Monday, June 14, 2010

Suspense, Mystery, Love, and Loss

I have given myself an assignment to write about these four topics in the context of a movie I have just seen. To complicate the task, I know that when more than one of these elements are present in a novel or a movie there may be a wide range of consequences. Here are a few examples:

** Suspense – Typically, this is the traditional thriller where elements of the unknown lead one or more characters on a journey of discovery, checking out facts and following clues to try to come to an understanding of what seems to be unexplainable. There may be scary bits with darkness, strange noises, perhaps a haunting, but above all there will be heaps of tension. If the main characters are a man and woman who are trying to get to the bottom of the situation together or who meet while one of them is on this journey, then we might have a romantic suspense. The underlying evil must be exposed, and there must be a resolution to the romantic tension. In other words, two kinds of “happily ever after” are necessary for a satisfactory conclusion.

** Mystery – There doesn't seem to be much difference between the categories of suspense, thriller, and mystery. But if the element of crime is introduced, there is immediately the elevated sense of danger that is associated with murder, blackmail, abduction, or drug lords, to cite a few examples. While ordinary citizens or wannabe private investigators may get involved, usually these cases are dealt with by the police or other special enforcement units. There may be romance involved in these stories, too, as we occasionally see on the CSI TV shows, or hinted at on Castle where a mystery writer is allowed to participate in police investigations which are led by a female detective, providing him fodder for his research!

** Love – This word conjures up the whole gamut of romance, but specifically can also include love for a child, a parent, or a friend. It may be first love, married love, love affairs, unrequited love, etc. etc. The list would be long if we tried to enumerate all the kinds of love that might exist in a novel or movie.

** Loss – Combine this with any of the other elements and we have occasion for grief over the disappearance or death of a loved one. There will be suspense or mystery when an infidelity, a theft, or deception is suspected. Once aroused, suspicion and doubt feed fear and anger; tension heightens until the lost is found or a resolution is reached.

These then are some of the elements that writers may introduce in their stories to add a layer of tension to the plot and to provide conflict between the characters. Always the objective is to keep readers turning the pages or viewers glued to the screen. Check out the techniques recommended in this article by Simon Wood:
9 Tricks to Writing Suspense Fiction.

Now to get on to the movie that suggested these topics in the first place. On the weekend, I watched The Other Man, which is described in the blurb as a “gripping suspense thriller.” Richard Eyre, the director who also co-wrote the screenplay, calls it a love story. Liam Neeson plays “a man obsessed with uncovering the truth surrounding his wife’s (Laura Linney) disappearance. After stumbling across clues that take him to the streets of Milan, he tracks down his wife’s charismatic lover (Antonio Banderas).” What follows is a twisted trail of revenge-seeking and revelations of a side of his wife that he never knew existed.

It was fascinating to see how the information needed by the viewer was released bit by bit. The tension rose as the husband’s obsession grew with each discovery he made. In the director’s commentary, Eyre noted that a certain amount of exposition is always necessary in a movie -- to set the scene and provide enough background to the story to engage the viewer. In this instance, the opening scene is the image of water, which eventually includes a hand trailing in the water over the edge of a motorboat, and the figure of the wife is revealed – but no other person in the boat can be identified. The scene then shifts to a fashion show in Milan, where shoes designed by the wife are being modelled. This scene also introduces her husband and daughter (Romola Garai), neither of whom indicate that they are in any way enthralled by the fashion world, though they are supportive of her.

One of the early scenes is between Neeson and Linney in a Milan restaurant where the dialogue provides some of the exposition Eyre mentions. It also establishes that they are comfortable discussing their relationship, until she asks a couple of surprising questions: “Can two people live their whole life together?” and “Don’t you ever wish you could sleep with someone else?” Now we know that the film is going to be about fidelity. From that point on, suspense and tension build with each succeeding scene. For every detail revealed, much is withheld until the right moment is reached.

I don’t want to provide any more details that would serve as spoilers for anyone who wishes to see this movie which came out in 2008 (on DVD in 2009). It was shot on location in England and Italy, as well as on studio sets. Scenes shot on the streets and in the buildings of Milan certainly add to the atmosphere. The cast is excellent, although some reviewers thought that their talent was wasted on a story that was tagged as “melodramatic” by one, and “lightweight” by another. The screenplay is based on a short story written by Bernhard Schlink, a German author who also wrote the novel on which the movie The Reader was based. A writer friend and I enjoyed the movie, and enthusiastically listened to the actors and director talk about why they thought it was worth making.

Do you watch movies with an eye to how well the writers and directors build tension and conflict into the plot through suspense and mystery, and how well the characters are portrayed by the actors? What is the best movie you have seen lately that falls into one or more of these categories?


Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
I can't read a book or watch a movie anymore without thinking about the writing, marvelling when I think the writer has come up with something brilliant and shaking my head when I think they've totally missed the mark. Sometimes it messes up my enjoyment of the book or movie!

This probably isn't the greatest example, but it was the last movie I saw in the theatre so it's stuck with me. In "Avatar" the conflict for the hero is that he's a loyal soldier, but as he gets to know the indiginous people on this faraway planet, he identifies with them more and more. He also falls in love with the princess. The conflict is further increased because as a human, the hero has lost the use of his legs and is confined to a wheelchair. But as an avatar he is strong and healthy and can do amazing things. This is not a suspense or a mystery story; the only real question is whether the indiginous people will survive.


Vince said...

Hi Helena:

Here is something that I have perfected that you might find interesting. I can usually tell within the first five to ten minutes of any mystery TV show who the guilty party is. As soon as the guilty party comes on the screen, I’ll point to the TV and say to my wife, “That’s the killer” and she’ll say, “There is no way you could possibly know that at this point.” Yet, I am right about 90% of the time. (Sometimes there are two killers or the person I identify is guilty of something else.)

Here’s how I do it. I read the actors. A good method actor will actually act like someone who is guilty trying to act like they are innocent. In a way, the better the actor is, the easier it is to spot the actor as the guilty party!

BTW, this is something that cannot happen in a book where there is no actor to give the secret away. Calling the guilty party as early as possible turns every mystery show into a contest. Why not give it a try!


Nicole Murray said...

Vince--I do the same thing to my husband when we watch TV or a movie and I use a very similar way in telling. I also like to apply basic logic. The combination works 90% of the time if the actors are good and the writing makes sense.

I also agree that becoming more involved in writing has taken and added more to my TV and Movie viewing.

Helena said...

Hey, Jana. Like you, I'm always noticing "how they did it" as I read or watch. However, I do try to go through the first time for simple enjoyment, and try to hold the analysis for later. It's easier with movies because of the shorter time span and the special features which I usually watch. Often that leads to another viewing of the movie (provided I want to).

Haven't seen "Avatar" yet, but I've heard good things about it.

Helena said...

You have a point, Vince, although I wonder if it's as much to do with the need to write within a prescribed (and limited) time frame without the luxury of spinning dead end clues for the audience.

Surely the TV actors are capable of misleading, unless they have been given script notes to betray their guilt in some "unintended" way???

I'm actually pretty good at predicting guilty parties, too. On TV. Not so much in feature films or books, though sometimes I just get "the feeling."

Thanks for adding in the acting dimension of the equation.

Helena said...

Hi, Nicole! Glad to hear you are also a writer who gets deeper into the television and movie plots with your own specific "writerly" perspective. I find they give me another avenue for learning about telling stories.

Janet said...

You already know how much I love movies and watching them with a writer's eye has become a pasttime. And because of you, I watch those director bits at the end (watch my blog, I'll be doing a post on Time Traveler's Wife).

I love your pre-discussion information in this post, Helena. All of those elements can be used in writing - to up the tension. Thanks for the break down and the connection to the movie.

Haven't see the movie, but it's going on my TBR (to be rented) list. Thanks :)

Helena said...

Janet, I would love to belong to a Movie Club with you. You know, where we watch movies, preferably together (but considering the distance between NS and SK, that's out of the question). So I guess your blog will have to do for the discussion part of the activity.

I went AWOL this afternoon so I could join a bunch of ladies at a special showing of Letters to Juliet organized by the local Red Hatters at the town cinema. It has been panned by the critics, but was a sweet little story set in Tuscany, starring Amanda Seyfried and Vanessa Redgrave. In keeping with today's theme, there is a thread of mystery in the plot, but it is totally a romantic mystery. An enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

If you see it, watch when Vanessa, who plays the grandmother in the story, meets her Lorenzo whom she fell in love with fifty years earlier -- he is played by Franco Nero (her real-life partner).

Oh, be still, my romantic heart!

Janet said...

I've seen the trailers for that movie, Helena - on my list to see (total Chick Flick, as my husband would say). And I love a story where there are two romances - one with the younger couple and a story of love with an older couple. Very much like your own Fiona and Laura story!! I'm reading one right now - and I actually like the older couple's story better!

Yep, I'd love to watch movies with you. But when you come for a visit, I don't think you're going to want to sit inside and watch movies, are you?