Thursday, February 23, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 4: Set Up the Hero Fake-Out

When Officer Hopps and Nick Wilde pull off their impromptu sting operation at the end of Zootopia, they’re not just fooling the villain, they’re also fooling the audience. We’ve been given everything we need to figure it out: We’ve seen that the savage-toxin gun pellets look like blueberries, we’ve seen that they have blueberries on them, we know that they have a recorder, etc, but we, or at least I, still fall for it: It genuinely seems that Mayor Bellwether has turned Nick savage and put Hopps in deadly danger.

In any mystery, there are three different possible relationships between the hero and the audience:
  • The information superior position: We have information that the hero doesn’t have. We know about some danger that they don’t know about yet.
  • The same-information position: We’re on their shoulder, finding out about everything the same time they do, and having the same emotional reaction.
  • The information-inferior position: The hero knows more than we do, and we have to play catch up to figure out what they’re doing.
Usually, mystery writers utilize all three at different times. The first creates suspense. The second fully bonds us to the hero. The third causes us to admire the hero. All three can be useful. Hitchcock would usually use all three in every movie.

Interestingly, Zootopia never uses the first (possibly to keep things from getting too scary or suspenseful for kids.) We spend almost the whole movie in position two. By the time we get to the end, we’re used to fully identifying with Hopps, and we don’t expect her to trick us.

But there’s another reason this works: because of our subconscious understanding of the Chekhov rule: We know that if there’s a gun on the mantle in the first act, it has to go off in the third act. And throughout this movie, they keep discussing the possibility that Nick will eventually go savage. We’re primed to fear/expect that. We would feel disappointed if we never got to see it. It feels like a big payoff. Good writers know how to manipulate our understanding of these rules and the subconscious expectations they create.

It doesn’t take us long to figure out that it’s a scam, which is good. We figure it out as soon as Mayor Bellwether starts confessing all: Suddenly we remember the blueberry, the recorder, etc. We also remember that the movie began with young Hopps pretending to be attacked by a predator, establishing her acting skills. With delight, we realize that Hopps has fooled us, breaking our full identification with her to trick us as surely as she’s tricked the villain.

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