Increasing the Impact of Surprise

The film THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI includes an early scene where the hero, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is confronted by Chief of Police Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) about her billboards proclaiming that he’s done nothing to catch her daughter’s killer:

EXT. MILDRED’S GARDEN – DAY

He sits on the swing beside her, the billboards stretching out down the hill in front of them.

WILLOUGHBY
I’m doing everything I can to track him down, Mrs. Hayes. I don’t think those billboards is very fair.

MILDRED
The time it’s took you to come out here whining like a bitch, Willoughby, some other poor girl’s probably being butchered right now, but it’s good you’ve got your priorities straight, I’ll say that for ya.

WILLOUGHBY
There’s something else, Mildred.
(pause)
I got cancer. I’m dying.

MILDRED
I know it.

WILLOUGHBY
Huh?

MILDRED
I know it. Most everybody in town knows it.

WILLOUGHBY
You know it, and you still put those billboards up?

MILDRED
Well, they wouldn’t be as effective after you croak, right?

WILLOUGHBY looks at her in disbelief, gets in his car, drives off.

One of the reasons the scene is so effective is because of the way Writer/Director Martin McDonagh SETS UP THE SURPRISE.

Because we already empathize with Mildred as the hero, we anticipate that the Sheriff she’s accusing will be an angry, powerful, racist, redneck cop – a stereotype we’ve all seen in countless films. So we’re taken aback to see that he’s actually a reasonable husband and father of two who tries to see the good in a person, and seems to have done everything he could to catch the killer.

An even bigger surprise is to learn he has cancer. And bigger still is when Mildred gives him no sympathy in response.

The script has created no anticipation of these revelations; they seem to appear out of the blue.

But imagine if this scene were the opening of the film, and we knew nothing about the characters or the situation other than what is revealed here. Willoughby’s confession that he has cancer might still be unexpected, but it would carry almost no emotional impact. This is because there would have been no BUILDUP to the moment, and no CONTEXT for the revelation.

It is only because we’ve already been introduced to these characters, and their desires and conflicts, that the surprise element gets us to feel something.

This scene carries an even greater impact because the screenwriter had not only established the context for the scene, he created ANTICIPATION of what would happen in this confrontation, and then surprised us by reversing it. He created an expectation of one outcome, then surprised us by having the characters do just the opposite.

Frequently I encounter stories – whether in scripts, novels, marketing emails or speeches – which include unexpected elements that seem to have no relationship to what’s happened so far. Readers and viewers are surprised, certainly, but their surprise more often leads to confusion than connection.

Without laying the groundwork to help us understand why this unexpected event or revelation creates conflict for the characters, we’ll simply listen and observe while feeling nothing.

It’s essential that you include surprises in your script, or your novel, or your speech as well. Just make certain to first create context, so that your readers will understand, and FEEL, the impact these unexpected events will have on your characters.