Here’s what Hollywood thinks people want to see in a story. More car crashes, bigger explosions, and more gunfire. Here’s what people really want to see: good stories. How do you make a good story? Forget about coming up with a unique plot. Instead, come up with different ways to ratchet up the tension.
“Cinderella” is a perfect example because almost everyone already knows how the story winds up. There’s no suspense in what happens. Where the tension and suspense occur is how it happens. We already know that the prince will put the glass slipper on Cinderella’s foot to verify it was her. Yet in the movie, the tensions cranks up when the evil step mother discovers Cinderella’s glass slipper in the attic where Cinderella lives, and breaks it.
When Cinderella refuses to go along with the stepmother’s goal of giving herself control of the kingdom and her two daughters favorable marriages to rich men, the stepmother sneaks off to the Grand Duke and makes a deal with him. The Grand Duke doesn’t want the prince marrying a common girl so he agrees to conspire with Cinderella’s stepmother to make sure Cinderella never gets a chance to reveal herself to the prince.
Now suddenly we’re in new territory because this isn’t part of the traditional Cinderella story, yet it was carefully set up ahead of time that the king originally wanted his son to marry a princess to keep the kingdom safe.
The story of “Cinderella” doesn’t work because we don’t know the story ahead of time, but because everything is carefully set up ahead of time from the mice helping Cinderella to the theme of being kind, having courage, and everything will work out in the end.
Another way “Cinderella” works is by giving more details of the evil stepmother. In the traditional story, we just know that she’s evil. In the movie, we learn that she too once fell in love with a man but he died. Then she married Cinderella’s father for his money, but when he died she lost that too. Just like Cinderella, the stepmother also once believed in kindness and love, but when she was a disappointed, she became evil. On the other hand, Cinderella maintains her optimism despite her poor status in her own house. Remember, the villain is always an evil version of the hero. That provides balance and makes the villain more realistic and dangerous because the hero must battle an evil version of herself.
To create tension and suspense, you must put the goal in doubt. In “Cinderella,” the ultimate goal is for the prince to find Cinderella again. First, the movie lets the evil stepmother learn that Cinderella is the one the prince wants. Second, the movie has the stepmother conspiring with the Grand Duke to pretend to find Cinderella but really to avoid her. Now we’re left wondering how will Cinderella ever meet the prince?
How this occurs is what keeps us watching. When it occurs logically, we’re emotionally satisfied. We already know the end. We just don’t know how this movie will get us to the end, and that’s what creates suspense. The more obstacles the villain throws in the hero’s way, the more suspense you create because we don’t know how the hero can possibly succeed.
In most cases, the hero can’t succeed by herself, but with her allies, she manages to overcome the villain through embracing the story’s theme. In “Cinderella,” that theme gets repeated multiple times to remind us. When it occurs one last time, it helps bring meaning to the ending that we knew was coming all along.