But let’s say you feel the need to drop some information to the audience that they’ll need later, so you have somebody casually mention something important in conversation with the hero, but the hero doesn’t notice or care, even though it should be a big clue. This is a huge identification killer. If your hero passively receives an incomplete piece of important information and doesn’t follow up, then the audience feels betrayed. They say to your hero, “Hey, loser, I’m counting on you to dig up all the information I need to enjoy this story, but you’re not asking the follow-up questions I need you to ask! What good are you?”
Now, of course, you can occasionally have your hero “miss” a piece of key information the audience picks up on, but only if the audience feels the hero has a good reason for missing it, like a big distraction. Even better, drop the information, and then have the hero and audience both get distracted by something else at the same time so they both forget about it. Then, later, when it turns out to be important, they’ll both be kicking themselves at the same time, and they’ll bond even more.
An example of the right way to do it would be when Jake finds the glasses in the pond in Chinatown. The audience and Jake both get distracted at the same time and forget all about them. Later, when they turn out to be the key piece of evidence, we don’t get mad at Jake for forgetting about them; we get mad at ourselves.
It’s an equally big sympathy killer if heroes don’t act on the concrete information they do receive. This can be a problem when you try to build tension by ending every scene on an ominous warning of some kind. Oooh—spooky! But then, in the next scene, the heroes have moved on to another part of their day, and they forget all about the warning until it’s too late, three scenes later. Heroes may take a while to become proactive, but they should always at least be reactive.
When we're watching or reading, we're constantly trying to anticipate what’s going to happen next. If we can tell that the hero is not able, or not even trying, to anticipate a consequence that we can anticipate just by looking over her shoulder, we feel powerless. Why are we putting our trust in these schmucks?
Remember on The X-Files when they would get a big piece of the alien invasion puzzle at the end of an episode, and we’d all be on the edge of our seats, and then next week they were back in some Podunk solving some dinky little monster mystery, as if they’d never gotten that big clue? Remember how infuriating that was?
A more recent example is the hapless Tom Cruise science fiction epic Oblivion. Even though he meets several characters who are more than willing to tell him what’s going on, Cruise remains oblivious to the nature of his situation for most of the movie. He just doesn’t ask for some reason. The audience collapses in impotent frustration, waiting for him to care about his own story.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. Somewhat. He becomes a dedicated student of what they’re trying to teach him.
YES, but not overly-so: only she is unwilling to bring it on board.
NO. Yes about life in general, but only occasionally about her own situation. She refuses to investigate big clues. Why isn’t this more frustrating for the audience? I don’t know.
Yes and no. She never makes much attempt to figure out where the book came from.
YES. Very much so. He fascinated by the scheme that he’s caught up in and investigates eagerly.
YES. Very much so.
The Bourne Identity
YES. very much so.
YES. She wants to find out about Helen, wants to come up with creative solutions to problems.
YES. he’s always asking around as to the secrets of the town.
YES. Very much so. He claims he’s not, and he tries not to be, but in fact he’s so curious that he spends most of the movie investigating without a client.
YES. he’s constantly investigating.
Do the Right Thing
YES. By implication, because he knows everyone in the neighborhood and cares about their business.
YES. Right away, she’s trying to figure out where her Nai Nai really is. She keeps demanding to know why they’re doing this, trying to understand Chinese logic.
YES. he studies his future opponents, etc.
Not really. The conspiracy doesn’t even occur to him until he’s already exposed it.
YES. He keeps spotting things that are off, and asking questions, but can’t put it all together.
YES. He investigates right away.
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. Very much so.
In a Lonely Place
NO. He refuses to pay attention to key facts he needs to hear.
About scientific things, but not enough about his own life until it’s almost too late.
YES. she tries out theater, looks up whatever she can learn about things mentioned by the guys she has crushes on.
YES. Very much so.
Sort of? He doesn’t really solve any mysteries.
YES. both investigate room 237, for instance.
YES. He figures a lot of stuff out.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. Peeks at the Buffalo Bill before she gets the case.
YES. Very much so: wants to hear more about the rebellion, more about his father, see the whole video, etc.
YES. he’s always pushing for more info about Norma.