Thursday, April 30, 2009

Practical Application of the Atoms of Cinema, Part II

(Click here for the previous article in this series)

To be a good storyteller one must do more than just give piece of information after piece of information directly to the audience in a literal, straight-forward fashion. If this is all you do, your story will be as dull as an academic text book. Rather, a great storyteller CONTROLS his or her information by deciding how much information to give and when to give it. The storyteller gets the audience to become active participants in the story by giving limited amounts of information that encourages them to ask questions, and then refrains from answering those questions until the appropriate moment.

The most audience-engaging mental states are all created by selectively giving or withholding important information from the audience.

Curiosity/Mystery is created when the storyteller baits the audience with a small piece of the information, but not the whole picture. Ideally, the audience is intrigued by this first small piece of information and wants to know more. (The audience hears scary noises coming from somewhere in the house, but does not know what it is or where is comes from.)

Shock/Surprise is created by the sudden and unexpected revelation of new, important information. (The audience believes the heroine is all alone in the house, then an unseen monster jumps out at her.)

Suspense/Dramatic Tension comes about by either withholding enough information so the audience can predict a potential (and usually unwanted) outcome, but do not know how or when it will happen – (the audience knows that the monster is lurking somewhere in the house with the heroine, but does not know where) – or, by granting the audience privileged information that the main character does not know – (the audience sees the monster lurking in the closet, but the heroine is ignorant to the fact she is in danger) making the audience both anticipate and dread what will happen when the two parties meet.

Thus, I propose that there are three basic types of Information Atoms:

1.Question Atoms (Q-atoms) – A piece of new information that causes the audience to ask a question.

2.Answer Atoms (A-atoms) – A new piece of information that successfully answers a question that the audience has previously been led to ask.

3.Neutral Atoms (N-atoms) – New Information that is given directly and literally to the audience, neither creating a question in the audience's minds nor answering an existing one. A majority of a story's information is given in this manner.

If we wish, we can further sub-divide these three groups in relation to if the new information is on plot, character, theme, setting, mood or any other story element. We can also qualify these pieces of information as to whether the info is currently relevant at the moment it is given, or whether it is passive information that will not become meaningful until later in the story.

These atoms types are flexible and are capable of taking on more than one function at a time. The revelation of an Answer may create a new Question with it. A Neutral piece of info may have a hidden Question or Answer buried within.

To observe how one can break down a scene's construction with this approach, I have presented a piece-by-piece breakdown of the opening sequence of the feature film Die Hard (a script of such tight construction that it continues to be a shining archetype of the action genre to this day).

*The film opens with a shot of a large passenger jet landing at an airport.

What does this communicate? At first glance, this may seen to be nothing more than a simple exposition shot to establish setting, but it in fact communicates far more to the audience than even the audience realizes. First, the very fact that the camera is paying so much attention to the jet implies to the audience that someone, or something, very important is inside that jet. It also implies that the someone is either going somewhere or coming back from something.
QUESTION: Who is on the plane? Where are they going to/coming from?

*CUT TO the jet's interior. We see a close-up of a hand tightly gripping the armrest.
This image moves the audience to the next QUESTION: Whose hand is this? Why are they gripping the armrest like that?

*The camera moves to reveal a Yuppie Salesman in the next seat. The Salesman looks down at the hand, then at its owner. He has noticed how tense the other person is.

You don't like flying, do you?

(ANSWER) This is the reason why he is gripping the seat.

*The camera keeps pulling back to reveal the face of our protagonist, John McClane. (ANSWER): This is the important person on the plane, this is the owner of the hand.


What gives you that idea?

Neutral information. First off, he admits to his anxiety. Second, we have been given information on McClane's characterization: McClane is a smartass.

You wanna know the secret to surviving air
travel? After you get to where you're going,
take off your shoes and socks, then you walk
around on the rug barefoot and you make fists
with your toes.

At first viewing, it seems like this scene has provided us with some irrelevant information. But in a well-written screenplay, NOTHING is irrelevant. This line is actually a nice example of backwards-planting by the writer. At some point in the writing process, the screenwriter decided it would be good to force McClane to flee from the terrorists barefoot over broken glass in a scene late in the second act. But why would McClane be barefoot? The only logical reason would be that he was barefoot at the moment the terrorists first invaded the building and he didn't have time to get his shoes. But why would a guy like McClane take his shoes off in the first place? So, the writer came up with this solution. Working backwards, he planted information in this very first scene to accomplish a story need late in the second act. Whether the audience knows this or not, they take this bit of seemingly unimportant information and file it away, so then when it becomes important later, they will remember it.

Fists with your toes.

I know, it sounds crazy. Trust me, I've been doing
it for nine years. Better than a shower and a hot
cup of coffee.


The information in this section is not communicated in what McClane says, but how he says it. McClane responds to the Saleman with a look on his face that seems to say “this guy is an idiot.” The character information here is clear: McClane does not respect yuppie types.


*McClane gets up to take their luggage from the overhead compartment. The Salesman eye's lock onto something. He seems very unnerved. QUESTION: What is he staring at?

*CUT TO the reverse shot. McClane is carrying a gun in a shoulder holster. (ANSWER) NEW QUESTION: Why does McClane have a gun on an airplane?


*McClane sees the look on the Salesman's face. His line:

It's okay. I'm a cop. Trust me. I've been doing this
for eleven years.

(ANSWER) Plus, some expository information on his length of police experience hidden in yet more character-establishing sarcasm.

*Before leaving, McClane pulls from the overhead compartment a large stuffed toy bear. He gets a funny look from a flight attendant since he looks ridiculous holding it. QUESTION: Why is a guy like McClane traveling with a big stuffed bear?

There no fat in this scene. Every bit, every line, every images works to move the story forward by giving new relevant information. This is what makes Die Hard a good script.

Now the writer could have chosen to give all his information in this scene literally. The scene could have opened with McClane turning to the man next to him and saying.

“Boy, I sure hate flying. Hi, I'm John McClane. Don't be alarmed that I'm carrying a weapon. I'm a cop. I'm flying into LA to visit my kids.”

But that would be boring! McClane would come off as dull as toast, and the audience would become very aware that exposition was being shoveled into their mouths. But instead, the writer chooses to engage the audience in a mental game – a game that involves asking questions and searching for answers. The audience is participating in the story.

Now, you may be thinking “Well, of course this scene is filled beginning to end with new information. It's first scene of the movie. The setup is SUPPOSED to establish information. What about the rest of the movie?” Here is a sequence from the second act of the same film that not only illustrates the same principles, but also shows how a skilled writer creates curiosity, suspense, and surprise through the creative withholding of information:

Early in the second act, McClane gets the attention of a machine-gun wielding terrorist after pulling the fire alarm. This is the first direct conflict McClane has with the terrorists, in the ensuring battle, McClane kills the gunman. Now that that immediate conflict has been resolved, the audience is waiting on McClane's next move.

*The sequence begins with McClane inside an elevator. We see him making a number of preparations.

He's hitting buttons, forcing opens doors, climbing around like a monkey. It is clear to the audience that McClane has some sort of plan in mind, but they have no idea WHAT that plan is. They are given only enough information to make them curious, but anything important is withheld – forcing the audience to ask What is McClane planning to do?

Cut to the 30th Floor. Hans Gruber informs his hostages that he has killed their boss Mr. Takagi.

- I would like to point out something important at this point. Han's announcement at the top of this scene does NOT count as new information. The audience already knows that Takagi is dead. That announcement alone does not advance the story. HOWEVER, the writer keeps this line from being repetitive and unimportant by accompanying it with new pieces of information that communicates characterization. Hans makes this announcement while nonchalantly picking over a plate of food from the buffet table – this guy is cold. After the announcement, we are given Holly's reaction – information that adds to her characterization.

* Hans continues, the camera pans to the right. Considering director John McTiernan's camera style, even this movement communicates something to the audience. If the audience has been paying attention up to this point, they would know that any time McTiernan pans the camera, he is about to reveal important new information. The audience knows it is being led somewhere, but it does not know where.

*The pan stops on the elevators. The elevator dings. Who is on the elevator?

*Cut to: The terrorist turns as the elevator doors open. A look of shock on his face. What is in the elevator that is so shocking?


*Reverse angle: REVEAL The dead terrorist tied to a chair with “Now I have a machine gun” written on his shirt.”

The revelation comes as a surprise not only to the bad guys, but to the audience as well simply because the storyteller knew the value of withholding information until the most effective moment. Had the audience been given all the information up front, had they known what McClane was up to in the elevator, and seen the dead body with him, this scene would have been far less dramatic, possibly even boring. Why? Because the only way to maintain the audience's attention is to continuously feed them NEW information. Giving them all the information up front, and then forcing them to sit and watch as the other characters learn that same information again only amounts to repeating what the audience already knows.

*Hans is alerted to it by the screams of one of the hostages. We see Han's reaction to the sight, and through it learn more about his character and get an idea of Han's next counter move will be. The audience sees Holly and Ellis watching. We understand their reaction and that they are active participants in this action as well.

*The bottom of the dead man's shirt is wrinkled. Hans straightens it out, allowing us to read the rest of the message.


It is by no accident that the wrinkles in the dead man's shirt kept us from reading the whole message. This is yet another example of creatively withholding information. Like the punchline of a joke, a good writer always seeks to withhold information until the time when its revelation can have its maximum impact. This moment would have been far less satisfying if the audience had seen the whole message from the top of the scene.

* As dialogue continues between Hans and his henchman, the audience is given yet another surprise revelation of information.

McClane is on top of the elevator and has been listening in this whole time. We finally have a full ANSWER to our original question: “What is McClane planning to do?” Bit by bit, atom by atom, the writer and director keep the scene moving forward and keep the audience hooked.

The examples above used a well-known, perfectly polished feature film. It serves as a clear, easy example of atoms of information theory and how it can effect the audience. In my next article, Part III, I will analyze a not-so-well written scene to show how this approach could improve it.

(On to Part III)

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