Increasing the Impact of Surprise
The film THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI includes an early scene where the hero, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is confronted by Chief of Police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) about her billboards proclaiming that he’s done nothing to catch her daughter’s killer:
I got cancer. I’m dying.
One of the reasons the scene is so effective is because of the way Writer/Director Martin McDonagh SETS UP THE SURPRISE.
Because we already empathize with Mildred as the hero, we anticipate that the Sheriff she’s accusing will be an angry, powerful, racist, redneck cop – a stereotype we’ve all seen in countless films. So we’re taken aback to see that he’s actually a reasonable husband and father of two who tries to see the good in a person, and seems to have done everything he could to catch the killer.
An even bigger surprise is to learn he has cancer. And bigger still is when Mildred gives him no sympathy in response.
The script has created no anticipation of these revelations; they seem to appear out of the blue.
But imagine if this scene were the opening of the film, and we knew nothing about the characters or the situation other than what is revealed here. Willoughby’s confession that he has cancer might still be unexpected, but it would carry almost no emotional impact. This is because there would have been no BUILDUP to the moment, and no CONTEXT for the revelation.
It is only because we’ve already been introduced to these characters, and their desires and conflicts, that the surprise element gets us to feel something.
This scene carries an even greater impact because the screenwriter had not only established the context for the scene, he created ANTICIPATION of what would happen in this confrontation, and then surprised us by reversing it. He created an expectation of one outcome, then surprised us by having the characters do just the opposite.
Frequently I encounter stories – whether in scripts, novels, marketing emails or speeches – which include unexpected elements that seem to have no relationship to what’s happened so far. Readers and viewers are surprised, certainly, but their surprise more often leads to confusion than connection.
Without laying the groundwork to help us understand why this unexpected event or revelation creates conflict for the characters, we’ll simply listen and observe while feeling nothing.
It’s essential that you include surprises in your script, or your novel, or your speech as well. Just make certain to first create context, so that your readers will understand, and FEEL, the impact these unexpected events will have on your characters.
Excellent. Learned a lot from the article and the comments. I appreciate the time you take to write these articles. Buckets of knowledge!
This is great stuff,
I try to add a surprise or twist that nobody sees coming in every other chapter or so.
Interesting reading. I really loved this script and your article gave me the elements to understand better the building of the surprise. Thanks.
Michael, I read the scene but felt differently on your take. Mildred came off as one the audience should lose empathy for; because of her dreaded steel mill disdain with Willoughby; whose whining displays the will to catch her child’s killer.
I’m yet to see the film. Perhaps subtext will bring me nearer to how the writer expects the reaction you refer.
Excellent! Taking notes…
My feeling is that if the first draft of the story is written to a formula this problem is more likely to arise.
I wonder if the key is to further develop the character and allow the surprises to spontaneously arise from the writer’s deeper exploration of character. In this way it comes from a real place of discovery rather than an artificial or contrived place.
My feeling is that an emotional graph becomes invaluable in subsequent edits of the screenplay, but that that these need to occur after the first draft is out as an intuitively realised story. Too much tweaking too early on makes it very difficult for me as a writer to get the feel of the story as a whole, but is so very useful once I know what the story is and am ready to go more deeply into it.
The other thing that I find is that having time away from the keyboard enables these ideas to rise and be explored imaginatively before they are committed to the script itself.
But I am not sure. I am just at the point of dipping my toe into screenwriting after writing novels, plays and short stories, so it might be that this approach doesn’t work at well for the screenplay. I would be interested in your views.
Iris – I agree that the primary focus of the first draft should be to get everything down, no matter how long, ragged or undeveloped. DON’T GET IT RIGHT, GET IT WRITTEN! Then on successive drafts, begin adding elements such as the one discussed above, or in many of my other blogs. Add new layers and edit out the unnecessary action, description, verbiage and anything that doesn’t relate to the hero’s Outer Motivation. But getting into the thicket of minute detail and technique on the first draft, rather than letting the story appear and evolve, can get you stuck or lost. Thanks for your thoughts.
Thank you for the reply, Michael. I’m up to page 93 first draft. On that note I will keep writing forward. It takes a lot of self discipline not to go back at this stage and start fixing things. By the way, I found your page through a link someone posted of your interview with Will Smith. Such a good interview!
Please email me your schedule. I live in Vero Beach but will travel up the east coast to attend your seminar.
Hello Colleen, Michael’s Live Events schedule is on this page: https://storymastery.com/events/
Several more events will be added in the next few days, so please check back with us for the updates. Thanks!