“Don’t Withhold; Reveal, and Complicate”

A writer I work with as a consultant recently shared a phrase with me that came from her friend Craig Hammill (thanks, Craig!), which perfectly encapsulates a point that I often make with writers: “Don’t withhold; reveal, and complicate.”

What that means is this: withholding information — especially information about your main character and what they think, feel, want, plan, and are trying to achieve — tends to distance readers and audiences from your material, rather than drawing them in.

It’s a very common issue I come across in scripts, especially ones that are saving some sort of big reveal or twist for late in the movie.

The problem with this is that when readers don’t really understand what’s driving your main character, they have a very hard time connecting with them, or engaging with your story — and they will tend to read from a detached distance (which you don’t want!), rather than as an emotionally engaged participant in what is going on (which you do want!).

As I said in another post about the importance of a subjective main character point-of-view in screenplays, perhaps the most important task for all writers is to first make the audience care — and “whether I care” is the main thing I am noticing as I read a script (just as we all are doing when we watch a movie).

Or you could say more specifically that we’re asking (often subconsciously), “Am I emotionally engaging with this character, invested in their problem and goal, entertained by the process of them pursuing it, and wanting to see how it turns out?”

I believe that for us to achieve this primary, essential goal — and to sustain that caring throughout a story — we need to go much further than writers often do to make their main character’s thoughts, feelings, desires, plans and scene-by-scene motivations crystal clear at all times.

I sometimes teach a workshop on “What makes a good scene”, where I read excerpts from the screenplays for three very successful movies: (1) the scene in The Godfather where Michael prepares to shoot Solozzo; (2) the scene in Pretty Woman where Vivian is called into the hotel manager’s office; (3) and the scene in Jerry Maguire where Jerry tries to get Rod Tidwell to “help me help you.”  What is strikingly evident in the writing of each of these three scenes is how much they focus on the emotions of the main character, as they deal with a very clear problem, and try to achieve a very clear goal. One can’t help but get drawn into what they’re going through.

This, I believe, is what screenwriters want to do with virtually every scene. We want to reveal information about our main characters (including emotions, desires and intentions), and then complicate their situation through the conflicts they run into as they try to pursue those intentions. When we withhold, instead, we leave the audience guessing as to what’s really going on.

I understand why writers sometimes do this. We have all seen great movies with shocking twists at the end that seem to memorably and climactically “make” the story. Perhaps the best example of this is The Sixth Sense.

But here’s the catch: Throughout that movie, the audience knows everything they need to know about Bruce Willis’ character, to be able to emotionally engage in his efforts to try  to help Haley Joel Osment. You understand Willis’ motivations and emotions from scene to scene, and you want him to succeed. The story is an ongoing process of revelations and complications, where viewers are understanding what the main character wants, and are with him emotionally as he tries to achieve it.

The twist that happens at the end only adds an additional dimension to the story. It doesn’t change or betray everything we’ve been invested in up until that time. It isn’t even required for the story to work. It only takes it to another level.

I believe this is true, in general, of such twists. The audience has been absolutely engaged in the problems of the story as they reveal and complicate, and they have been sharing the perspective, motivation and emotions of the character who is at the center of it all — with a big problem they’re trying to solve (including, for instance, Chazz Palminteri in The Usual Suspects and Richard Gere in Primal Fear — two other “big twist” movies).

What I’ve noticed with some screenplays that are going for big reveals like this is that they fail to engage readers prior to the twist because, in order to make the twist work, they have to withhold so much information about the main character and their overall story problem, that there’s not enough to grab onto emotionally — not enough that the audience is interested and invested in, and wanting to see resolved.

In my view, it’s not worth it!  Big reveals should be in service to a story that is already working without them — not the one thing that will hopefully make a story work when they finally come out. Getting readers’ emotional investment in a story problem is the name of the game, in my opinion — and giving them the information they need to build and maintain that investment should come first.

5 thoughts on ““Don’t Withhold; Reveal, and Complicate”

  1. Erik BorkErik Bork

    I think NO WAY OUT is another example of a movie which absolutely works without the twist, and you really wouldn’t miss it if it weren’t there – you understand what’s going on with Costner’s character from beginning to end, and are completely rooting for him. That’s really the issue, I think – if you’re leaving some information out, is the audience still able to understand and completely invest in what the main character is trying to do?

  2. Mark

    A very well put point Erik. I teach at a film school in Toronto and this comes up time and time again. Young writers are afraid of being boring so they want to shock the audience with a big twist. This always leads to a very dull and confusing setup.

    I remember seeing ‘The Sixth Sense’ and being surprised by the ending but I also recognized that even without that ending, that film still worked. It just added another layer of understanding for the audience that the experience they were having was not what they thought. Surprising yet inevitable.

  3. Nate

    This is an interesting piece. I think it goes both ways. Writers need to slowly reveal information leading up to the big twist, but you should only reveal enough bait to keep the audience on the hook. For example, in the film “Moon” the twist was tipped off far, far too early. In my view, this was the difference between “Moon” being a good film and a great film.

    I was trained to “make ’em laugh and make ’em cry, but make them WAIT.”

  4. Rahn Sargeant

    How about Roger Donaldsons’ “No Way Out” with Kevin Costner? Quite simply I ran with Lt.Cmdr. Tom Farrell from one dilemma to the next. When the twist was revealed with his timid building landlord/manager coming out from behind the two way mirror speaking Russian and Tom answering back in Russian revealing that he in fact is KGB sleeper agent “Yuri”, I said “Wow did’nt expect that!”. The draw back of my being a writer is knowing how things are going to roll out by the end out the first scene. Predictability is understandable and difficult to avoid because we all have been infected with it in our writer subconscience from watching, reading and remembering everything we see and hear. Avoiding it is a skill that should be respected and listened to when trying to engage your audience. “I’ll see you in the movies” – Rahn

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