Disclosure of information, i.e. discovery, is the single most important aspect of storytelling. I teach an entire 8 hour seminar on this subject, so there is no way I can do it complete justice here… So, you know, come to my Cinema Language class. (Hey, I have to pitch it every once in a while, forgive me.) But I want to touch on Disclosure a little bit here, as it is indeed so vitally important for any story. Additionally, I will refer to it constantly in the rules to come.
Disclosure of Information is the essence of storytelling. It’s what keeps the audienceleaning forward, a catch phrase my students get sick of hearing. As a storyteller, that is your ultimate goal, keeping the audience leaning forward. I’m such a film nerd, if I am in a movie that is gripping me I am literally leaning forward in my movie seat. If there are not many people in a movie theatre, and I am having an incredible time, I’ll even get up and go stand at the back of the theatre, back against the wall, and watch from there for the rest of the movie. I get so fired up by good storytelling, I can’t sit still. But whether or not you are leaning forward physically, a good story will keep you leaning forward mentally. The story will keep you engaged. One misstep in Disclosure and the audience will begin to lean back and become disengaged.
In a nutshell, Disclosure of Information is the How, When and Why of Storytelling: How a piece of information is disclosed, when it is disclosed, both determined by Why this piece of information is being disclosed.
Understand, disclosure refers to everything, from such massive pieces of information as I see dead people”, revealed at exactly the perfect moment in The Sixth Sense to such seeming small details as sticking Michelle Pfeiffer or Maureen Stapleton in a red dress, inThe Fabulous Baker Boys and Interiors, respectively. And while there could not be two wildly different actresses, the effect in each movie is stunning. Every detail a great writer places in a screenplay is revealing something. If it’s not revealing something, it shouldn’t be there.
Let’s look, then, at How, When and Why.
How: The way you reveal inforation can be visual, such as the above-mentioned red dresses, or the hint of a fin in the water in Jaws. It can be a line of dialogue, such as “I see dead people” or an entire scene, such as the CIA scene at the beginning of Act Two ofNorth by Northwest (more on this scene below.) It can be a piece of action made by one or more of the characters, such as Mary Tyler Moore’s character Beth dumping her son Conrad’s breakfast down the disposal in Ordinary People or Russell Crowe snapping the top off a chair early in LA Confidential. All of this is disclosure, revealing plot points and/or character, and it is up to you, the writer, to determine the best ‘How’ for each particular piece of information you must impart. Note: often with how, it is less a choice of right or wrong but instead finding the best how for that particular piece of information.
When: When the information is revealed is key. Let’s take The Sixth Sense. Imagine if we knew from the beginning of the movie that Cole sees dead people. It would be a completely different movie, much of the wonderful dread that develops in the first hour would be killed, as well as all kinds of engaging discovery. M. Night keeps us leaning forward because along with Bruce Willis’ psychiatrist, we want to know what the hell is going on with this little boy. Had M. Night revealed this piece of information too soon, we probably would have become bored with not enough discovery occurring. He certainly would have had to think of something else to keep us leaning forward. Revealing information too early, then, can cause the audience to lean back.
Yet at times you can hold off information too long. I had a very savvy movie friend who saw The Sixth Sense at a preview screening and knew nothing of the movie. He loved it, as we all did, but he noted to me that had “I see dead people” not come exactly when it did, he would have shut down and leaned back in his seat. He’d had enough of ‘what the hell is going on’ and needed the story to reveal that piece of information and then move on to something else. Which is exactly what M. Night did in that genius film.
A movie that held information out way too long, for me, is a weird and very ambitious movie from 2005 called Stay. It has an amazing pedigree: directed by Marc Forster, written by David Benioff, starring Ewan McGregor, Ryan Gosling and Naomi Watts. It’s a mind-bender of a film but waits until the very end to reveal everything. The movie was so confusing, which admittedly was part of the point, and became so obtuse, I ended up leaning back in frustration, not caring what happened. That was a film that, for me, waited too long to reveal information and it lost me. When is even more important than How. To soon or too late and it’s over.
Why: Why is what will determine how and when. Let’s look at two classic Hitchcock films,North By Northwest and Psycho, that evidence the effect of Disclosure beautifully. (Spoilers abound here.. you should have seen these two films already anyway!
Hitchcock, working at the peak of his powers, made these two films back to back in 1959 and 1960. They could not be more different… North By Northwest is in glorious wide screen color, is fast, funny and sexy, it’s a wildly enjoyable ride with a completely satisfying and audience pleasing ending. Psycho on the other hand, a film I could teach frame by frame it is so masterfully crafted, is black and white, has very little humor, and is a dark, disturbing trip into madness with a creepy and deeply unsettling ending that leaves the audience trapped in a vortex of chaos. Hitchcock’s use of disclosure is what creates two incredibly different films.
The why for Hitchcock is the effect Hitchcock wanted to have on the audience. Let’s start with North By Northwest. He wanted NBNW to be a big, fun, audience pleasing romantic thriller, which is what he delivered, the movie is a joyride start to finish. Because that was Hitchcock’s why, the movie has a very startling scene. The first act of the movie, while being a lot of fun, is a little edgier and more suspenseful than the rest of the movie, because we travel through the chaotic events of the first act mostly in Roger Thornhill’s (Cary Grant) perspective. We don’t understand what is behind the chaos Roger is experiencing so we are on edge. At the end of the first act, after the murder at the UN, we abruptly leave Roger’s world/perspective and cut far away to the CIA, where we find ourselves in a room with some CIA agents who… reveal all the mysteries of the movie! Everything is suddenly laid out on the table for us, there is no longer any mystery to the movie, save one card Hitchcock withholds for a big reveal later in the film. The first time I saw this on the late show in high school I was completely thrown by the scene as I watched it. Why would the filmmaker reveal so much so early in the movie?
Hitchcock knew that if he gave us all that information at that point, we would suddenly be way ahead of Cary Grant. When the audience has more information than the main character, we can feel superior and we tend to relax a little. It often lessens suspense. This CIA scene works that way here. Think about it.. had this scene not occurred at this point,NBNW would be a darker ride. We in the audience would be as lost as Roger all the way through. All the sex and comedy and fun of the movie would be colored by our confusion at what was occurring and our constantly wondering what was going on. By revealing so much information at this point, Hitchcock certainly risked losing us by revealing too much too soon. But it works here, not only because everything that happens afterward is masterfully done, but because Hitchcock knew his why. He wanted us to have an enjoyable, effortless ride, the 1959 version of a big summer blockbuster today.
The exact opposite is true of Psycho. Here Hitch’s why was that he wanted to scare the crap out of the audience, really get under the audience’s skin. So he reveals very little information, he keeps us, the audience, in the dark the entire time. Even when he gives us information, it is usually a trick, making us think we know one thing when the truth is something altogether different. Imagine watching Psycho if we knew from the beginning the big secret of the movie. It would be a very different experience, not nearly as disturbing.
In one film, then, Hitchcock gives us information early… why? To keep us relaxed and having fun. In another film, he withholds information… why? To keep us on edge and disturbed. The why determines how and when. In NBNW we get the information revealed very perfunctorily, in one fell swoop, early in the film. In Psycho we get little bits and pieces, often in disturbing ways, and we don’t get the full picture until the end, after which Hitchcock then rips the rug out from under us again with a final scene that negates any comfort the explanation might have given us. How, when and why.
One more favorite example. I wrote in Rule 3 about Aliens, James Cameron’s brilliant sequel to Alien. The theatrical cut was a very unnerving experience for me. Along with The Exorcist, Aliens has one of the slowest builds of any horror thriller I’ve seen. I love a slow build, such incredible dread begins to develop. In Aliens, the theatrical cut, we stay in Ripley’s point of view the entire time. While we know, like Ripley, how terrible the Alien is, we know nothing of the world of the new planet to which she travels, a planet where bunch of terraformers have disappeared. By the time Ripley and the team of soldiers arrive on the planet and enter the seemingly abandoned compound, I found it hard to breathe, I was so on edge. We enter the compound knowing nothing of what is inside, not even what it looks like, and so we experience everything along with Ripley. It’s a hellishly suspenseful ride that finally explodes when the aliens attack deep in the bowels of the compound.
In the extended cut of the film that was later released, however, we cut away from Ripley and Earth early in the film and see an extended sequence of the life of the terraformers at the compound, before they disappear, and we see the beginnings of their downfall. This sequence is very well done, yet Cameron was right to cut it in the original release because, by seeing who/what/why at the compound before arriving with Ripley, by revealing that information early, it kills most of the dread and terror that occurs when Ripley and company enter the compound, because we have been there before already. We know things Ripley and the soldiers don’t know so we are not discovering things along with them. It’s a great example of the effect when information is revealed has on a story.
This is just a cursory look at Disclosure. We will return to it time and time again in future rules. But as you rewrite, think deeply about the effect you want to have on the audience, your “why” and use that “why” to help determine “how” and “when” you reveal every piece of information. So many times I will ask someone why a particular piece of information was revealed at a particular time in their story and they look at me with a blank face. Little if any thought was put into it. Disclosure of information is everything. It’s essentially all you do on the page. It will make or break your efforts. Master disclosure and you will master your story.