(Long post warning: we’ll get to some Dr. Who eventually, but bear with me. This is the way I watch television.)
There’s an old Hitchcock anecdote about the difference between suspense and surprise. If a bus suddenly blows up, that’s a surprise. If you see a man get on a bus with a box, and you know there’s a bomb in that box, and you ride along for a little while watching all the ordinary people sitting on the bus and standing in the aisles, not knowing they’re about to be blown to smithereens… that’s suspense.
Another way to describe it is “open” or “closed.” If you’re playing a storyline open, the audience sees and understands everything that’s happening. If you’re playing it closed, the audience doesn’t know a character is even in danger till you pull back the curtain and they gasp.
There’s a significant plot point that often accompanies both sorts of storytelling: The Moment They Figure It Out. It’s the moment the detective lifts the nicotine-stained cuff of the victim and realizes who the murderer is. The moment the ingénue grasps that the charming gentleman sharing a train compartment with her is a serial killer. That moment.
Beginning scriptwriters are often reluctant to play anything that’s based on a thought process going on in a character’s head; isn’t that going to require an amazing actor? Of course, an amazing actor always helps — but the short answer is, no. The sequence of images cut together in editing will tell the tale.
Let’s say we’re playing this story open; we-the-audience have seen the bomb go into the box. And let’s say our protagonist is innocently riding on this very bus. He notes the man with the box get on, but thinks nothing of it. Other riders crowd on; there’s a little girl with a lunchbox next to him, a tired woman fixing her makeup, a man arguing into his cellphone. Our hero’s eyes wander back to the man with the box: his hands are sweating. Our hero reacts: a bit odd. Maybe he’s stressed about something? Back to the little girl, the arguing man… and next our hero sees, let’s say, a splotch of blue paint on the right shoe of the man with the box. And we know that there’s been a group of old-fashioned anarchist bombers leaving messages in that exact shade of blue paint all over town.
Our hero notices. He looks uncertain, confused; this is quite a coincidence; he’s beginning to suspect, struggling with his thoughts… We think, “Yes! It’s him! Get up, do something!” But it’s just blue paint. And then a woman accidentally steps on the bomber’s foot. She apologizes. And the bomber tells her it’s quite all right… with a speech impediment. And not three scenes ago, our protagonist was at a meeting with an FBI profiler who believed that the head of the anarchist bombers has a speech impediment. Our hero’s eyes grow wide with shock. And we know! The fucking eagle has landed. This is The Moment He Figured It Out. So when he leaps to his feet and tries to grab the box away and yells for the confused passengers around him to get off the bus, we’re thinking, “Yes! Go, hero, go!”
While an editing sequence helps, it’s not always required. Take the moment in Sex, Lies and Videotape when the wife finds her sister’s earring on her own living room floor. That is actor-dependent; Andie MacDowell has to spell out the revelation on her face. Here, she’s supported not by a sequence of images on screen, but the images in the audience’s memory, who’ve seen that her husband and sister are having an affair. They know where her thoughts are going because they already have a map.
Or consider the ending of the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three, starring Walter Matthau. He’s spent the movie trying to negotiate with criminals who’ve taken a subway car hostage. The ringleader has a bad cold. At the very end of the movie, Matthau and his partner go to the ringleader’s apartment to question him; they don’t know he’s one of the baddies — they think he’s just someone who might have information. Mr. Ringleader speaks plausibly, and our two cops start to leave. We think, “No! He’s the one! Stop, you’re missing him!” And just as they’re closing the door, the bad guy gives a hearty sneeze. The door slowly swings open again, wide. On the other side we see Walter Matthau’s big, big grin. And we know: It’s the Moment He Figured It Out. The movie ends right there; no dialogue, no need to spell it out.
In each case I’ve given, the audience is ahead of the character, willing them to Figure It Out, and perfectly capable of filling in the dots when the time comes because they already know the answer. The stories are played open.
So let’s try it the other way. House, of course, is full of both surprises and Moments He Figures It Out. The series follows the procedural/mystery paradigm, and is played closed; you don’t find out what’s killing the patient till the end. But there are also surprises along the way, surprises within scenes, people who aren’t doing what you expect for the reasons you expect. What we think is a comedic runner may become dark and serious, and end with a punch. The aim of every storyline is to lay things out so you can’t predict precisely what’s coming. You get into one meringue shell and find there’s another one inside, and you never know if the inner bite will be raspberries or mascarpone. (I seem to have watched more of Ina Garten cooking than I realized.)
Even the figuring-it-out moment is closed, because most people don’t know enough medical details to leap to which clues House is responding to. So when he goes off and has a conversation with Wilson about reindeer or suspenders, and Wilson says a line of dialogue that encapsulates the central metaphor of what is happening in the patient’s body, and House suddenly becomes distracted and walks out… we know we’ve just had a Moment He Figured It Out. But we don’t know how or why – yet. We need to wait for the laying-it-all-down Hercule Poirot style.
One reason I enjoyed writing for Torchwood this year was the complete one-eighty from House; Torchwood is about suspense, and therefore we see the bomb go into the box. (Metaphorically. No spoilers here.) I never wrote such nonstop action-suspense before, and as a writer, it was like going to an assassin school with ninja teachers. At one point Russell Davies read a scene I’d written and was puzzled by what I was doing… then he realized I was playing a storyline closed in that scene, thinking we’d do a surprise reveal later. No, no! Open! We must crackle with the electricity of knowing we’re on treacherous ground, that the earth could crumble away beneath us at any moment. (Metaphorically. Still no spoilers.)
But whether open or closed, The Moment They Figure It Out is central to most modern genre stories, and understandably so. If your heroes have been struggling in vain to stop the bad guys, you want to know what finally tips them off. A mistake the villain makes that comes back to haunt them? An ironic coincidence from the heroine’s past that gives her insight at just the right second? What did it, you want to know — and could I have done as well in those circumstances? Would I have put it together? Teams of writers sit in despair for hours and days, trying to find just the right tip-off, one that’s satisfying to the audience and has resonance for the character.
But I came across an interesting anomaly recently, while watching the first two episodes of this season’s Dr. Who. (Okay: now, yes, spoilers.) The over-arching mythology (who is River Song, etc.) is played closed; but the story itself is played open – we see that our characters are encountering aliens who make you forget you ever saw them, but our characters don’t yet realize this. So they’re in constant danger, and don’t know it. Within this open story, however, there are scenes that are played closed.
For example, consider the scene where Amy searches the dormitory room. (For the sake of this discussion, I’m going to assume that the alien race is called The Silence, that one alien is a Silent, and that six aliens playing poker would be six Silents.) As soon as our heroes arrived at the orphanage, we had hints that Silents have been there, and may still be nearby. Now Amy opens the door and searches a room. Partway through the search she sees tally marks on her face and realizes she’s witnessed a large number of Silents and marked herself so she would know it happened. Then, in a shocking moment, she spies them all, hanging batlike from the ceiling.
If you were playing that scene open, you might start with a shot of the Silents nesting from the ceiling, and tilt down to see the door open and Amy enter the room, glancing around at the beds. Cut to a crane shot from above the tangle of the Silents– like looking down through a spider’s web* — to see Amy moving further in, having no idea of the danger she’s in. Cut to Amy below, searching the room. The audience is on the edge of their seats: LOOK UP LOOK UP LOOK UP!
There are benefits to playing that scene open. But there are benefits, as we saw, to playing it closed. You think you’re in an empty room… but then you see the tally marks… hear the warning you recorded yourself… there’s danger in this house somewhere but you’re still in an empty room, right? There’s a thin layer of immediate safety, because the room is empty, you’re not face to face with… and then she looks up.
And we all freak the hell out, because we weren’t expecting that.
Playing it closed within scenes is probably a good choice for a story in which our characters keep forgetting what’s just happened to them.** Their own memories are closed, after all. In fact, I think the delightfully disorienting choice to actually skip certain slices of scenes entirely – not even a jump-cut – and fill the characters and audience in afterward, was inspired. How appropriate, to screw with the audience’s mind! It forces us to participate a little in what the characters are going through, as opposed to telling us how it works, showing it in action, and letting us feel superior to them.***
Which leads us to the anomaly. At the end of the first episode, our characters have no idea there are aliens all around them, because their memories are being tampered with; they forget the aliens’ existence as soon as they look away.
The next episode begins three months later, with our heroes marking their skin each time they see an alien – because they expect to see aliens, and know they’ll have no memory afterward.
I can’t imagine, in American television, that you would ever skip past the Moment They Figure It Out. Good lord! Would you have Christmas without a tree? A birthday without presents? What do you mean, you skipped over the central moment of understanding and admiration and cleverness? (And how did they figure it out? Even if they saw the image on Amy’s phone, they wouldn’t remember! Missing time might give you a hint, but they’re only getting glimpses of aliens, not enough to make a difference.)
And here’s the interesting part: the audience doesn’t really care. A quick spin ’round the Internet says so. And here’s a deeper truth: what the audience doesn’t care about, doesn’t have to be shown. But I remain shocked.
Mind you, I could put together a way to clue in the characters. It’s not impossible, so it’s not quite cheating in the way it might be if you’d utterly boxed in your hero and in the next episode showed him alive and well at a casino in Vegas. And I know very well at least part of the reason the audience doesn’t care: the story was not only open, it was super-open. We were well ahead of the characters; we saw the aliens; we saw the memory effects demonstrated more than once. The audience has to think it’s about time the heroes caught up – now let’s get on with the story! (A violation of another treasured tenet of American TV, by the way: “You don’t want the audience to be too far ahead of your hero.” Can’t tell you how often I’ve heard that one.)
And in this case, we’ve skipped more than a moment. We’ve skipped at least half an episode – something far more attention-getting, to any self-respecting audience. What happened when Amy shot at the little girl in the astronaut suit? Aside from the fact she missed. Did the little girl walk away? Did she stay and chat? Or did the Silents take her? What prompted the fake-out at the beginning of the episode and the Doctor’s imprisonment? I can come up with scenarios for all of these, but it’s as if the story were a three-parter and the second part was left in the men’s room of a bar somewhere near the BBC. I like the dizziness this produces.
It’s open. It’s closed. And there’s no Moment They Figure It Out. They may have filmed it in the US, but dammit, it’s un-American.
*Visually similar to that wonderful moment in Night of the Hunter when we look down through a wet spiderweb and see the two children drift downstream. That was more dreamlike, of course, where this would be played for horror and threat. What a loss to humanity that Charles Laughton only directed one film.
** I’ve always considered the ability to mess with the memories of others to be one of the most ethically suspect and corrupting of super-powers. And one of the most terrifying to have used against you. I actually pitched a villain in the first year of Smallville who could make you forget the last twenty minutes or so of your life. For one obvious example, imagine what an entitled sociopath could do to the pretty girls who’ve been ignoring him. Then give it a few more minutes; they won’t remember why they’re crying and they’ll greet him as a friend. How can you fight someone you can’t remember meeting? But I was told it just wasn’t “visceral” enough. The show was just starting out, and we had to concentrate on villains with physical powers for the first year – super-strength or firestarting or the ability to suck all the fat out of the human body. This is at least partly my fault, as I was unable to convey to anybody why screwing with people’s memories is indeed visceral — and probably never could have without writing the actual script. This, by the way, is endemic to television; you don’t get permission to do something unless you can communicate your vision – which is your responsibility – or unless someone else has already done something similar in a cool way, so you can point to it and say, “Like that.”
*** A technique also used in A Beautiful Mind and the short-story version of Stephen King’s “Apt Pupil” (where the boy is unable to stop turning the pages of Nazi comic books, shocked-disturbed-fascinated that people actually did these things, and the reader is unable to stop turning the pages, riveted at a boy falling into the same madness; it’s hard not to feel tainted, reading that).
(Note: This blog has a mirror at tightropegirl on Live Journal, and most of the discussion is there.)