What's the secret to writing a great mystery screenplay? Blade Runner 2049 and Murder on the Orient Express writer Michael Green clues us in with some great tips...
Mystery movies are getting a quiet resurgence in Hollywood. They are slowly becoming a reliable genre that can lure in audiences looking for something other than the typical blockbusters. Movies like Gone Girl and Murder on the Orient Express have made considerable money at the box office and have also proven to be critical successes as well.
Even studio-sized science fiction with an arthouse sensibility, like Blade Runner 2049, have used the mystery genre to propel their stories forward. One of the writers of some of these films, Michael Green, recently sat down with Vulture to discuss the secrets to this genre.
One of the biggest challenges facing writers today is presenting a story that feels unpredictable. Technology, viewership, and modern society have poked plotholes in lots of our beloved tropes. I mean, just finding a way that cell phones won't ruin things is really the hurdle.
But guess what? Professional writers feel the same way.
Michael Green shared with Vulture:
“Audiences today are both eager and more capable of processing much more complex stories...Y our average viewer — any viewer who approaches a mystery, be it an hour-long TV procedural or a film that’s taken many people many years to concoct — they will look at it and automatically, subconsciously, be able to see the decision tree of where the story can go. When viewers have conservatively consumed 20,000 hours of mystery over the course of their lives, there’s a proportion of the audience that will just be able to guess certain outcomes.”
So, then the question becomes: How to do we continue to write compelling stories?
Don't surprise me
Green finishes the above quote with this little nugget:
“So the onus falls off of surprise, I don’t believe there is the possibility of surprise.”
Let's go back to the previous quote. We know that the audience is as smart as they have ever been. So rather than try to dupe them over and over, why not focus on what makes movies and television so great?
What is exceptional about the movies Green has worked on, like Blade Runner 2049, Logan, and Murder, is that they all draw audiences in with the characters that populate the mystery -- and the emotional stakes they face being in it.
By creating character-driven stories, we get absorbed into that world no matter what. The reveal and surprise comes secondary to our personal connection to the film. And thus, it deemphasizes the surprise.
It also shields the surprise from scrutiny so when it pops it might actually catch the audience off guard.
What else poses a problem in mystery movies?
As you can imagine, the other hurdle of writing mystery films can be all the exposition.
There are so many details you gave to get across. But Green has some advice for that:
“In [adapting a] mystery, you inherit a certain number of data points that you have to find the ideal places to deploy — to make them interesting, to make them memorable. And you have to find ways of making the audience accept it without making them feel vegetal... In a typical Agatha Christie book, it seems like there are 3,600 data points to support her story. The hardest job I had on Murder on the Orient Express was finding out how to incorporate what I thought were the essential data points. And then finding out in subsequent drafts and in the editing room, how wrong I was about what was actually essential. We didn’t need as much as I thought.”
We have a whole post on how to write exposition.
But the main point to glean from Green is that you probably need less than you think.
We know audiences are savvy. Try giving them less and less and see what happens. One trick I employ is send out a few versions to friends. See how they fair with pieces that are truly cut down. Then I mesh them for what I send to my manager.
Audiences are smart. Professionals understand that and use it to their advantage.
Now you can, too.
What's next? Learn all about genre!
Film and TV genres affect who watches your work, how it's classified, and even how it's reviewed. So how do you decide what you're writing? And which genres to mash-up? The secret is in the tropes.
Click to learn more!