Let’s pretend you’re watching “Star Wars” for the first time…
It’s about this farmer who’s an orphan. You see, his twin sister is the princess of some kingdom. They were separated at birth because their father has decided to become an evil overlord. This is just the first 10 minutes. Your head is spinning from all the twists and turns. You can’t connect to this.
What I’m about to tell you is something that no screenwriting book tells you…
The single biggest mistake novice screenwriters make: they reveal too much in the first act. The basic rule of this maxim is, reveal as LITTLE as possible in the first act. This balance will determine whether or not have you a professional screenplay in the end.
Now, here is how “Star Wars” actually went. A young farmer finds a robot with a message inside it… to rescue the Princess of the galaxy, who is in trouble. And that’s pretty much it. The rest is revealed slowly, having being converted into “The Secret Mystery.”
I discuss this “Secret Mystery” in my book “Cut the Eyeball: The Ultimate Short Book On Writing Short Screenplays.” What is “The Secret Mystery”? It’s in every great film. A mystery that the audience doesn’t know is a mystery. Hence…
THE SECRET MYSTERY
In a mystery movie, you know you’re solving a mystery. But in a non-mystery movie, there is a mystery anyway. Like the identity of Darth Vader. You didn’t know that was a mystery, but when VADER revealed himself to be Luke’s Dad, a guy who was supposed to be dead, its the biggest shock of your life.
The great thing about the revelation is the intensity in which you lambast the audience. They don’t only go, WTF? They experience it like they’re finding out a deep dark secret about themselves. If done well, like in “Chinatown“, “The Godfather, Part II” and “Scarface”, you gut punch your audience and they thank you for it. Because you’ve given them the single greatest reward for watching your story. CATHARSIS.
And here is the BEST PART about THE SECRET MYSTERY… in order to construct a great secret mystery, all you have to do is this…
… take all the extra crap that was weighing down your first act, like Darth Vader being Luke’s father, and you shove it in the third act (in George Lucas’ case, you even shove it in the next movie).
Billy Wilder once said, information is like medicine. Your job as the writer is to make it like candy. The secret mystery is the sweetest version of this candy. At the same time, it is the most crucial medicine your audience must take – they need it for their very survival. It’s the needle they don’t want in their arms. But if you design your “secret mystery” right, they will not only accept that needle, they will beg you to inject it.
I will use the examples of the above three films to illustrate how the three ways you can mainline your audience with this good stuff.
CONVERT INFO INTO A “SECRET MYSTERY”
CHINATOWN – THE TRAUMATIC SECRET MYSTERY
If you knew Faye Dunaway’s daughter was also her sister from the opening, you would be disoriented. You would think, what the hell does this have to do with a movie about water? But you didn’t.
You followed Jack Nicholson into the darkest recess of the human labyrinth (aka, Los Angeles) until the “mother, sister” scene literally knocked you on your ass. And then, you understood, rich people will really do whatever the hell they want, including rape the resources of an entire city… just because they can. Noah Cross did it to his own blood, so what the fuck does Noah care about the citizens of LA?
Screenwriter Robert Towne moved the most crucial information information of his screenplay until the end (with the urging of Roman Polanski). And you never even knew it was a mystery. Faye Dunaway was always perturbed when Nicholson brought up Noah Cross, but what kid isn’t perturbed by their Dad? You did not suspect anything like this (not consciously). And when it hit you, you NEVER FORGOT this scene. EVER. If you watched “Chinatown” you will remember that scene until the day you die. Like it was a revelation about your own life.
Be aware of how TRAUMATIC your idea is. And then look up the definition of traumatic. And realize, shit, that is too much for one audience to take. I better conceal this trauma until I have them in the palm of my hands. If you have the idea of writing a movie about big business constructing Los Angeles by a man who raped his own daughter, that is traumatic. BTW, it might be obvious, but this entire blog is land-mined with SPOILERS.
OTHER TRAUMATIC SECRET MYSTERIES: “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (John Candy is homeless?), “No Way Out” (Kevin Costner is a Russian spy?), “The Sixth Sense” (Bruce Willis is a ghost?).
THE GODFATHER PART II – THE OMINOUS SECRET MYSTERY
A Secret Mystery does not have to be traumatic to work. The mid-level version could simply help kick the third act into gear. It general works best in the “dark night of the soul” section of your screenplay. That’s when your protagonist thinks, he probably can’t win. Like in “Rocky” when Stallone goes to visit the ring the night before. And his shorts are painted the wrong way (red with white stripes instead of white with red stripes). “Rocky” realizes, this isn’t a shot at the title, but a fucking sideshow. Like in “Carrie”, he understands, “they’re all going to laugh at you.” It is ominous. He ran all the way up those steps… and he’s going to be slaughtered and laughed at.
Can you imagine how boring it would be if, in “The Godfather, Part II”, we followed Diane Keaton’s story. Being pregnant with Michael Corleone’s kid. Realizing the mafia life just isn’t for her. Deciding, you know what, I’m getting an abortion. I’m yawning just writing this shit. This is what you would see in a novice screenplay.
But when the famous “it’s an abortion” scene exploded in Al Pacino’s face and his eyes widened like a demon, holy shit, I still remember sitting there, thinking, he’s going to rip Diane Keaton to pieces. That was a horrible omen for Pacino. I never forgot his crazy looking face. Maybe this scene didn’t even need to be in the movie. When you discuss “Godfather, Part II” with someone, this scene is rarely brought up.
But it certainly took this story to the next level. It wrapped the bad omen the protagonist is cursed with. And that’s the purpose it serves. That’s all the ugly things Diane Keaton gets to say. It’s unholy, blah, blah… and its all about Michael Corleone’s life. Who later does what… kill his own brother.
OTHER OMINOUS SECRET MYSTERIES: “A Clockwork Orange” (Malcolm McDowell’s parents have a new son?), “Pulp Fiction” (John Travolta dies… just as Samuel L. Jackson would later predict), “The Crying Game” (must I elaborate on this?).
SCARFACE – THE SPICY SECRET MYSTERY
In Oliver Stone’s amazing screenplay for “Scarface”, the SECRET MYSTERY comes out of nowhere to demolish you. That’s the love affair between Manny and his sister. This 3 hour masterpiece had so much more to cover, can you imagine how boring it would have been if we cut back and forth between this romance that, honestly, no one would give a shit about. Tony Montana is making a huge deal for coke… now, let’s cut to that romance between his best friend and sister. This ain’t no rom-com, show me the coke, bullets and death.
There were only three scenes to set up this Spicy Secret Mystery. When Tony Montana (Pacino again!) freaks out when Manny notices his sister. Later, when Manny drives his sister home (after Tony slapped her for making out with gangster in the bathroom). And during the 80s-style montage when Montana marries Elvira (Manny and the sister gaze at each other). These three scenes are separated at times by an hour or more. While some smart alecky audience members may catch the “traumatic” or “ominous” secret mystery, even the most jaded, analytical moviegoer will have no idea the spicy one is coming.
I don’t call it the “spicy” secret mystery because “Scarface” is about Cubans, by the way (at least the racism wasn’t conscious). Spice is the extra zing you add to your soup or dish that people don’t notice. They eat the dish and go, “what’s that flavor?” But they have no idea why it tastes soooo damn good.
The scene that ends this romance, of course, is when Tony Montana looks for his sister and finds her in a bathrobe in some mansion. She’s there with… yes, Manny. When Al Pacino’s old friend comes down the stairs, Pacino shoots the guy in the stomach, instantly killing him. His sister tells him they just got married yesterday.
This scene arguably didn’t have to be there. Both characters could have been at the mansion for the grande finale at the end. But losing your best friend and sister (after your wife left you) sets up Tony Montana as a man alone, who must fight an army to stay alive. Since his ego has gone into outer space (from the mountains of coke he’s been snorting), this situation descends into the perfect crescendo that no one has forgotten. They may not remember that he killed his best friend, but they feel his rage… building up, building up, building up… until Montana unleashes his “little friend.”
OTHER SPICY SECRET MYSTERIES: “The Breakfast Club” (Ally Sheedy was there because she chose to be?), “Manderlay” (Danny Glover wrote the Mam’s Law book?), “Se7en” (Gwyneth Paltrow’s head is in that box?).
2001: A SPACY ODYSSEY – THE NEVER-ENDING SECRET MYSTERY
I said there were 3, yes, but there are actually 4. One reason why I didn’t say there are 4 is because odd numbers are just sexier (while even numbers are boooring). Another reason is, this is a “you shouldn’t try this at home” secret mystery. But since it is employed (and by the best of them), I am forced against my will to mention it.
Only the giants are good at employing this variation. So again, if you’re starting out, I say, don’t even read this part. Just get out of here and go to the next website. Because, you’re better off not knowing about this one.
What is the monolith in 2001? Is it God? Is it a giant candy bar? Is it a handball court? We are still arguing about this monolith. This is exactly why I don’t suggest employing this one. By the end of the story, you’re still arguing with your friends, loved ones, family about what the hell this piece of the Berlin Wall-looking thing was. And this is the power of movies. That a question can be injected in your mind and you are asking about this thing forever, in your daily life (as if you’re not confused about everything else already).
If you absolutely feel like you must use “The Never Ending Secret Mystery”, here is how you do it. The need to solve this thing cannot make or break your story. Take the suitcase in “Pulp Fiction.” Knowing what’s in it doesn’t define the movie. Take the totem in “Inception.” Knowing if DiCaprio is locked in his dream also doesn’t define the movie. A more domestic example? The Persian film, “A Separation” does not reveal which parent the girl chose. It’s that thing you want your audience to still be debating long after the movie is over. While I don’t want to tempt you to use this one, I have to say, it is the most powerful of the Secret Mysteries.
Why? Because it bleeds into your life. Into conversations. Into arguments. Into divorce? Fist fights? Who knows. It’s the most dangerous one of them. It’s a Pandora’s Box. I’ve written over 50 screenplays and have never used this one. But what is the reason why stories exist? To stir debate. To stir your mind. Your soul or whatever.
WARNING: One thing many of these movies have in common is that they were all made by either auteurs or micro-budget filmmakers, i.e. people who could do whatever the fuck they wanted. I don’t know if I’ve seen a spec screenplay employing the “Never Ending Secret Mystery.” So, if you’re writing a spec, be careful where you tread.
OTHER NEVER ENDING SECRET MYSTERIES: “JFK” (so, who killed the Prez?), “The Blair Witch Project” (what witch?), “Citizen Kane” (Rosebud? Okay)
There you have it. Three ways (don’t do the 4th please) you can convert all that excess crap that’s weighing down your first act like an overweight clown on a trampoline. Put that first act on a diet. By creating some bowel movement… all the way into your third act. You want that first act lean and mean, because a lot of times, that’s ALL THEY READ.
Written by: Norith Soth