Mystery vs. confusion

I’ve been reading/making notes on a lot of scripts recently; both for Persona and for other projects and it seems to me there’s a fine line between Mystery and Confusion; and I was wondering, why does one tip into the other?

Mystery is good:

Who is the villain? Why did the hero do that? Who is he talking to? Did he do that or didn’t he?

These are all good questions; and questions are what make a film or TV show interesting. If the audience is asking questions, then they’re engaged …

Up to a point.

Too many questions and they just shut off. Look at those questions again and instead of imagining yourself asking them in an interested, curious voice; imagine you’re frustrated and confused:

Who is the villain? Why did the hero do that? Who is he talking to? Did he do that or didn’t he? Seriously, what the fuck is going on?

Click. TV off.

So is it just sheer volume of questions? Or are there certain questions you absolutely should know the answers to? I think there are some essential questions you need to answer in order to hook a viewer in the first place:

  • Whose story is it?
  • What kind of story is this?
  • What does the hero want?
  • Why does he want it?
  • What’s stopping him getting it?
  • Something else I can’t think of right now, because I’m tired.

To clarify those:

  • Whose story is it?

I’ve seen films where 30 minutes in I’ve no idea if we’ve met the person whose story it is yet. I’m not saying you can’t have your hero introduced late (Star Wars) or have an ensemble cast; but at least give me some clue as to whether these are people I should care about or if they’re random extras who are going to be killed any second so the hero can turn up and investigate.

  • What kind of story is this?

Is it a horror, a crime thriller, comedy, some kind of hybrid of all three?

You can mix genres, you can slide in a bit of subtle sci-fi or show a twist in the last few minutes which lets you know you’ve been watching a horror, not the drama you think you were watching for an hour and a half (good luck marketing that one, by the way); but at least let the viewer get a handle on something, even if you subvert it later. Again, I’ve seen films/read scripts where I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a comedy or just so unutterably bad it was comical (sometimes those are the best films!). What the hell is this? What am I watching?

  • What does the hero want?

Simple – does he/she have a goal beyond reacting? Knowing what someone wants helps you identify with them – you don’t have to like them, you just have to understand what they want and …

  • Why does he want it?

Because then you know why he’s doing things and can hope he gets it/hope he fails. Now you’re invested in the story. Again, I think you can keep this secret for a while, but if you don’t chuck in a fake goal or create a false assumption … it’s just a guy doing random shit for no good reason.

  • What’s stopping him getting it?

Why can’t he just walk over and pick it up? If the hero’s main goal is to pick up a piece of paper which is right in front of him … why can’t he get it? Ooh, mystery … oh wait, he’s just wandered off to a different room for no reason and complained about not being able to pick up a piece of paper. Why the fuck not?

  • Something else I can’t think of right now, because I’m tired.

I was making hats last night. I’m tired and my fingers are full of pin pricks.

I guess all of these things (bar the hat one) can be broken, they’re not all essential to answer immediately; but in most cases they do need to be answered fairly quickly. I think you’ve got a grace period of five, maybe ten minutes to confuse people before they start getting bored.

Every new film is a mystery for the first five to ten minutes – even if it’s a sequel you still need to know if the rules are the same or if the players have changed … but if you don’t start giving people a bit of information, they just get confused (and/or bored) and stop caring.

Perhaps confusion is just mystery which has gone on too long? Maybe it’s okay to be asking all those questions at the beginning of a film but not okay to still be asking all of them halfway through?

Yes, you can preserve a mystery for the duration of a film or TV show or sometimes even a series; but maybe mystery only works if you’ve got something to anchor it on?

I know I get annoyed if something is kept mysterious for seasons at a time. I begin to suspect the storyteller doesn’t actually know the answer and is not being mysterious, but merely fucking annoying – like someone who won’t let you in on a secret, sooner or later you just stop prying and smash their stupid smug face in.

But that’s not really crossing the mystery/confusion border, that’s a different thing.

I think the point I’m making is mystery works best for me when it’s over the short term or confined to a limited number of areas; and at its worst when I have no fucking idea how any image on screen is connected to any other image, word or character.

To paraphrase that great philosopher, Lion-o:

“Ha, ha, ha! Mystery can be a good thing, but sometimes too much mystery just really fucks you off.”

And just because this makes me giggle:

Categories: Things I've Learnt Recently | 12 Comments

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12 thoughts on “Mystery vs. confusion

  1. H

    As Jimmy McGovern said, “I’d rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds”

    I guess the trick is to make it clear that you have done it for a reason and not just screwed up. I remember the fuss when Joss Whedon suddenly gave Buffy a sister, and didn’t even start to explain it for three or four episodes. Some fans seriously thought it was just a retcon and they were just supposed to accept it, like Chuck on Happy Days going upstairs in season one and never being seen or mentioned ever again. Or Benny on Crossroads who climbed a latter to fix some lights and never came down.
    I would like to the TV Tropes page on this, but that site sucks you in and you read and read and then look up and find your wife and children have left you. Several weeks ago….

    • Yeah, I try to avoid TV Tropes unless I’ve got a week or two to spare.

      Personally, I’d rather be engaged in a mystery than confused for ten minutes or bored for five seconds – but I suspect Jimmy McGovern and I are using different definitions of confused. From my point of view, confusion is the no man’s land between ‘engaging mystery’ and ‘bored’ and should be avoided where possible.

  2. Something that has been in my thoughts recently, too. (Mystery vs. confusion, not the Thundercats.)

    I think the key difference is that with both you are in a state of not knowing, but with mystery you have some sense of what it is you don’t know, whereas with confusion all you know is that you don’t know but you have little idea of what it is you don’t know.

    That’s one of the reasons why the first season of The Killing was so superior to the second.

    Season 1: Mystery: Who killed Nanna Birk Larsen?

    Season 2: Confusion: Wtf is going on and why should I care?

    I’m working on a political thriller and making sure the audience has just enough information so that they know what it is they are supposed to be puzzled by is one of the trickiest things to pull off.

  3. Nice link, and that article has a very nice link to the “Johari Window”, which I’ve never heard of but looks interesting for character development.


    • Every job I’ve ever had (except this one) has used the Johari Window as a training tool.

      I wonder if there’s a usage if you replace ‘self’ with ‘character’ and ‘others’ with ‘audience’?

  4. Mystery is great. Confusion is baaaaaaaaad. Why? ‘Cos if you have to do it enough times, being confused is dull as fuck. I read so many confusing scripts that rather than make me go “ooooooooh interesting” I go, “Oh yawn. Again???”

    As with anything, it’s about context. Commissioned TV can get away with a certain amount of confusion – the series may have been on a while and certain showrunners gain such a loyal fanbase the viewers would sooner hook their genitals up to an electric fence than imagine they could have been wasting their time for X amount of hours.

    Specs, particularly features, are completely different. You can’t just stick *whatever* in and get away with it. Spec scripts are like extended job interviews – you have to been seen to “know” what you’re doing, else you won’t get to the next stage (whatever that is).

    Good mystery, I think, is down to well thought out exposition/plot construction.

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