One of the quickest ways to jolt an audience out of a movie experience is to have illogical actions and unanswered questions. An illogical action is something that makes no sense such as in a horror film where a lone girl enters a dark house in search of a killer. Rather than get help, turn on lights, or simply walk away, this type of character wanders into a dark room for no apparent reason.
Rather than empathize with the character’s plight, most people simply throw up their hands in disgust because of the stupid action the character takes. What’s more suspenseful is when the character takes logical action and winds up getting into trouble. Then the character needs to take some clever action to overcome this problem.
In “Thelma and Louise,” there’s a scene where the two women lose their money to a hitchhiker who steals their money. This is carelessness on the part of Thelma and Louise, but it’s not illogical. What surprises and delights us is when Thelma decides to fix this problem by robbing a convenience store so they’ll have money.
Imagine how much weaker this part of “Thelma and Louise” would have felt if the two women had simply given the hitchhiker their money and then moaned and complained about not having any money afterwards. Such an illogical act would have thrown away the audience’s sympathy for the characters and wrecked the story.
So the first lesson is to make sense and that means having characters behave and act logically. The second lesson is to answer any unanswered questions.
To create suspense, every story poses questions that ultimately get answered by the end of the story. In “Star Wars” one unanswered question is why is Darth Vader trying to get R2D2. Later we learn it’s because R2D2 holds the stolen Death Star plans.
Unanswered questions are common in movies based on Young Adult (YA) novels. In “The Maze Runner,” the big unanswered question is why are boys trapped in a maze where monsters try to kill them and they have no memory of their past. By the end of the movie (and the book), these huge questions are still not answered, creating an incomplete ending.
In another movie adapted from a YA novels, “The 5th Wave,” aliens have attacked the human race in five separate waves including disease and floods. Then the 5th wave is when aliens recruit children to hunt down the last remaining humans.
The big unanswered question is how will the hero stop the aliens, but by the end of the book and movie, this huge unanswered question never gets resolved. By the end of the book and movie, the hero has done absolutely nothing to stop or even delay the aliens’ plan to wipe out the human race.
Imagine how exciting “Star Wars” would be if we never saw what happens to the Death Star or if in “Titanic,” we never get to see the ocean liner sink. That’s the unfulfilled, empty feeling that occurs when movies fail to answer question posed in the beginning.
So make sure your characters take logical action and make sure that any questions your story poses in the beginning gets answered and resolved in the end. Illogical actions and unanswered questions can wreck even the best story ideas.