Friday, January 17, 2014

Mystery versus Suspense

The difference between the two is the information audience has at their disposal. In a Suspense situation, the audience has more information than the characters (The entire premise of the NBC show Hannibal is a great example of Suspense. Will Graham and his CSI buddies investigate killers with the help of a brilliant psychiatrist named Hannibal Lecter. Of course they have no idea they are actually investigating Hannibal’s crimes and he might murder them if they found out the truth… but the audience is completely aware of this.) or has at least as much information as the characters (Rear Window, Jaws).

A mystery is when the audience knows less than the characters and there is a question that needs to be answered. (The Usual Suspects, The Prestige.)

It should be noted that while Mystery is cerebral (What is that? Who did that?), Suspense is emotional (Get out! Run!). You might think keeping the audience in the dark is a good idea, but usually, without a proper emotional spine, these movies fall flat because the audience stops caring about the continued mystery. Best mystery movies combine their cerebral question with an emotional spine. 

The Usual Suspects is all about who Keyser Soze is, but, also, emotionally it’s about Dean Keaton’s descent into crime. The Prestige has a labyrinthine plot of mysteries laid upon mysteries, but, at its heart, it’s about two friends sucked into a vicious rivalry and how much they sacrifice for the sake of vengeance and stagecraft.

That being said, if woven correctly, a Mystery could yield great moments of Surprise.  Who could forget the last five minutes of The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense?

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