Writing Backwards: Plot Construction Using Reverse Cause and Effect

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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. 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, you know it’s no joke. It is generally acknowledged that 95 percent of all scripts written are just godawful (readers say it’s 98 percent), and a huge part of that has to do with craft.

Your job as a screenwriter consists of two major parts: Be a great storyteller and be able to make that story work dramatically.

Screenwriting demands total economy because a script is a very stripped-down literary form. 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. This will ensure you have a good forward flow and eliminate any dead spots that can lose an audience.

But here’s a little secret: You can create this tight plotting by working backwards from a story’s ending, building from an effect back to its cause, thereby constructing an unbroken chain of events which helps keep the audience on the edge of their seats.

To do this, start by asking yourself: 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. In the movie Training Day, for example, the object of the script is that Jake (Ethan Hawke) defeats Alonzo (Denzel Washington) and emerges as a powerful new man.

The next question should be: What is the final effect that demonstrates this object on-screen 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 $1 million for evidence, so Alonzo 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. In doing this, we’re reasoning backwards from an effect to its direct cause. The cause of Alonzo’s defeat is the smashing of his car after Jake drops onto it and stuns him. Meanwhile, Jake had dropped onto the car only after Alonzo beat him up and attempted a getaway. Before that, Alonzo was angered when Jake tried to arrest him.

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 an effect, but only one thing actually causes it. Say that your partner embezzles a bunch of money and frames you to take the fall, so you’re going to kill him. What comes before you killing him might be that you drop off your dry cleaning, get a hamburger, take your 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.

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 strip your plot down to its basics in the same way that radically pruning a tree exposes its major branches. 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.

Though the chain of events continues back to the beginning of the movie, 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 living 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 dad who’s trying to make amends with his daughter after seeing the two of them grow apart. 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 umpire 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 umpire realizes how bad his call was and how much it meant to the kids.

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

Cause: The dad kidnaps the umpire.

Cause: The umpire 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 sketch the basic steps in broad terms. Reverse cause and effect is a plot construction tool. To develop the story further you need to think things through in more detail. How and where does the dad snatch the umpire? How crazy is the dad? How does he keep the umpire from pressing charges? How does he get through to the umpire in order to make him really understand and apologize? We want to keep it simple and develop the particulars gradually as they become necessary.

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 part of 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 umpire 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 umpire to a chair and makes him watch the game video repeatedly.

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

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

Now we’ll take this section of the act, 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 on-screen with real actors, followed by its immediate cause. We’ll then chain backwards 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 umpire to apologize to the kids, really impressing his daughter.

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

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

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

Cause: The umpire understands that he broke the kids’ hearts.

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

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

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

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

Cause: The dad stalks the umpire to figure out the best way to execute 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 the team’s beloved coach is retiring.

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

Cause: The umpire 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 umpire makes an incredibly bad call at the end of the game, which costs 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 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 umpire and snatching him
  3. Making the umpire watch the game over and over on video
  4. The umpire apologizing and becoming the team’s new coach.
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