Writers are never just passive observers. Whether we’re reading or watching a movie, we don’t consume stories, we occupy them. We’re drawn into the events on the surface, while our subconscious minds pick apart the mechanics behind them.
The more we read, the more we understand story structure. In my piece Don’t Just Read More, Watch More I talked about the benefits writers get from watching movies too. Not only do we consume films faster, but their time limitations force them to have predictable three-act structures. Watch enough movies and you can predict when the protagonist’s routine will break, when their journey will take them past the point of no return, when their alliances will shift, when they’ll be at their lowest point, when their change has lead them to a new goal, and when they’ll rebound at the climax.
Aspiring novelists need to know those beats by heart. Films crush complex storytelling mechanics into tight time frames. The medium doesn’t allow for the freedom to explore the details that literature does. Many argue that movies are just dumbed down versions of books, but for our purposes that’s a good thing, especially when it comes to watching the same ones again and again.
Replaying a film lets us peak behind the screenwriter’s curtain, to see how their tricks are done. We know when to look up their sleeve, to spot their sleight of hand. We catch all those setups that got past us, all those plot threads that seemed so random upon first viewing, all those knots and twists, we can trace them all the way to the payoffs at the end.
Replaying a mystery, we realize how soon the clues started dropping. When we know who the killer is, we scrutinize everything he does. We catch the backhanded confessions that went over our heads the first time we heard them. Knowing a killer’s secret motivations, we can retrace the steps that led them to the end.
Knowing how the story goes, we’ll pay careful attention to when the author chose to reveal information. We’ll understand why they entered some scenes too late for us to know what was happening and left some scenes too early for us to know where the story was going.
We’ll understand why the writer chose to share somethings with us before revealing them to the characters. We’ll be able to apply the same dramatic irony techniques to our own stories. The more of these tricks we’re able to spot the more we’ll have at our disposal.
Double Down on Your Meanings
Dual meanings aren’t just for obvious double entendres like, “If I told you, you had a great rack, would you rub my nose in it?” or cheap puns from villains stringing dynamite around their prisoners, “Once this party bus reaches the capital you’re all going to have a blast.”
Dual meanings can hide under harmless lines only to reveal themselves upon repeat viewings.
Give The Usual Suspects another watch and Kevin Spacey’s statement on Keyser Soze takes on a different tone. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist…and also, I can’t believe how unfamiliar you are with the contents of your bulletin board. Seriously dude, I’ve been reading from it all morning.”
I’m pretty sure that’s how that quote goes.
In Fight Club, Tyler Durden says, “Forget about what you think you know about life, about friendship, and especially about you and me.” Upon first viewing, it seems like Tyler’s sick of Jack being such a clingy friend, but it means something different the second time around.
Double meanings can be far more subtle, to the point they’re accidental. The villain might confide in the hero thinking they have similar goals. They think they’re having the same conversation, that there’s no conflict between them, until a twist reveals the villain’s true intentions. In this scenario there’s no deception, just a misunderstanding. This is the opposite of dramatic irony, where characters know things the audience does not.
Watch the recent Black Mirror: White Christmas special for a particularly nasty example of this device. It’s obvious upon a second viewing.
Double speak is a great tool for foreshadowing, it justifies your twist, while rewarding your audience for paying attention.
Cast a Foreshadow
One device I see in comedies involves a dim witted character predicting the story’s outcome early on. The joke is just how stupid this prediction makes them seem at the time. Of course it turns out, their ridiculous prediction is exactly what happens.
Edgar Wright is notorious for slipping spoilers like these into the beginning of his movies.
This Buzzfeed article points out how Ed’s pep talk at the beginning of Shaun of the Dead foreshadows the entire plot of the film.
In Hot Fuzz, Danny spends the first act asking Angel questions like, “Ever shoot two guns at once while diving through the air?” Angel ends up doing all of these things by the end.
In The World’s End each of the names of the 12 pubs in the pub crawl foreshadow events that will happen there. For instance, ‘The Old Familiar’ has exactly the same interior as ‘The First Post’ and the gang gets into their first brawl at ‘The Cross Hands.”
Foreshadowing has many benefits. When a tonal shift is forecasted early it makes the change less jarring for the audience. By replaying the classics we learn to spot the subtle cues the masters used to do this.
Watch the Crying Game again and the nature of the nightclub will be obvious.
Horror movies with carnage-free setups often lead with chilling stingers. The X-Files used this device at the beginning of every episode. Breaking Bad used flash forwards to give the audience a taste of just how bad things were going to get. Some films flash forward to deceive audiences into thinking the outcome will be far more hopeless than it ultimately is.
Foreshadowing allows you to hang a lantern on your dangling plot threads, to let your audience know you’re going to get back to them.
Screenwriters leave threads to dangle so the heroes will have something to reach for when they’re backed into a corner. In Jaws, there’s a reason Hooper has to explain how combustible scuba tanks are, it’s the same reason Bill mentions Pai Mei’s Five-Point-Palm Exploding-Heart-Technique in Kill Bill, and Egon makes a big deal about crossing the streams in Ghostbusters.
As Anton Checkhov once said, “If there’s an unlicensed nuclear accelerator hanging on the wall in act one. It must go off by act three. Otherwise it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
I’m pretty sure that’s how that quote goes.
In Aliens, when Ripley demonstrates her command of a mech suit in act one, we know she’ll be wearing one when she faces off against the alien queen in act three. The sly screenwriter’s trick was to introduce Ripley’s proficiency with the suit as a way for her to show her value to the team. With her expertise proven, we forget about the suit, but when she straps it back on, we’re not so surprised that our suspension of disbelief is broken.
That’s the trick movies can teach us: how to plant seeds and make our audiences forget we planted them.
If repetition is the mother of all learning, there’s knowledge to be found in repeat viewings. Replaying movies allows us to reverse engineer their design. It gives us plot devices, subtle dialogue cues, and foreshadowing tools that writers can bring with them into other mediums.