Lean and Mean: Using Reverse Cause and Effect to Construct a Tight Script

Posted by Jeff Kitchen on

The work of the amateur screenwriter is often characterized by the Unnecessary. Dialogue and description are often overdone, scenes tend to be overwritten, acts are bloated, and so on. You may have entire scenes that are unnecessary, perhaps even a whole act that isn't needed. For that matter, your entire script may be unnecessary. Don't laugh. It may sound funny, but if you've ever worked as a reader in the film industry, you know it's no joke. It is generally acknowledged that 95% of all scripts written are just godawful (readers say it's 98%), and a huge part of that has to do with craft as a dramatist.

Essentially your job as a screenwriter consists of two major parts - you've got to be a great storyteller, and you've got to be able to make that story work dramatically. Movies are a performance medium, so what you're writing must be actable and it has to grip an audience.

Screenwriting demands total economy because a script is a very stripped-down literary form. Bernard Grebanier in his 1961 book, Playwriting, says, "Drama has a tendency to be stripped of matters unessential to the plot. In the best plays everything counts. There is no place for tangential material or merely graceful ornamentation." Creating a tight sequence of cause and effect is a great way to get at the essence of a story. A dramatic plot in any genre should tend to have good cause and effect such that the first event causes the second, which causes the third, and so on through to the ending. Then you have a good forward flow and you eliminate dead spots that can lose your audience.

You can create this tight plotting by working backwards from the ending, building from an effect back to its cause, thereby constructing an unbroken chain of events that helps keep the audience on the edge of their seats. To do this you start by asking: What is the Object of the script? The Object of a plot is a simple, clear statement of where you want the story to end up, the point on the horizon that you're moving toward. The ability to state the object of any exercise can be clarifying. If you go into a lawyer's office and say, "I can't get this, I need this, they're doing this to me, I - " the lawyer will say, "Wait a minute. What's the point?" Then you'd reply, "Oh, I need this," and the lawyer says, "OK, now we can talk." In the movie Training Day, the object of the script is that Jake (Ethan Hawke) defeats Alonzo (Denzel Washington) and emerges as a powerful new man.

Then we want to know: What is the Final Effect that demonstrates this Object onscreen with real actors? The Object is what we want to achieve. Now we have to actually stage it with real actors. The Final Effect in Training Day is that Alonzo is executed by the Russians and Jake goes home. Next we want to know: What is the Immediate Cause of the Final Effect? Or more specifically, What is the Immediate Cause of Alonzo being executed? It's that Jake takes Alonzo's million dollars for evidence, so he can't pay off the Russians.

Now we ask: What's the cause of Jake taking the money? Jake defeats Alonzo in the fight, with some help from locals in the neighborhood. We're reasoning backwards from an effect to its direct cause. The cause of Jake defeating Alonzo is that he drops onto Alonzo's car and Alonzo gets stunned smashing the car around trying to shake Jake off. The cause of Jake dropping onto the car is that Alonzo beats the stuffing out of him and attempts to leave. The cause of Alonzo beating Jake up is that Jake tries to arrest Alonzo and a gunfight erupts.

Notice that in each instance, we ask only what is the cause of each effect, and not what comes before it. This is the major distinction that makes this tool work. Any number of things can come before it, but only one thing actually causes it. Say that your partner embezzles a bunch of money and frames you to take the fall with the FBI and the IRS, so you're going to kill him. What comes before you killing him might be that you drop off the dry cleaning, get a hamburger, take the kids to soccer, and buy some poison, but the cause of you killing your partner is that he ripped you off and set you up. Chaining backwards from an effect to its cause helps separate the Necessary from the Unnecessary. The ability to separate the Necessary from the Unnecessary is a crucial skill for the dramatist because, as we said, the screenplay is an extremely lean literary form that demands total economy. You can really see this if you're turning a 400-page novel into a 110-page script. There's an awful lot of material that simply cannot make its way into the script, and it's your job to decide what's necessary and what's not. The ability to separate the Necessary from the Unnecessary frees you from the profusion of unnecessary detail.

Being freed from the profusion of unnecessary detail helps you enormously, because it enables you to see the forest for the trees. It's so easy to get caught up in your own story and it's extremely difficult to achieve genuine objectivity. Reverse cause and effect allows you to do that because it strips your plot down to its basics in the same way that radically pruning a tree exposes its major branches. This helps you to get at the essentials, and make them work. Many screenwriters will have a beautifully written scene in a script that does not work, which is like having an ornately furnished room in a house that's falling down. You've got oak trim, gold leaf, and carved marble, but the house is caving in. If you don't get the overall structure right, then the details do not matter. Aristotle echoes this when he says that in constructing a plot, the writer "should first sketch its general outline, and then fill in the episodes and amplify in detail." He's talking about building from the general to the specific.

Let's see some cause and effect for Training Day.

Object: Jake defeats Alonzo, completes his training, and emerges as a powerful new man.

Final Effect: Alonzo is executed by the Russians and Jake goes home.

Immediate Cause: Jake takes Alonzo's million dollars as evidence.

Cause: Jake defeats Alonzo in the fight with some help from the locals in the neighborhood.

Cause: Jake drops onto Alonzo's car, and Alonzo gets stunned smashing the car around trying to shake Jake off.

Cause: Alonzo beats the stuffing out of Jake and tries to leave.

Cause: Jake tries to arrest Alonzo and a gunfight erupts.

Cause: Jake goes to Alonzo's girlfriend's home to confront Alonzo.

This chain of events continues on back to the beginning of the movie, but this short section illustrates what reverse cause and effect looks like. The audience watches this playing forward, seeing a tight sequence of events. Jake tries to arrest Alonzo and seize the money, which causes Alonzo to beat the daylights out of him and head out to pay the Russians, which causes Jake to drop onto Alonzo's car in a desperate attempt to stop him, which causes Alonzo to get stunned when he smashes his car around trying to knock Jake off, which causes Jake to punch Alonzo out and be able to grab the money, which causes the locals to see that the loathsome Alonzo is weakened, which causes them to help Jake, which causes Jake to be able to defeat Alonzo, which causes Jake to be able to leave with the money as evidence that Alonzo robbed and murdered Roger, which causes Alonzo to be executed by the Russians when he shows up without it, which causes Jake to be able to go home free, his training completed - now a powerful, honest cop.

Let's say we're developing a script about a crazy dad who's trying to make amends to his daughter because he ruined their vacation with his wacked-out behavior. In one part of the script, he kidnaps an umpire who blew a crucial call in his daughter's championship little league game, and forces the ump to admit that he was wrong and apologize to the team. As part of the reverse cause and effect of the overall story, we would have the following brief section:

Cause: The umpire sincerely apologizes to the whole team.

Cause: The ump realizes how bad his call was and how much it meant to the kids.

Cause: The dad forces the ump to watch a tape of the game.

Cause: The dad kidnaps the ump.

Cause: The ump blows the call badly, and is a total jerk about it. The team loses the championship and the kids are devastated.

Remember that we're looking at just one section of the whole story, and all I've done is to sketch in the basic steps in broad terms. Bear in mind that I don't have any more of the story worked out beyond these basics, so I'll be filling it in as I continue this process. Reverse cause and effect is a plot construction tool. To develop the story further we think things through in a little more detail, but not too much. There are obviously many questions raised by having to flesh out this section of the story. How and where does the dad snatch the ump? How crazy is the dad? How does he keep the ump from pressing charges? How does he get through to the ump in order to make him really understand and apologize? These are just a few of the bigger questions. We want to keep it simple and develop the particulars gradually as they become necessary, freeing us from the profusion of unnecessary detail.

Now let's go back through this above section, amplifying the story and weaving in more specifics as we would do if we were developing detail for one of the acts in this screenplay. Notice that I'm not only expanding on the story, but I'm linking it all together with cause and effect.

Cause: The umpire apologizes genuinely to the kids and they accept it.

Cause: The ump realizes just how bad his call really was.

Cause: The dad shows him the play and his call from different angles.

Cause: The dad ties the ump to a chair and makes him watch the game video repeatedly.

Cause: The dad kidnaps the ump from his job as a crossing guard.

Cause: The kids are devastated, and the dad realizes he can make his daughter feel better.

Cause: The ump sticks to his call, being quite cruel to the kids in the process, and they lose the championship game.

Cause: The ump makes a really lousy call that will cost the kids the big game. Their coach protests vehemently.

Now we'll take this section of the whole story, known as a sequence (there are two-to-five sequences in an act, and two-to-five scenes in a sequence), and do reverse cause and effect for it. Because we're dealing with an entire sequence, we'll start out by stating the Object of the sequence. Then we'll state the Final Effect that demonstrates that Object onscreen with real actors, followed by its Immediate Cause. We then chain backward through the rest of the causes, to the beginning of the sequence, again expanding on the detail and keeping it all stitched together with cause and effect.

Object: The dad gets the ump to apologize to the kids, really impressing his daughter.

Final Effect: The kids accept his apology and it means a lot to them. The ump even offers to coach them next year and they're ecstatic.

Immediate Cause: The ump apologizes sincerely, saying he wasn't paying attention and that he acted like a total jerk to them.

Cause: The dad says the ump has to apologize to the kids.

Cause: The ump really gets that he broke the kids' hearts.

Cause: The ump sees on video that his call was completely wrong and that he acted horribly.

Cause: The dad makes the ump watch the video of the game over and over again.

Cause: The dad takes the ump to a basement room and ties him to a chair.

Cause: The dad kidnaps the ump from his job as a crossing guard.

Cause: The dad stalks the ump to figure out the best way to pull off his plan.

Cause: The dad hatches a plan, realizing he has a golden opportunity to make his daughter feel better and earn some brownie points with her.

Cause: His daughter is especially devastated by the loss, in part because their beloved coach is retiring.

Cause: The team is stunned and broken by the loss, and by the callousness of the ump.

Cause: The ump will not reverse his decision and is really cruel to the kids. The championship is lost.

Cause: The team's coach protests the call and really fights for it.

Cause: The ump makes an incredibly bad call at the end of the game, which will cost the team the championship, right when they thought they were pulling it out of the fire.

The next step is to divide the sequence into scenes and then develop the specifics of each scene a bit further, down to the final detail. This will enable the scenes to be written from a tight outline. I see this sequence as consisting of four scenes: (1) The end of the ball game and its aftermath; (2) Dad getting the idea, stalking the ump, and snatching him; (3) Making the ump watch the game over and over on video; and (4) The ump apologizing and becoming their next coach. Let's do reverse cause and effect for the video-watching scene.

Object: The ump finally, really gets it and wants to apologize.

Final Effect: The ump cries, feeling awful for the kids, and saying he used to love baseball more than anything when he was young.

Immediate Cause: The dad runs video of the kids crying after the game. It was their last chance to win the big one for their coach, who is retiring, and they had it in their hands - they had it! They don't even hate the ump - they're just stunned and heartbroken.

Cause: The ump feels horrible, seeing that he's an appallingly bad umpire and was really hurtful to the kids. He says he had gotten so sick of kids because of his job as a crossing guard, but he sees now that they're all wonderful.

Cause: The dad shows a view of the umpire's bad call from another angle and zooms in, revealing that the ump was actually checking his cell phone at the critical moment.

Cause: The ump gets furious, saying he just glanced at his watch, and it was nothing.

Cause: One camera shows the ump looking at something for a moment at the crucial point when the contested play happens.

Cause: The dad has done an obsessively meticulous editing job, making it look like ESPN, with slo-mo replays, close ups, voice over, captions, and circles and arrows drawn over the play. He says he has a fantastic editing program and lots of time at night because he can't sleep. And he says he can get a little manic. "A little?" snaps the ump.

Cause: The dad has filmed the game with multiple cameras, some that he set up on tripods. Plus he got tape from other parents who shot the game, and he makes the ump watch it over and over and over. The ump is amazed at all the footage in spite of his rage.

Cause: The dad tells the ump that he has to watch the video of the game he ruined. He says if the ump makes any trouble, he'll tell his wife he saw him cheating on her when he was stalking the ump to figure out how to pull this off.

Cause: The dad has the ump tied to a chair in front of a big screen plasma TV. The ump is raging mad, shrieking that he hates friggin' baseball and that he's going to have him sent to jail for this, or shot. Or both.

If you read this from the bottom up, you'll be able to see the scene as though you were watching a movie, enabling you to write a wonderful scene based on this detailed outline. We worked from the general to the particular, keeping it simple at first, and then getting more specific on each pass as we went from the overall script, to the act, to the sequence, and then to the scene. The trick is to develop just a little more detail on each successive pass, gradually fleshing out the particulars as they become necessary. Notice how tight the cause and effect is in this scene. Bear in mind that I made this up as I wrote it, and that is exactly what happens as you develop a real script. You're improvising based on what you've already figured out, as well as on the constantly changing demands of the growing story.

Getting caught up in too much detail prematurely can be very counterproductive and gum up your creative process. It helps to remain free of unnecessary detail because then you can travel light and stay flexible. It's an outline for a good reason. It's much easier to make adjustments, either minor or huge, if you're not encumbered with myriad details, because then you're married to all these "fantastic" scenes that you've written before you've got the macro structure of the story worked out. It's a great luxury to be able to scrap your third act by merely throwing out a page or two of outlining, rather than being forced to contemplate chucking months worth of scenes already written that you're really attached to, but which simply do not work no matter how you tweak them. It's hard to experiment if you're too bogged down. Keep it simple, travel light, and stay loose--remembering that you're just scouting ahead and laying trail markers, not carrying the whole wagon train on your back. You'll have a much better time of it when you're trying to make the big picture work. This is exactly what Aristotle meant by, "sketch its general outline, then fill in the episodes and amplify in detail."

To use this tool, take the story you've created (it's hard to use this process until you've roughed out a plot), lay out what you've got on cards, and then create a tight chain of events by working backwards. Now you've got the spine of your plot - and it has a good forward flow. Then divide it into acts and do reverse cause and effect for the first act. Ask, "What's the Object of the act?" and "What's the Final Effect that demonstrates that Object onscreen with real actors?" Then ask, "What's the Immediate Cause of that Effect?" and so on as you build backward to the beginning of the act. Weave in just a little more detail - but only as much as is necessary to flesh out the mechanics of that act. Do this for the rest of the acts, then divide each act into sequences, and do reverse cause and effect for each of these sequences, starting at the beginning. This is a lot of work, but so are twenty-five rewrites, and having a well thought-out outline will give you a much more solid working draft. You can take all the energy that goes into rewrites and put it into engineering the script properly before you write it.

Finally, take each sequence and divide it into scenes, then do reverse cause and effect for the first scene - and then write the scene. You can see that we're practically paraphrasing dialogue in the last section of cause and effect above. Next do it for the second scene and write it out. Work your way through them all and you'll end up with a completed script in which each scene is tight and is part of a tight sequence, which is in turn part of a tight act, which is part of a tight overall story. Your script moves continually from cause directly to effect and helps keep the audience's expectations rolling along. The best thing about this tool is that it's only the first part of my three step process, "Sequence, Proposition, Plot," which studio development executives consistently say is the most advanced development tool in the film industry. The section we did here is Sequence - or reverse sequence of cause and effect. The second and third parts of this tool focus on creating conflict in the overall story, in each act, each sequence, and each scene. Applying Sequence, Proposition, Plot in this way, if you mix it with great storytelling, will give you continuous coherent compelling Dramatic Action - the name of the game in screenwriting.

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