Surprise: The Key to a Great Script

By Sean A. Mulvilhill • September 16, 2021

I love the film Die Hard. A New York cop’s visit to reconcile with his wife in L.A. is interrupted by a terrorist attack in her company’s building. John McClane, the cop, becomes a one-man wrecking crew in order to save his wife and stop the terrorists. When the film came out in theatres in 1988 it grossed $140 million worldwide against a $28 million dollar budget – a smash success. Because it was so profitable, movie producers have imitated its plot structure in countless other action movies.

So why is Die Hard a classic that we’ve all seen, yet we can’t recall the names of all those imitators, even though the structure is roughly the same?

Surprises

Throughout Die Hard we are treated to unusual surprises, making it more memorable and touching than your average action movie. In order to succeed both popularly and critically, dramatic stories must be based on structures like Freytag’s pyramid (rising action, climax, falling action, resolution), but even a well-structured story fails without the right surprises (tear-jerkers, revelations, perception shifts, screams, twists, and jokes).

I like to look at surprise as “short-term structure.” That is to say, if structure is meant to hold the audience’s attention over the long-term of the whole story, surprise is meant to grab the audience’s attention over the short-term. The way structure hooks us for the long haul is through an emotional investment. The way surprise grabs us in the short term is with emotional jolts.

Each kind of surprise has an emotional and physical response attached to it: laughter, tears, screams, goosebumps, confusion, or ah-hahs! Let’s take a look at all six kinds of surprise.

Laughter (Jokes and Gags)

These are setups and punchlines (jokes) or pratfalls, incogruities, and physical humor (gags) all designed to make us laugh.

A very memorable setup and punchline is in the Farrelly Brothers’ movie Kingpin. On an Amish farm, a city slicker, Roy, is trying to be helpful so he goes out and milks the cow. When he returns from the barn, he is drinking from a big pail of what we think is milk. When the farmer tells him, “We don’t have a cow…we have a bull,” Roy spits out what we now know is a different substance, everywhere.

Comedy is a surprise of expectation. Our expectations are met with something exaggerated and odd. We expect the farmer to say, “Thank you, that’s so kind of you.” The setup and punchline here also really reinforce the protagonist Roy, highlighting his obliviousness, ineptitude, and stupidity, which are his main obstacles in the story.

Charlie Chaplin was a master of gags. In Gold Rush, his character is so hungry that he decides to boil his leather shoe and eat it. Most people would probably imagine that he would be grimacing eating a shoe, and Chaplin plays on our expectation by carefully setting the table and then separating the cooked sole from the frame of the shoe, which resembles filleting a fish. He also sets aside the laces, which seem like noodles. Then he sits there eating his fish and noodles as a rich man at a fine restaurant would. The result makes us laugh.

What is important to note, though, is that the gag is not “cheap,” that is, it fully supports the structure of its “fool triumphant” clown genre. The “fool triumphant” genre states that he who sees the world in a positive and fresh way every moment succeeds.

The clown is like Teflon to which no negative circumstance can stick for long. This clown, even on the brink of starvation, is able to triumph, even though he doesn’t have any real food.

Ah-hah! (Revelation)

These are moments where we realize something important about a character that we couldn’t quite put our finger on. The character may seem really great, but there is something “just not right” about him. Or we may have seen the character having a suspicious telephone conversation earlier in the piece and we haven’t yet been able to make sense of that telephone call. Suddenly, the previously unseen person on the other end of that call shows up and its his mistress, “Ah-hah!” that explains it!

One of the most famous revelations in all of movie history is in the film Chinatown. Jake, the detective suspects Evelyn of foul play and is really to haul her downtown. The problem is that he is in love with her, and in his heart, he doesn’t want to believe she is guilty.

Jake shows up at her house and finds that she is detaining a young woman in the house. Jakes asks who the woman is. She says, “My sister.” He calls her a liar, and she says, “She’s my daughter.” He slaps her. She then explains that it is true. She had been the victim of incest by her father, and indeed the woman is both her daughter and her sister!

Another very famous example of revelations is in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, when we realize that story’s premise, “the sins of the father are passed on to the son,” has been fulfilled. The father’s syphilis was indeed passed on to the son who has gone mad as well. And when we discover the fact as an audience, our suspicions from before are confirmed.

Confusion (Twists)

When the plot takes an unexpected turn of events. Aristotle calls it peripeteia and defines this as “a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity.” 

A great example of this is in Forrest Gump with the Bubba subplot. Forrest has this friend Bubba in Vietnam who will not stop talking about shrimp. He keeps telling Forrest that once the war is over, he and Forrest are going to get a boat and become shrimp fisherman.

Well, Bubba dies in the war, and in his honor, Forrest, who knows nothing about fishing, gets that boat and starts shrimping, and it ends up making Forrest a millionaire many times over. Again, another “Fool triumphant” whose plot twist first looks like a failure but ends up becoming another success.

Goosebumps (Mind-blowers or Perception Shifts)

These are typical in thrillers. What the audience thought was real about a person or a situation is stripped away.

The famous film Sixth Sense, is about an investigator who is sent to investigate a young boy who claims to “see dead people.” At the climax of the film, we realize that the investigator is…a dead person! He himself didn’t even know. Goose bumps galore.

Tears (Tear-jerkers)

The lines and images that make us cry. In the family drama You Can Count on Me by Kenneth Lonergan, an apologetic estranged brother has returned to ask for money, but ends up staying to help out his sister (who is a single mom).

Unfortunately, he makes some bad decisions and puts her son in danger. At the end of the film, he says to his sister, apologizing, on the verge of tears, “Remember, remember what we used to say when we were kids?” And she says, “Yeah,” and they hug. And we as the audience realize that we have never heard anyone say the title of the film yet. And it dawns on us that when they were two small children and both of their parents had died in an accident, that they had told each other was, “You can count on me,” and tears just wash over us as an audience member.

Screams (Jump scares)

Simply put, these are things that make us scream out. Just like when we were kids playing hide and seek in the dark, and someone jumped out from behind a door to spook us, storytellers use the same effect.

I remember we used to tell ghost stories around the campfire in the summertime, and there would always be a point where the storyteller’s voice would get very low and say, “…and there they were, and they heard a light scratching, scratching, and then…AAAAAAAH! The killer jumps out!” Everyone screams!

In Paranormal Activity, a couple has put a security camera in their bedroom because the girlfriend believes she is being haunted. They are sleeping peacefully and the time on the video reads 4:30 A.M. Suddenly the woman’s body starts to be dragged out of the bed and out of the room by an invisible force. She wakes up and we hear her terrified calls to her partner for help. He runs out of the room looking for her and whatever it is that he sees forces him to start screaming as well. In the audience, we are terrified.

Conclusion

A story that works is always chock full of surprises. The story structure puts your audience on a familiar path, so that they think they know what’s going to happen, and they watch in order to confirm their guesses.

On the other hand, the story surprises keep the audience on their toes emotionally—they never can predict exactly what will happen next. The reason why great films like Die Hard are imitated are the same reason why they can’t be imitated: they are uniquely surprising in a way that supports their structure.

A surprise that works in one film will not necessarily work in another. It is up to the screenwriter to structure their story perfectly and then find the surprises that color that specific story. And that’s not an easy thing to do. If it were, we’d all have written the next Die Hard.

Sean A. Mulvilhill

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