Before you read this, you should know I am an incredibly sarcastic person. It will help you make it through my musings and hopefully towards some sense of enlightenment and purpose. See, I can’t even write a disclaimer! Goodness, I do apologize in advance.
Well, anyway, here we go.
I probably watch more television than I should. Actually, probably probably shouldn’t be in that sentence. But despite my current reputation as a couch potato, I have learned a few things in my years of dedicated television viewing. Today we’ll discuss one.
Despite my enjoyment of crime dramas, I find them wholly uninteresting. At least the crime part anyway – and for one very important reason. I always know who the killer is… well, generally. I get more excited at the prospect of yelling my intelligent suppositions to my family than I do of watching the story unravel. Actually that’s not true. I genuinely love stories. I just love yelling as well.
So, with all the authority and arrogance that the internet provides, I will advise you, dear successful Hollywood writers and filmmakers, of your mistakes…and how to fix them.
SCREEN TIME – TOO MUCH FOR SO LITTLE
Screen time directly relates to your importance as a character. If you spend an inordinate amount of time on anyone other than the main characters and the victim, they are a suspect… and usually the perpetrator. Example: Hey, I’m a suspect and you’re interrogating me, but instead of focusing that ridiculously expensive camera on my unfairly gorgeous guest star face, let’s spend a whole 45 seconds watching my assistant react to our conversation.
SCREEN TIME – NOT ENOUGH FOR SOMEONE IMPORTANT
The opposite is also true. If you talk a lot about a character, but never show them on screen, they’re clearly not that important to the story. For example, ABC’s Castle (a good show, in case, for some unknown reason, you value my opinion) I remember watching it a few years ago with my dad. At the time Martha had been dating a man named Chet for quite a while when I turned to my dad and said, “He can’t be that important of a character if he never has any screen time.” A few weeks later, SPOILER, Chet died – without one frame recorded for posterity. So, if you want me to care about a character or a particular storyline that involves characters off-screen, you’re going to have to show me their face. Suspense only lasts so long before it morphs into annoyance.
HELLO MY NAME IS…
Hello, you’re name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my victim. Prepare to confess. (On a completely unrelated note, I think we should all take a moment to appreciate the glory of The Princess Bride. Moment over? Ok.) There is a reason that baby name books clutter the virtual shelves of many a pregnant woman’s iPhone app.
Names are important. There have been countless times I guessed the killer simply because his/her function in the story wasn’t important enough to garner a name…unless they’re the killer. Especially a last name. That’s like screaming, “HEY DETECTIVE OVER HERE!” But they give ‘em one anyway. If a detective is talking to a cab driver (because everyone lives in New York and is wealthy enough to afford pricey car rides) about the victim’s movements before their death, they don’t need a name.
Now, I’ll grant that there are times when giving characters a name actually hides the identity of the bad guy. If only Hollywood knew those times… For example, if a detective is interviewing an entire family but only the ex-step-mother’s name is revealed, it has the same effect as if they spent a whole thirty seconds zooming in to her beautifully-made up face while the family was informed of their relative’s untimely death (i.e. too much screen time, see above).
Repetition. In this case, I shan’t pick on television. I look to the cinemas for my final example. (I sincerely hope you read that in a dramatic, Shakespearean voice. It makes the whole “shan’t” thing so much more enjoyable.) There is a movie I liked (but am about to SPOIL) called Source Code. For those of you who don’t cower in the face of spoilers but have yet to see the film, it follows US Army Aviation pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he is forced to use science fiction technology that allows him to relive eight minutes to save people and a train (let’s be honest, those things are expensive), from a bomb.
And I knew who the bad guy was…not because they gave him a name, and not even because they spent too much time directly focused on him, but because they briefly showed him- this seemingly inconsequential man- forget his wallet. Twice.
Now, I know that may seem overly analytical – actually if you think that, you’re right. But it illustrates a point. If you want the killer to be a surprise, be careful and purposeful in how often you weave them into the story. That’s really what it comes down to – purpose. They need to have one. Otherwise, they’re likely the killer.
So the moral of the story, aside from acknowledging my brilliance (sarcasm), is that if you want to surprise the audience, aim for the unexpected. Don’t point out characters unnecessarily. And most importantly, understand what your audience already knows about the show and honor that knowledge – either through reward or shock.
But either way, keep writing. After all, for a couch potato like me, what would I do without you?