There is great power in surprise. When used to reverse the meaning of a scene AND raise the dramatic question, the audience can be gripped from beginning to end in a vice-grip of tension. Importantly the technique is used to raise the dramatic question through a surprise revelation that changes the meaning of what we have just seen. The meaning is reversed because in the scene is a secret - all the information necessary to give it a second meaning. The changed meaning then raises the dramatic question.
I often use the example of the play ‘Proof’ by David Auburn as it is structurally quite technical and easy to dissect. So let’s look at how he uses this technique.
The play opens with a scene between father and daughter. It’s her birthday. She is drinking alone on the porch, he enters. It is a gentle, heart warming opening and we feel the strong bond between the two. He encourages her to study maths in college, she demurs and they discuss his mental illness. Then she announces quite casually about 15 minutes in, …’but you’re dead’. She’s been talking to a ghost, her recently departed father who is about to be buried.
We have our surprise. The dramatic question has stirred but has not yet fully formed in the audience. Perhaps they’re thinking. ‘What a lovely sight, father and daughter, reminds me of…wait a second did she just say he’s dead? ‘ They run through the scene again in their minds because now the scene has a SECOND meaning (Reversal of Meaning), it was not what they thought it was . Now, they think "Did she see a ghost? No, no, this is not a ghost story. If not then….Hey, didn’t she say he was cuckoo… ". The reversal of meaning created the dramatic question through a surprise revelation that was completely probable. It is no longer a cute display of affection , we just witnessed something very distressing; grief, loss and possible madness. It has a second meaning.
The Audience Universe has been disturbed. Auburn has been quite clever here as we shall see in a moment.
The next scene brings on the nerdy grad student who has been poring over the father’s notebooks. He clarifies the father’s genius and she his madness. The student is also condescending over her mathematical talents (initiating the Tension of Opposites). Somewhere through this scene the penny will drop a little further ‘Hey, she was talking to a ghost just a minute ago, maybe she inherited her father’s madness. Let’s see some more’. The dramatic question unformed is ‘Did she inherit her father’s madness?’ . The student is arguing that there is some great work to be discovered here, she insists that he was too far gone to able to produce anything, both citing evidence. He is clearly dismissive of what he says is her basic understanding of maths. At this stage the audience is completely primed for what is about to happen. She gives him the key to a drawer that contains a notebook detailing a new, previously unworkable proof. He finds it, announces its genius, she announces that she wrote it.
We now have our complete dramatic question delivered again through surprise.
Auburn had to put that argument about how useless the father’s faculties were towards the end to go to the other side of the Tension of Opposites.
The audience is now thinking ‘Did she write the proof because I’m not sure. If she inherited her father’s genius perhaps but hey, she was talking to a ‘ghost’ so maybe she inherited his madness’ The audience is caught in the Tension of Opposites and cannot predict yea or nay because arguments have been set in motion on both sides – a bit more to the side that she was incapable and maybe a little dotty herself. This is necessary to provide the conflict between protag and antag and give her a big problem to overcome. So the dramatic question through the play is something like ‘Did she write the proof and as a consequence of that did she inherit her father’s genius or madness’ . As a side note see how we are guiled into thinking that the genius or madness is something you definitely inherit – not a real world fact but a fact within the story.
So Auburn builds the dramatic question over the course of actions by the protag. He does not give it immediately but primes us slowly for it so that when delivered as a surprise it has immense power. Mind you, some thought his second surprise rather soap-ish as in ‘I killed JR’. I thought it simply dramatic . It worked fine and was necessary for the story.
Here’s how it lays out:
1. Preparation scene establishing key relationships and issues.
2. Surprise Revelation that
a) Changes the meaning of the scene or a key issue AND
b) that change in meaning raises the dramatic question for the play AND
c) the change has caused a Tension of Opposites.
So the whole purpose of that opening scene is now clear, it is something glinting and shiny in the sunlight as it raises up and above – then as it comes back down, that glint is the glint of metal and the shape is an incredibly sharp sword slicing through the air swishing just over your very raised neck hairs. It is a finely tuned structural technique executed with the discipline and finesse of a Samurai warrior.
Dissecting this technique is one thing, doing it is another. However it is in our realm of experience. We all have some event in our past where a very clear and strong idea of something was changed completely on the discovery of some pertinent and (overlooked ) information. I was on a bus from UCLA to Venice one late night in December with a splitting headache when this young woman came on with her 3 kids in tow. They were completely out of control, shouting, rowdy, one even snapped a newspaper from an elderly man and threw it on the ground. All the while the mother sat motionless in her seat. I was sitting behind, judging her through my throbbing headache. How could she let her kids do that on the bus? Disturbing everyone and not giving a damn. What kind of upbringing is that, to let her kids terrorize people on public transport? etc etc. After ten minutes of this, my stop came up and I was glad to get off. I made sure to look at the woman as I walked past to confirm my judgements by the look of her. In her hands she clasped a small bouquet of flowers and some cards – mass cards. Someone had died, someone close. She looked up to me with reddened eyes and in that enormous river of meaning we communicated in a glance, my heart filled with compassion for her and I exited the bus with a feeling of sorrow for her and shame at myself. The surprise revelation was seeing the bouquet of flowers and mass cards which changed the meaning of the scene I was just in.