Thursday, June 7, 2012

So that was......suspenseful

sus`pense [suh-spens]
a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.

Hollywood is very good at the dictionary definition of suspense.  They figure all they have to do is withhold information, and by definition, they have created suspense for their audience.

But suspense is much more complicated than that.  In fact, I feel like good suspense is difficult, even though it seems like building suspense in a novel or a movie should be one of the simpler things to accomplish.

Let's take the movie Snow White and the Huntsman.  (Note, when I go to the movies, I tend to see the film in the eyes of a critic.  So, if you liked this movie, please take no offense.)  While the movie was entertaining, it failed to be suspenseful for me.  Why?

No character development.  In order for us as the audience to care about the "awaiting decision or outcome", we must care about who is going to be the recipients of such an outcome.

When Kirsten Steward is running around in the Dark Forest, we have a hard time conjuring up deep concern for her.  Yes, her mother died, her father was murdered, and she was locked in a castle for half of her life.  But that doesn't create genuine sympathy for the character.  What does?  Back story.  Understanding who she is and what drives her.  If we understand her goals, then we have something to root for.

Why should I worry about the nameless Huntsman when, not only does he not have a name, but we also don't understand why he cares about the Princess or why he's decided to ultimately fight for her in the first place.  After she takes a bite of the poison apple, he stands there emotionally yelling at the dwarfs in his grief, and the audience has nothing to understand why he cares for her.  Last emotion he expressed about her was that she was a liability to him.  Even though he spills out his heart to her before he kisses her (a little late, thank you very much), the information is not there early enough (or shown rather than told) to earn anything.

William, the duke's son, is obviously passionate enough about Snow White to disobey his father, ally with the evil queen's brother, and risk his life to kiss her after he presumes her dead.  But what do we know about their relationship?  Nothing.  All we know is that they grew up together and he playfully stole an apple from her once as a child.

Because we do not care for the characters, do we care if they live or die?  Maybe a little.  They are people, and most people don't like seeing people die.  But in the world of theatrics, a fictional death doesn't mean anything, really.  As a storyteller, whether on screen or written, one must develop character first before the suspense can mean anything.