Last night, at around half past eight and with the credits still rolling on the movie screen my boyfriend declared Black Swan to be the best movie he has ever seen. On the whole I think I agree with that assessment, or at least I can't think of a movie I thought was better and it's not just the story, or even primarily the story, it's the way it's told. Anyway, since watching it I've been thinking about the film and about what I can learn about good story-telling from it, this is what I've got so far:
You don't have to make the audience feel comfortable to keep their attention.
Black Swan is not a happy film, watching it is a profoundly uncomfortable experience but a compelling one, even when I was squeamishly shutting my eyes (body horror is not my thing) I still wanted to know what was going to happen next. It was this kind of twisted fascination, like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion or something and I'm convinced it maintained that interest not in spite of being uncomfortable but almost because of it and because there was never any feeling that those scenes were unnecessary or included only to shock, they were making valid story points. I told a friend last night 'I could have done without the body horror, I don't think the movie could.' or in other words if you're going to do dark themes, have the guts to do them properly.
It's all right to leave questions unanswered.
I've only seen the film once but I'm fairly sure that repeated viewings still won't explain exactly what was going on at some points, there are times when you're not sure whether what you're seeing is real or a hallucination or the director getting all arty to make a point (or quite possibly all of the above), and that not only doesn't take away from the story, it adds to it, everything is told from the perspective of the main character who is going steadily insane, your uncertainty as to what just happened is her uncertainty, it's a powerful story telling technique, plus it leaves the audience still wondering and thus still thinking about the story, which can't be bad, surely.
The end of a story is when you've said everything you need to.
Not when you've run out of things to say. Suffice it to say that the director of Black Swan has this one absolutely nailed to a wall, I literally wanted to cheer when the credits started rolling, not because of the ending itself (which is about as twisted and bittersweet as you would expect, given the nature of the film) but because the director knew when to stop.
And on that note, I'm going to stop too, and go away and figure out how to make use of these insights.