Storytelling Strategies: The Puzzle in Silver Linings Playbook

How David O. Russell reels in the audience.

For almost everyone, the experience of following a recipe is markedly different from following a story. A well-told story is an enthralling experience, consumed from beginning to end without interruption, and fully comprehensible after one hearing/viewing.

silver-linings-playbook-posterFollowing a recipe, on the other hand, will likely result in repeated trips between the pantry and the instructions. It’s virtually impossible for us to read the recipe once through and then absorb it all.

These two divergent experiences speak to how the human perception process takes in information, and explains the strategies for exposition — conveying background information — that dramatists have adopted over the years.

Simply put: the human perception process is an active one, in which the brain takes in cues and constructs from them a coherent picture — “constructivist” psychology. We are thus more receptive to information when it is provided for us as a puzzle, with pieces missing, challenging us to fill in the blanks. A simple straight-forward list of information has trouble getting in, but fragments that challenge us are more likely to.

Conveying background information is a crucial storytelling task; how various films go about it is instructive.

The Information Dump

This approach goes against the grain of human perception, is rarely used, and probably unwise for an unknown writer doing a spec script.

A successful example is the the opening screen crawl in the original Star Wars (1977). Here, before we witness any action at all, we are given a ninety-second history lesson of the rebellion and the Evil Empire and the DEATH STAR.

It works because it is more a bit of cinematic panache than real exposition, an evocation of sci-fi serials of the 1930s such as Flash Gordon (whose screen crawls were in fact recapitulations, not new information). The screen crawl thus helps set the tone of Star Wars.

Further, at ninety seconds, it’s not long enough to wear the audience out, and not so complicated that we can’t glean a few scraps of information needed to understand what follows immediately — a chase, a battle, a search for secret plans — although these become evident very quickly through the action alone.

But when the Death Star is finally shown, it’s unlikely the viewer will recall its brief mention thirty-seven minutes earlier — too much exciting, compelling action has transpired since then.

A less successful example of the information dump approach can be seen in the opening of The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), in which the audience is treated to a seven minute history lesson of Middle Earth, during which we are informed about magic rings, who made them, who got them, an ancient battle, a character named Sauron, another named Ilsidore, another named Gollum.

It’s a visually stunning opening but the information it contains is unnecessary for understanding the story that subsequently unfolds; after all, the power of the ring could be played initially for mystery, until the scene in which Gandalf figures it out and explains it to Frodo. The information is also unlikely to be retained by people unfamiliar with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and redundant for those who already know it.

It’s worth noting that the original author, J.R.R. Tolkein, did not find it necessary to lay out all this information before beginning his fictional work, trusting his storytelling skills to deliver the information as needed later.

These films were ultimately successful, but if you try using the information dump approach as an unknown writing a spec script, you run the risk of having the reader tune out from the get-go.

The Exposition Game

In contrast to these, the opening of Toy Story (1995) features a puzzle — posed by Woody’s worrisome opening line — “The birthday party is today?” The birthday party’s occurrence is presented not as information, but rather, a problem — and we’re not told what the problem is.

There follow about four minutes of dialogue exchanges that suggest increasingly that trouble lies ahead. It is only after we’ve been thus teased that the solution to the puzzle is finally revealed — the fear the toys have of being replaced by new ones on the occasion of Andy’s birthday.

This information could have been conveyed in a screen crawl or title or monologue at the outset of the picture, but it’s far more effectively imprinted on the viewer’s mind when delivered with intriguing gaps. The viewer is, in effect, held in suspense about the answer to the mystery of Woody’s distress — hooked on the action with the expectation of a reward, willing to wait while actively piecing the clues together.

Which brings us to Silver Linings Playbook (written and directed by David O. Russell), which enthralls the audience with a thirteen-minute puzzle. The film begins with a title identifying the location – a psychiatric facility in Baltimore — accompanied by a disembodied voice talking about the ritual of Sundays, after which we discover the main character Pat, shown at first only from behind, reciting a monologue.

It’s an odd, puzzling opening that raises many questions.

We are soon given visual clues about his life in his small room and at the institution, followed by the arrival of his mother to release him; she subsequently reveals doubts about whether doing so was a mistake, and how she’s taking a huge risk. We are not told why Pat was committed, nor what his psychological/emotional problem is, nor what this risk entails.

An awkward homecoming follows, in which references are made to Pat’s wife Nikki, her apparent abandonment of him, and more conversation about the courts, doctors, a sentence, and his psychological condition. These provide further clues but no clear answers.

After this, Pat has a bipolar episode in which he rants at four in the morning to his parents about Ernest Hemingway, followed by another episode at his psychiatrist’s office in which he explodes upon hearing a song on the speaker system.

It is only here, thirteen minutes into the picture, that we get the answer to the questions posed in the opening – Pat telling his psychiatrist about the incident that landed him in the psychiatric facility, conveyed through a flashback.

The film could of course have begun with the flashback — and a voice over narration explaining the circumstances and facts surrounding Pat’s institutionalization. But such an approach would have sacrificed the intrigue and suspense surrounding the mystery, with no perceptible gain — the film is fully comprehensible to that point without the information — and may actually be less comprehensible if the audience is expected to remember information presented in a straight-forward, factual way at the outset.

It’s noteworthy that in Matthew Quick’s novel, the issue of Pat’s crime was played for mystery throughout, and not revealed till the last chapter.

Ultimately, the best “recipe” for delivering information at the outset of a script is to present a puzzle and delay the solution. As novelist Lee Child said with respect to creating suspense: instead of asking how to bake a cake, it’s better to ask, how do you make your family hungry? The answer: make them wait four hours for dinner.

Seduce the audience/reader with a puzzle and you will tap into a very basic human characteristic — a propensity to rise to the challenge of solving them.

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