In this post, I’ll unpack how two great movies—Saving Private Ryan and The Dark Knight Rises—use a subplot involving mystery to generate emotionally powerful moments, looking at the exact steps the writers follow to set up the mystery and pay it off in an emotionally powerful way.
(Neither movie, of course, is primarily a mystery story, but each has mystery subplots.)
Step 1 Raise a question that is clear to the audience. The question could be anything.
In Saving Private Ryan, the question that the writer raises is this: what did Captain Miller do before the war?
The question arises during a scene in which the squad is walking. Upham, the squad’s translator, wants to know everyone’s backstory. He asks the guys, with Miller out of earshot, where Captain Miller is from.
We learn that the squad’s men don’t know this information, and in fact they have a pool of money going with bets as to where Miller is from and what he did before the war. This introduces the question clearly.
The next part of this step is also critical: supply an organic reason for why the question can’t be answered in that moment.
In the case of Saving Private Ryan, the reason the mystery can’t be solved is because Captain Miller refuses to talk about his time before the war, even with Sarge, with whom he is close. So, there’s no point in Upham in even asking the question. The men also talk about what a great soldier Miller is, and all of this stokes our curiosity: who exactly is Captain Miller?
So, step one is complete: a clear mystery, an organic reason why it can’t be solved yet, and our curiosity piqued.
In The Dark Knight Rises, the powerful mystery subplot focuses on this question: how the hell did a child manage to climb out of the prison pit that Bruce Wayne is in during the middle of the movie?
Here’s how the writers handle step one of the mystery by introducing the question: As a man tries to climb out of the prison, Bruce Wayne talks with the man who is being paid to keep him alive in prison. He asks if anyone has ever succeeded in getting out. The caretaker and another prisoner mention that a child once escaped the prison. This information naturally makes the audience ask themselves how it’s possible a child could escape from the prison.
The organic reason why the caretaker doesn’t tell Bruce Wayne more in that moment is that the caretaker leaves and directs Wayne’s attention to the television, where Gotham’s hostile takeover is about to be broadcast.
Step 2: Remind the audience of the question at least once and perhaps more. Further stoke their curiosity about the question.
In Saving Private Ryan, in a scene in the middle of the movie, Captain Miller steps into the open, where the Germans could shoot him, to buy time for Upham to get across the way. Despite being shot at, Miller is not hit.
In a scene after this skirmish, the soldiers talk about how Miller somehow can’t die; he does dangerous things and yet always survives. All of this deepens the mystery: who the hell is this dude?
In The Dark Knight Rises, we return to the question of how a child escaped the prison after Bruce Wayne tries making the escape himself with a rope tied to him. He fails, getting battered during his fall, but survives.
In the aftermath, as he is recovering with his caretaker, the writers return to the earlier question: how the hell did a kid manage to escape when grown men can’t?
The caretaker tells Wayne that the child was not ordinary, that the child was forged in suffering, and the child was not a man of privilege like Wayne. The scene ends, but we still don’t really have an answer: yes, we learn the child was different, but still, how did the child do it?
Step 3: Answer the Question You Raised in a Way that Is Organic and Emotionally Powerful
A quick aside: technically, the way you answer the question doesn’t have to be emotionally powerful. It only needs to be organic, which is to say that it must happen naturally and not be forced by the writer. But, if you can make it emotionally powerful, as the writers do in the two films we’re looking at, then, of course, that’s even better.
In Saving Private Ryan, the squad gets into an argument, with one member threatening to kill another. Upham appeals to Miller to stop the fight, and Miller shuts them all up by bringing up the subject of the pool of bets about what he did before the war.
In other words, the writers give Captain Miller an organic reason to talk about his past: although it’s his natural inclination not to discuss his past, Captain Miller knows that there is one thing that will immediately make the men forget their fight: the story of who he was before the war.
Miller tells that story, and the reason the moment is so emotionally powerful is because we learn that Miller isn’t some super-soldier or cop or anything else obvious. He was just a high school English teacher and high school baseball coach. And we realize what the hell of war can do to a man: how it can shape an ordinary English teacher into a skilled, deadly soldier, one who wonders whether his wife will even recognize him.
By following the above three steps (raising a question, stoking interest in it, and then giving Miller a motivated reason to answer the question), the writer buys Hanks the opportunity to deliver a great speech that may be the most powerful moment of the movie.
Imagine instead that the writer had simply had Miller volunteer this information at step one or even at step two. Imagine, for example, that as the squad was walking, Miller said, “Hey, guys, by the way, I used to be an English teacher. Can you believe it?” Not only would it have felt forced and unmotivated (a cardinal sin in storytelling), it would have been dramatically inert, robbed of any emotional power.
Instead, the writers deploy the answer to the question, the resolution of the mystery, in a moment of heightened conflict, when Miller’s only reasonable choice is to speak.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we also get a very powerful payoff to the mystery. In fact, the payoff is arguably the most powerful moment of the movie and what the whole trilogy of the Nolan Batman films has been building to.
We pick up with Bruce Wayne doing more pushups in his prison cell. He’s trying to build his strength for a second attempt to climb out of the pit. The blind prisoner tells Wayne “fear is why he fails.” Wayne responds that he is not afraid. He then makes the climb and again falls.
The writers then flash back to the scene from the first movie in which Bruce Wayne as a child fell into the well. We hear Thomas Wayne ask, “Why do we fall?” All of this serves to underscore that the pit is just another well that Wayne has fallen into. In fact, the pit, as visually presented in the movie, looks exactly like the bottom of a well.
And Bruce Wayne’s journey, throughout the trilogy, has been this: to learn to get up again after he falls down.
First, in Batman Begins, he falls into the well as a child, and Alfred teaches him that we fall down so that “we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Then, still in Batman Begins, his parents get killed. If I recall correctly, Bruce literally falls down during the scuffle, and he figuratively falls down as well: he’s now an orphan. What he then does during the course of that movie is to learn to pick himself up.
In the second movie of the trilogy, The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne falls down again at the end (both literally and figuratively). He literally falls from the building after saving Gordon’s son. And he figuratively falls down when his childhood friend and love interest Rachel is killed.
The third and final movie begins with Wayne figuratively back down in the well. He’s fallen and hasn’t yet picked himself up. He’s living as a recluse, no longer paying attention to the details (as his cop friend played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt points out). And Alfred argues with him that he has to start living again, to put aside Batman, and live a healthy, normal life. Alfred in fact leaves him because he can no longer stand to see Bruce like he is.
So what does Bruce Wayne need to heal? What is the trap that the writers can put him in that will force him to live again? The answer they came up with is a great one because it ties everything together: what Bruce needs to heal as a character is just a bigger well—the pit prison.
The blind prisoner is in effect the mentor character of the middle part of the movie because Bruce has neither his father nor Alfred available any more. When the prisoner finally tells Bruce the story of how the child escaped, he starts by saying that Bruce’s lack of fear actually makes him weak.
In other words, the organic motivation for the blind prisoner giving Bruce the answer to the mystery is essentially the prisoner’s desire to set Bruce straight. The motivation is perhaps not as strong or organic as the Saving Private Ryan scene, but it still works.
The prisoner explains that Bruce must fear death because the impulse to live (the impulse that Bruce has lacked since Rachel died) is the one he will need to make the climb. And he must make the climb as the child did—without the rope—because then the fear of death will find him and give him the power he needs to make the leap.
Then we watch as Wayne makes the climb without the rope, the great Hans Zimmer score rising along with Bruce, and successfully makes the last leap. And, like the great Hanks speech in Saving Private Ryan, the climb sequence is one of the most emotionally affecting moments of the movie.
Even though there is still a fair amount of the movie left, I would argue that in that moment of escape, Bruce Wayne’s internal drama has been resolved. He has found his will to live again, and the victory that follows is now inevitable.
The rest of the movie is just seeing that new spirit in action: first, he defeats Bane and saves Gotham. Then, he does the thing he really needs to complete his journey: he abandons being Batman, faking Batman’s death, and goes to live a normal life, starting in Italy with his new girlfriend, Selina Kyle. He is finally whole as a person. He has finally picked himself up again after the death of his parents.
(In this way, the theme of the Batman trilogy is the same as the theme of The Lifeguard: things happen, but you need to keep moving.)
In both movies, of course, these three steps—and the scenes that correspond to them—are interspersed with other plot lines and scenes. However, you could pull the three scenes out of their context and fit them together to see how they set up, build, and pay off a mystery.
That is a good way to approach writing such sequences as well. You can write the sequence in order and then break it up, splicing in scenes that relate to other plot lines. This is one way to control pacing, with action scenes interspersed with these quieter mystery scenes.