What is the role of ‘the surprise’ in a story? And how is it set up?
A surprise can prevent complacency and predictability and boredom. Additionally, a well-timed surprise, stemming from an important revelation about a past event or character, can help make sense of the entire story. Placed near the end of a film or novel, it can leave a lasting impression.
Who can forget the explanatory power of ‘She’s my sister AND my daughter’, when Evelyn reveals the family’s unspeakable secret to Gittes near the end of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown? The revelation not only sheds light on the seemingly puzzling behavior of several characters, but it helps explain the murder at the center of the story.
“A well-crafted surprise is an antidote to boredom and predictability of a story.”
In Shutter Island, the surprise is more of an existential revelation than an unexpected twist. The film is a closed multiform narrative. Please check out my video on non-linear stories for more information on such narratives.
The film opens with Deputy Teddy Daniels, and his partner, Chuck Aule, arriving on the island to investigate a psychiatric facility where a patient has mysteriously disappeared. At first, Shutter Island appears to be a classical detective story. But things are not what they seem. The grand, existential surprise in the film not only turns the plot around, it changes the type of narrative it is—from detective story to psychological thriller. We accept the change because it has been carefully prepared for by the film-makers. The audience has been given a sense that the world is not what it seems, so when the grand surprise does come, it does not feel forced or far-fetched.
A well-crafted, well-timed surprise counters complacency and boredom by injecting narrative adrenaline into a story.