On Highlander, Suspense, and Offending an Entire Fandom

October 15, 2016

Wow. When I wrote about my issues with Highlander last weekend, I had no idea that:

  1. There is a large Highlander fandom
  2. I was about to make it angry.


One member of the fandom turns out to be a cool guy who teaches sword-fighting workshops at cons, and who has kindly offered to answer questions this budding fantasy writer may have about sharp and pointy things. He also provided answers to all of my questions about the film, with the comment that many of those questions, are, in fact answered.

At the END of the movie.

Which is why, with all due apologies to my new friend and the rest of the Highlander fans, I still believe this movie has serious problems. Problems that result from an apparent misunderstanding of how narrative suspense actually works.

By raising questions, Highlander gets the first part of it right. Questions, after all, inspire curiosity. Give us a question, and humans naturally want to stick around to find out the answer – we can’t help ourselves. Suspense is generated by our need to know, and writers can manipulate that need by introducing questions into the narrative. Skillful writers introduce a question, then provide an answer that complicates the question… or creates a new one. Question, information, question, information – that’s what keeps us tuned in or turning pages.

But here’s the thing. Introduce question after question, without providing any answers, and you’re not generating suspense. You’re generating confusion. Which leads to frustration, which leads to finding something else to do.

10_cloverfield_laneThis is where Highlander fails for me – stacking question upon question without providing ongoing clarification. And the worst part is, the failure could have been totally avoided by letting Sean Connery’s character EXPLAIN things, to the audience as well as his protégé. Orienting the audience while enlightening the clueless protagonist is a major function of the Wise Old Man archetype in fantasy, but the writers didn’t take advantage of it… and as a result, I quickly lost all interest in learning the answers to my questions.

For fun, let’s compare Highlander to a recent film that’s a masterpiece of suspense – 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Here’s the set up: Shortly after breaking up with her fiancé, Michelle has a car accident. She wakes up chained to a wall. Howard (John Goodman) informs her that she can’t leave, because the apocalypse has begun, and he has saved her from it. Or has he?

I can’t summarize the plot for you any further, because figuring out what’s REALLY going on in this movie is the entire point. Unlike with Highlander, however, I was completely invested and anxious to solve the puzzle. The difference? It’s all about the way information is delivered. Here, Howard tells a story, Michelle looks for independent evidence. Just when she (and we) think she’s got things figured out, inconsistencies are revealed, creating new questions. Over and over again.

It’s a wild ride, and I highly recommend it (but not for children).

What about you? Have you seen 10 Cloverfield Lane? What movies or books have you in suspense until the last moment, and why? Share in the comments!



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *