How much should you withhold from your audience?

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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?

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Posted on May 23, 2016, in Films, Learning, Structure, Uncategorized, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Very interesting post Mark. On the evidence of 8 episodes, would you say Marcella got the balance wrong? I agree, you don’t want to know everything in the first few minutes, but equally, there needs to be closure, or, at least, follow up on some of the plot lines. For me, Marcella left too much, not even unanswered, just disregarded, almost as if the writers themselves lost interest. Of course, this could all be a set up for a second series, but that does have an element of risk in todays ratings based climate – perhaps you could write a screenplay for season 2?

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  2. Thanks Geoff.

    I think Marcella clearly got the balance wrong for a lot of people and, as you say, this is a dangerous game to play. Especially with the generally shorter attention spans of audiences these days and the amount of good quality drama that is being written and produced. You need to win your audience over to keep them viewing into the next season. You need your audience to want answers, to keep the intrigued but, as you say, if you disregard large plot points you have created, you may well lose some (or a lot) of them. If Marcella comes back, it will be interesting to see the viewing figures. I’ll give it a go for season two (I still think it was a good drama) but I suspect a lot of people will be too frustrated that there was so much unanswered and completely disregarded.

    As we’ve discussed, the opening scenes in the bath, with the mud and blood; we know very little more about that than we did at the end of episode 1, and that clearly annoyed a lot of people.

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  3. Thanks for your reply Mark. As a writer, would you set out with a ‘second series’ (or sequel) in mind. Apologies if this is a basic question, I’m just curious as I often find that a second series is developed because of popularity – not because the story demands it. ‘Broadchurch’ for example was one of the best dramas I’ve seen in recent years (and bucks the trend of, in my view, ITV underachieving in its contemporary drama production) but the second series was arguably not needed and clearly did not have the impact of the first.

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    • Hi Geoff – sorry for not replying sooner, but I never saw this comment and the notification only popped up on my dashboard this morning! Ultimately, the answer (for me) would be, “I don’t know.” Which isn’t a complete cop out as it is not something I have really given much thought up until now – although perhaps it should be. A script I am working on at the moment does have a bit of an open end that would allow for a sequel, but the story stands up on its own and the whole thing would not be damaged without it. The existence of a sequel would really depend on the success of the original and the demand for it from the audience. Even something like Star Wars Episode IV, which was clearly written with sequels and prequels already in existence, stands on its own two feet as a story that would still work if no other SW films had been made. I suspect that, if I tried to write a story that was incomplete, with the plan to deliver a sequel, I would find it harder to sell as an unknown writer… possibly – this is just me thinking out loud.

      So, maybe, the thing to do, if you have a mind to writing sequels, is to ensure that your story stands up on its own. There is nothing wrong with planning sequels but, certainly as a new or largely unknown writer, it is probably dangerous to write a story that demands a sequel if you are not sure how well your work will be received. On the other end of the scale, if you are Steven Spielberg, you could probably write a story that ends half-way through and already have the money and demand for the sequel before the ink is dry… probably.

      I guess the other danger with sequels is writing them just because of the popularity of a film/series, which sounds like the problem with Broadchurch. not everything needs a sequel and it is very easy to destroy the integrity of good work by drumming out more and more series/chapters. TV Series like Life on Mars or Fawlty Towers (for me) work so well because they didn’t string them out, despite the obvious popularity. Gene Hunt could have gone on for years (he was a great character) but, if he had, would we still be that impressed with the show? Or would we just be watching it because we started, so we have to finish? Of course, you then have something like the Fast and Furious franchise which proves to be continually popular with every sequel, so who knows! (NB, I’ve never seen a F&F film, so can’t comment on the quality, but he popularity speaks for itself.)

      So where am I going with this? I’m not sure…. other than I guess there is no harm in thinking about sequels when writing – everyone wants their story to be a success and if you can turn that success into more success with sequels, then why wouldn’t you. But, as a new writer, I think we have to be careful not to pin everything on our stories being picked up in that way and concentrate on writing great stories with great characters first and foremost. If you get that right, then everything else will follow…. fingers crossed!

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