court) of pornography, "I can't define suspense, but I know it when I see it." Though we all know the difference when we see mystery and suspense severally, we find it sometimes, ineffable to detail the difference.

Wishing to have a better sharing for this mystery and suspense definition I referred the guiding interpretations of the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock. Contrary to popular belief, Hitchcock explained, suspense bears no relationship to fear. Instead, it is the state of waiting for something to happen.

Crucial to the Hitchcock-ian thriller is the difference between suspense and surprise. To put it simply, (I have written this before in one of my previous blogs: ABOUT 'SUSPENSE' IN MOVIES) the director said that if you have a scene where two characters are conversing in a cafe, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table, the audience experiences surprise. On the other hand, if the audience sees the saboteur place the bomb, is told that it will go off at one o'clock, and can see a clock in the scene, the mundane conversation between two cafe patrons now becomes one of intense suspense, as the audience holds its collective breath waiting for the explosion. Fifteen minutes of suspense, as opposed to fifteen seconds of surprise. It was therefore necessary, to Alfred Hitchcock, that the audience be as fully informed as possible.

Based on this principle, the suspense thriller has been loosely defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen. The protagonist's job is to prevent the speeding bus from exploding, or the aliens from eating the crew. The reader experiences a vicarious thrill by identifying with the hero and the danger he faces, becoming a participant in the chase.

A mystery, on the other hand, is a chain of revelation, with action more mental than physical. A significant event, usually a murder, has just occurred, and the protagonist's job is to discover who committed the crime, and why. The dilemma created for the writer of traditional mysteries is the fact that the villain and the details of the crime must remain unidentified, breaking Hitchcock's rule of keeping the audience informed.

While writing a mystery the screenwriter quickly learns that it is far harder to generate suspense when the story revolves around something that has already happened, as opposed to a life-threatening event that is going to happen in the future.

For this reason, most of the mystery-screenplays contain elements of suspense, where the protagonist or another character's life is in danger as long as the villain remains at large. At the same time to the screenwriter’s utmost alarm he/she loses the most significant source of conflict: the protagonist and her major foe cannot face off in conflict until the final scene. A threat from an unknown source is never as superb as the danger of a known and powerful villain.

So, if it's that simple, why don't we all give up writing ‘whodunits’, and turn our attention to screenplays for the next Die Hard or Ghajini (Hindi 2008) sequel? The answer is simple. While the traditional mystery may lack something in shock value and sensational thrill, it has other merits.

A successful mystery is compelling drama because it explores the uncharted territory of the mind. Few mysteries today rely solely on a puzzle. The contemporary whodunit has become a ‘whydunit’. For the same reason that we read true crime stories, we read mysteries to find out why a sane person would be pushed to commit the ultimate crime, or how an insane murderer could so brilliantly cover his tracks. The reader gets involved because the mystery is such a perfect medium for revealing character.

All great literary writers have understood the connection between plot and character. Characters are defined by what they do. How characters act is controlled by who they are. Henry James wrote, "What is character by the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?"

The tension is created in a traditional mystery, as in any novel, by the unresolved conflicts between the characters. Conflict is created by placing interesting and well-rounded characters, which the reader can identify with, into an extraordinary and unfamiliar situation.

The sudden death and subsequent homicide investigation of a close relative or colleague is an emotional cauldron that is nevertheless plausible and understandable to the reader. Thus, the reader is hooked not by shocking thrill seeking, but by an intense need to know what will happen to these characters that have become like friends.

A good mystery satisfies our need to understand the human condition; but a suspense comparably is momentous.


Post a Comment