One of the best ways to build suspense and anticipation is to create a mystery, and one of the best ways to create a mystery is to reveal something a little bit at a time. In good movies, there\’s more than one mystery. First, there’s always the mystery of the villain’s goal. Most movies end right there, but in better movies, the major characters have a mystery of their own that\’s gradually revealed over time.
In “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” a bunch of senior citizens all have to leave England for some reason and save money by living in a retirement hotel in India instead. What makes this movie interesting is that all the major characters have mysteries of their own that gradually gets revealed over time. There’s a man who is gay and is exploring India for some unknown reason. Gradually, we discover that he once lived in India and had a lover whose affair disgraced him. This character moved back to England and now in retirement, he wants to see if his old lover is still around. Initially, this character’s motivation is a mystery, but we gradually learn why he went back to India.
There’s a woman character who’s a bitter racist and has to go to India for hip surgery because it’s cheaper. While there, she learns to accept people of other races and we gradually learn her life story how she was a housekeeper and got let go because she was too old and now feels useless.
A married couple has lost their life savings in their daughter’s business, so they move to India to save money. Yet the wife hates India while the man wanders around exploring. Gradually we see how their marriage has really been over for years until they finally acknowledge it for themselves.
There’s the hotel owner who seems like a con man, but then we discover he’s trying to make the hotel into his business and he’s in love with a woman his mother refuses to let him marry. He’s using the hotel in a way to provide a stable financial foundation for his future family.
By constantly peeling back a little bit of the mystery of each character, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” holds our attention from start to finish because we’re first intrigued by the mystery, then we start learning details and don’t understand the significance. Finally, we learn the real reason and suddenly understand the significance of what we just saw.
That’s how you build an interesting story by creating multiple mysteries and gradually reveal the answer over time. Before Act III begins, every mystery should be completely revealed so Act III is all about us watching to see how it will all turn out in the end.
Create a mystery and you’ve created a large part of your story before you’ve even written a single word, and that’s the best way to write by creating the right story from the very beginning.