Podcast

Sunday, February 19, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 1: Work Backwards from the Climax

So I’ve wanted to talk about plotting for a while but I was waiting for a perfectly plotted movie to come along, and lo here it is. Perfect plots move heaven and earth without leaving a trace. It takes a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears to get every element in exactly the right spot, but if you’ve done it well, then it all seems to fall out that way naturally.

Let’s look at the climactic scene in Zootopia. If you haven’t seen the movie, then stop right now, because I’m about to spoil everything, but even if you have seen it, you could probably use a refresher:
  • Officer Hopps and conman Nick Wilde have discovered what is making predators go savage: blue balls of rage toxin shot out of a gun. They’re taking the gun back to the police as evidence when they unexpectedly run into Mayor Bellweather as they go through a natural history museum. She asks for the gun, but wonder how she knew they would be there and run for cover. She ends up with the gun and shoots Nick, who seems to turn savage and attack Hopps. Bellweather brags about her plan as Nick attacks Hopps, but then they reveal that Nick was just acting: they had replaced the toxin pellet with a blueberry, and Hopps hand recorded Bellweather on her recorder pen. Bellweather is arrested.
So let’s talk about what was necessary to make this scene work.
  • First of all, the movie needs to set up the villain fake-out, where we realized that the villain has been right there in front of us the whole time.
  • Next, Hopps and Nick had to have three items on them: The gun, a blueberry, and a sound recorder.
  • Finally, the movie needs to set up the hero fake-out. The heroes pull off a fake-out on the end not just on the villain, but also on the audience, and that has to be set up as well.
So we’ll look how these things are set up over the next few days. Before we begin, however, I thought that we’d take a look at the one thing that they don’t really set up: How Mayor Bellweather knew to find them in the Natural History Museum. It kind of makes sense: They were driving the train car full of evidence to the police station when it crashed, but then they get out and Hopps says:
We heard the toxin-cooks warn the bad guy that Hopps had taken the train, and we know that the mayor is good at using the traffic cams to track people through the city, so she might have tracked the train, seen it crash, figured out that they would have to cut through the Natural History Museum to get to the ZPD, and gone to confront them. I guess it kind of makes sense.

Hitchcock talked about “elevator moments”: moments in mysteries that didn’t really make sense, but you don’t realize that until later. This is a variation: the moment that does kind of make sense, but you can’t figure out how until later.

The point is, you can’t get away with it. As we’ll see, you have to set up a lot of stuff, and there’s just not time to set up stuff like how the mayor tracked them down to that spot.  Sometimes you just have to hope the audience goes along with it. You have to know which things the audience needs to know and which things on which they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

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