These days, seeing a film unspoiled is, for me, enough of an event to be worth commenting on. And when I say ‘unspoiled’, I’m not just talking about being surprised by the final scene or the big twist. I mean the experience of travelling through a story without knowing what the journey will be like. Spoiler warnings in film coverage are now par for the course: but then again, so is the practise of film trailers revealing every single last story beat. Even when a publicity campaign isn’t outlining every turn of the plot, it’s selling us ‘a preview of the feeling we will enjoy’, removing any uncertainty about the emotional experience we’re buying.
Predictability isn’t just a consequence of too-revealing trailers or posters. It’s built into the model: studio films tend to be wildly expensive, need to be marketable across varied parts of the world, and often need to sustain sequels and spinoffs. As the current wisdom would have it, these factors mean there’s not much room for colouring outside the lines. Hence, a slew of films based on already-familiar properties in which we can be assured that any surprises will be skin-deep. Our heroes won’t change; at least, not so much as to preclude further, similar adventures. They won’t die; at least, not permanently.
This sense of underlying sameness bothers me far more than conventional spoilers. I’m not ultimately that interested in how the surface-level plots of most films pan out. I’m interested in the deeper interplay of personalities and ideas, for which plot is – arguably – just a delivery system. When you can second-guess these patterns every time, things get pretty dull. (Some genres are guiltier than others: I’m looking at you, superhero blockbusters, biopics.)
Narrative predictability is not exclusive to mainstream cinema, it’s not an exclusively contemporary problem, and it’s not even necessarily a problem at all. Conventions become conventions for a reason. Even the most unconventional stories are built around familiar building blocks. Certain basic story patterns feel right to us, and Hollywood films can have a mythic simplicity. But within that, there should be space for something original and fresh. The surprise doesn’t have to be the destination: it can be the scenery along the way.
So with that in mind, here are six things that you – all the producers, screenwriters and directors who are undoubtedly reading this blog – can do to surprise me at the cinema.
- Put someone surprising at the heart of your story
I’ve written before about why diversity matters onscreen, not just on a moral level, but on an artistic one. Seeing the same kind of stories being told about the same kind of people, over and over again, is just incredibly dull. Think again about what your protagonist might look like, and try flipping the script. You could bring fresh meaning and resonance even to the most familiar of narratives.
2. Don’t be boxed in by genre
Some of the most exciting films are those which break down the boundaries between genres. I’m not talking about gimmicky mashups, but about films which don’t view genre, and the conventions of genre, as a constraint. Just because ‘this type of film’ usually pans out a certain way, what’s to say that yours should?
3. Don’t treat character development like a tick-box
‘Character development’ is not the tiresome box that you have to tick in order to get us to the kickass action scenes or cool effects or next shocking plot development. Even in a film where these things are going on, character should be the engine that’s keeping things moving. Time spent on getting to know and care about the characters is never wasted, because without emotional investment, there are no stakes. You can destroy entire cities and we won’t feel anything. Putting people at the centre of your story can only make it richer.
4. Let the secondary characters matter
There’s a great moment in X-Men 2 (not coincidentally, the best superhero film of the noughties) where protagonist Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is castigated for assuming that he’s the centre of the unfolding narrative. ‘You think it’s all about you,’ sneers Magneto (Ian McKellen), and the focus of the scene shifts instead to Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler. I wish that more protagonists were faced with the same reminder. Secondary characters shouldn’t just be cheerleaders or disposable plot functionaries along the hero’s path: they should be fully formed people with their own path to walk.
5. Leave room for other points of view
Even if we can guess what a film’s point of view on its central questions is likely to be, that doesn’t mean it can’t throw a few curveballs our way. On the level of ideology, it’s possible to present varied perspectives without just being contrarian. Are we being challenged to think beyond the received wisdom on the subject at hand, or is the film just preaching to the choir? If appropriate, are there voices in the film which convincingly lay out an alternative philosophical or moral case? A bit of ambiguity means that we leave the cinema still questioning.
6. Leave room for our imaginations
Similarly, the best stories are often those which allow us to take part in creating them. Films like Star Wars inspire their fans to colour in around the edges because they suggest a world that’s even bigger and deeper than what we’ve been explicitly shown onscreen. And this isn’t just the case with Science Fiction and fantasy. If you’ve put the hard work into crafting the world of your film (even if that world looks like the one we live in every day), you don’t need to spell it all out for us. Tell your story in a way that will let it take root in our own imaginations, and grow there.