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03/06/2006 - KEEP SURPRISE ON YOUR SIDE
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Every Christmas, my father always used to ask my mother what he'd bought her. When I was a kid, I thought it was a joke. When I got older, I discovered he really had no clue. She'd simply go to Saks or Neiman Marcus, buy what she wanted, wrap it up, and "act" surprised when she opened it. What a sad way to live, I thought. And what a sad way to write movies where audiences always know what's inside the box you're giving them because you've been as obvious about it as my mother buying presents for herself.
By the end of Act 1, your viewers will start making guesses about a plot's outcome. That's why you have Act 2 to introduce table-turning reversals to make them question whether their guesswork is plausible. The second act of romances, for instance, usually involves irreconcilable differences and an ugly break-up. The second act of crime stories typically calls for the prime suspect to suddenly become a victim. The second act of historically based plots such as Titanic introduces a crisis that will reveal the impacted characters' true natures. In Act 2, what was a foregone conclusion is now no longer something they can bank on. Act 3-ta-da!-reveals all the cards you've had up your sleeve.
A surprise is something we don't see coming. In a successful film, an audience won't see a surprise coming if there are enough other elements like great dialogue, great characters, and great visuals to distract them from your story's true destination. To return to the gift-giving analogy, this is like putting a pair of earrings in a tiny box but hiding it in a carton full of noisy, uncooked rice. A recipient will be so preoccupied trying to envision what sort of object fits the dimensions of the container and makes that rattling noise, it never occurs to them that the box itself is only an illusion.

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