How much should you withhold from your audience?
For a last couple of months I have been enjoying the ITV Series Marcella starring Anna Friel and written by Hans Rosenfeldt, Marston Bloom, Mark Greig and Ben Harris. Hailed as a “Scandi-esque” drama, it promised an intriguing look into the world of tortured soul Marcella, returning to work as a detective after having some sort of break down relating to the loss of a child. She also suffers from blackouts during which she struggles to remember her actions.
So far so good.
The series finished this week after 8 episodes and while, on the whole, it was a well made (if sometimes confusing) drama, the season finale left the internet in uproar over the amount of unanswered questions in an obviously sequel-baiting ending. I am not one to get too upset when I don’t have everything explained to me; my favourite film is 2001, for Heaven’s sake and I am a big fan of Lost! However, what Lost did do for its audience (or at least for me, YMMV), is provide all the clues for its audience to piece together the jigsaw. Although the answers in Lost were not all neatly spelled out by the end of the finale, I believe there was enough information in there to help you piece together answers to any remaining question you might have.
Marcella didn’t quite do that for me and left me feeling a little flat. The internet (on the whole) seemed to be feeling entirely cheated.
Characters were introduced, did important stuff, and then disappeared. Mysteries were posed early on in the season and we never even came close to an answer. I am sure that, if Marcella makes it to a second season, we will get some answers to these questions, but I can understand why people would be angry and threatening not to continue watching if it does. (I’m ready to give it a go!)
For example, the series started with Marcella in a bath, confused and covered in blood and mud. That raised a big question that the audience were really going to want answered by the end of the series. We get a hint of how it may have come to pass, but there is nothing to tell us why it happened and what caused it. The first, and biggest, mystery of the series is left unanswered.
This got me thinking about how much we should tell our audiences to keep them interested in our stories and what we should disclose? Of course this will all depend on the story you are trying to tell. Different approaches give us a different take on withholding information. On one extreme you might have Lost, which did its best to keep us in the dark on as much as it could and, on the other, an episode of Columbo, for example, where we know who the killer is before the detective has even got out of bed. However, Lost, for me, was as much about the characters as it was the Island and information about the characters was drip fed to us from episode to episode, season to season, so we were having questions answered, even if we didn’t realise it. Even if we do know who the killer is, there is still mystery in each episode of Columbo because we don’t necessarily know why or exactly how, and we enjoy finding out at the same time as Columbo. In both cases there is a balance of knowledge and ignorance; enough knowledge to keep us happy but enough ignorance to keep us intrigued and to continue watching.
There needs to be a balance.
Judging by the reaction on the internet (which is probably a bad thing to do) I think a lot of people would have stopped watching Marcella if it had gone on for a few more episodes, because the ignorance as to what was going on was overpowering the knowledge we were being given; there were not enough answers to keep everyone happy. Mystery is really important in a story, we don’t want to know exactly who, how, why, where, when and what within the first few minutes of a film, but we do want answers and a skillful writer will manage the way key information is revealed throughout their story to keep the audience happy, but also intrigued. Drip feed me, but don’t keep me completely in the dark.
J.J. Abrams talks about the joy of mystery in this TED Talk from a few years back and discusses his Mystery Box and the intrigue generated by not knowing what is inside. One example he uses is Star Wars and how the plot involves numerous Mystery Boxes throughout the story, posing a question to the audience, which gets answered, but also replaced by another mystery box – a constant process of question and answer that keeps the audience hooked.
This is something I am consciously trying to take into account more when writing; thinking carefully about how I feed information to my audience and, perhaps more crucially, when I feed it to them. Get the balance right, give them enough to keep them invested in the story, but don’t leave them bored ten minutes in, with nothing to keep them guessing what might be in your Mystery Box. If we can do this, then I suspect we will more easily be able to hook our audience and keep them dangling on the line until the bitter (or happy) end even if we don’t answer all their questions.
How do you decide what to withhold and when to reveal?
Posted on May 23, 2016, in Films, Learning, Structure, Uncategorized, Writing and tagged intrigue, jj abrams, mystery, mystery box, question, withholding information. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.