Probably the most appreciated aspect of a good crowd pleasing movie is the “plot twist.”
We don’t have to think hard to recall a favorite plot twist: that magical moment in a story when an unexpected truth is revealed. Magical because it answers many narrative questions (generated by the plot) in one revelatory moment. But how does the audience not see such a singular answer to a string of questions? The simple truth is that the audience has had their attention diverted away from answer, much like a magician uses “slight-of-hand” to direct attention away from the mechanics of the trick. The human brain is a serial processor and despite the claims of the multitaskers in the world, we are all limited by our ability to focus on only one thing at a time. Where that attention is focused is part of the storyteller’s narrative objective.
Check out this clip:
A better analogy involves the audience being served the narrative equivalent of a “long con.” The term “con man” comes from “confidence man,” someone who has taken “an audience” into their confidence and delivered information that is assumed to be correct. The con artist cons with unflinching confidence, which typical audiences immediately read as truth. When getting conned, the revelation comes in a wave of anger and shame when we realize our assumptions are incorrect and the con artist isn’t coming back in one hour with our money doubled! (Happened to my brother.) The difference between getting conned and a good plot twist is that movie audience’s expect to be manipulated! But the objectives are the same.
What we’re talking about here is narrative strategy: staying ahead of the audience and managing what their thinking and feeling, primarily through the power of assumptions. “Assume” literally means to take possession of something, in this case: information. But a more specific definition (and the one we’re after) requires an audience to take possession of information that is either erroneous, insufficient, or incorrect. Let’s look at an example of assumptions in action. Observe the following photograph and list the facts as it relates to conflict in the photo (character–>objective–>opposition).
Do your facts look something like the following?
- The man is yellow is being arrested.
- The red jeep belongs to the man in yellow.
- The man in yellow broke the law.
- He is being arrested outside his home.
- The cop is actually a real cop.
- These men have never met before this moment.
Facts like: it’s winter or it rained recently, don’t have bearing on the conflict readily apparent in the image. Our deductions filter that stuff out as we seek to understand the nature of the immediate conflict as it relates to character in pursuit of an objective, being met with opposition.
Those look like solid facts, right? Some of them are indirect, meaning you didn’t question them directly. Most would logically assume these men aren’t acquainted and move on. BUT… they are ALL assumptions. And with a little help, I can lead an audience toward any or all of them. Why would I do that? Because I now know what they know, and something they don’t. But they THINK they know and won’t question it further. What they want to know primarily is: what did he do to get arrested? And that question must be answered. But I could slowly reveal any number of broken expectations going forward.
1) It isn’t an arrest, but an abduction.
2) The cop is not a real cop.
3) But the man in yellow is an undercover cop!
Broken expectations bring delight to an audience! Remember, an audience expects to be manipulated and we need to make good on that promise.
Back to the con game for a moment, plotting means designing “what the audience knows and when they know it.” In a vacuum of information that surrounds the situation featured in the above photograph, none of the assumptions were delivered expositionally. The audience isn’t lied to. They arrived at those facts on their own. That’s important and part of the confidence in the storytelling. How do we know with confidence what assumptions an audience will make? Well, I mentioned early we might help those assumptions along with some refined narrative strategy, but first we need to be clear on why we make assumptions at all!
Curiosity leads us to want to understand the world around us. It is our weapon against fear (waxing didactic here) and fear is how we respond to the unknown. So we seek to know. Assumptions come about when we fill in the blanks with information based on previous experiences, taking for granted that the present situation is as it seems. We categorize and move on toward the more immediate questions driving our curiosity: a narrative question distracting us (the audience) from our assumptions.
Tune in next week when we explore some specific strategies to manage the audience’s attention with assumptions.