Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 3: Quietly Give Your Heroes the Objects They Need

In the end, the heroes of Zootopia triumph by setting up a complicated sting on the villains, but they set it up on the spur of the moment, when they suddenly realize they have all the tools they need on them. Specifically, they need:
  • The key piece of evidence: A gun that shoots a blue toxin-pellet at animals that make them go savage.
  • A blueberry that will take the place of the toxin-pellet.
  • A voice recorder. 
In order for this to work without the audience simply rolling our eyes, the movie needed to quietly and logically get all of these objects into their hands, one by one. How do they do that?
  • Obviously, the gun is the whole reason they’re all there. At first, they had a whole train car full of evidence, but that blew up, giving them one last piece of evidence, the gun, which still has a pellet in it. They’re on their way to deliver it to the police station, and Mayor Bellwether has come to intercept it.
  • Amazingly, they just happen to have a blueberry on them. When Officer Hopps quit the force, she was working on her family farm when she realized what the toxin was. She suddenly hopped in the family’s truck and took off immediately, accidentally bringing along what they were selling, including a carton of blueberries. Later, Nick (who has always made fun of her for being a farmer) mockingly eats the blueberries while they drive. Finally, in the finale, she gets injured and he takes out his handkerchief to bind her wound, only to discover that he was using it to hold blueberries.
  • Finally, it’s established early on that Hopps always has a voice-recorder-pen on her. This has already been a plot point three times, and none of those times feels like a set up for later. Each feels like a self-sufficient scene with its own pay-off.
When these objects are being established, at no point do we say, “Why are they mentioning this? Are they just setting us up for something later?” When Nick snacks on the blueberries, it ties into his overall mockery of Hopps for being a farmer, so it feels like a pay-off for something that happened earlier, rather than a set-up for something in the future. Likewise, the use of the tape recorder has already paid off twice, and even been used as a verbal callback, so we’re not left wondering why they would mention it in advance or why she would have it on her at the end.

In retrospect, all of these objects were set up so that they would be in place at the end, but they were all set up subtly, without calling attention to themselves. Hitchcock was called a “director of objects”: This is because objects are so essential to thrillers and mysteries. A huge part of the creator’s job is to get all the right objects in the right places at the right time, without calling attention to it.

Finally, tomorrow, we’ll look at how they set us up to be fooled by the heroes.

1 comment:

Harvey Jerkwater said...

My memory is a bit hazy -- the days of binge-watching Pixar have faded as my girls age -- but I think the ending of Up was similarly well structured. Carl's cane became a tool of action; the tennis balls on its feet that had been used for a gag earlier became vital; other stuff that I'm blanking out on right now.

There's something so damn satisfying about those pieces snapping into place when they've been set up well. Zootopia set it all up so well you didn't even know you were being set up until it was over. (It's called a hustle, sweetie.)