As soon as you know everything in a story, you just want to know how it ends. That’s why good movies tease the audience by dribbling out bits of information that hint at something bigger, but you never know what that is until the end. Once you understand everything, then you want to see how ti plays out to see if the hero wins or loses.
What stories need to entice an audience is a mystery of some kind. There can be a hero’s mystery and a villain’s mystery. Ideally you want both, but the main idea is to create some sort of mystery that makes you want to find out more.
In “Inception,” the hero’s mystery begins with bizarre images of his kids and a woman who causes problems for him. Initially, we don’t know what this means, but it plants the seed of the hero’s mystery.
In Act IIa, we learn that the hero wants to get back home, that his wife is dead, and that he’s accused of killing her. That clears up a little more of the mystery, but still leaves us in the dark wondering how he was accused of killing her and what might have happened.
In Act IIb, we learn that he and his wife lived in a dream world and she wanted to stay but he wanted to leave the dream and go back to reality. To get back to reality, she decided to kill herself.
In Act III, we finally learn that the hero implanted the idea of the dream world in his wife’s head as an experiment to create thoughts in her mind that weren’t there originally. This backfired on the hero when she sees the dream world as more real than reality.
By creating a mystery about the hero, we not only learn more about the hero, but we keep staying in the story to find out more. Each little tidbit of information gives us another clue until at the end when we finally understand everything and wait to see what the hero will do about it. Will he achieve his goal or not?
What happens if the hero doesn’t have a mystery? Then the story will lack a driving force to hold our attention. Explosions and special effects can hold our attention for a while, but not throughout the entire movie. Mysteries are important because they help us uncover pieces of the hero’s personality while we’re unraveling the mystery to understand what the story is really all about.
“Harold and Maude” has a similar mystery. First, we see the hero creating fake suicides to get his mother’s attention. Second, we see him using his fake suicides to drive away his computer dates. Third, we learn why he started faking his suicides in the first place because he discovered he enjoyed the idea of being dead more than being alive. Finally, we see how the hero has to deal with real death to see if he wins or loses in the end.
The hero’s mystery is a great technique to make your hero feel more real and to tease the audience into following your story. Think of something that you can do to draw your hero’s past out that shapes your story in the end. You won’t be disappointed in the results.