Reverse Cause and Effect
Reverse Cause and Effect is a unique development tool that enables you to wade into a complex mix of story material and pull it together into a tight sequence of events. Cause and effect is a crucial part of good screenwriting because Plot Point A should cause Plot Point B which causes Plot Point C, and so on through to the ending.
If each event causes the next one, then your script has a crisp forward motion, with no dead spots that can lose an audience. Used properly, this tool has the power to consistently help turn your million dollar ideas into saleable screenplays. I’ll explain the tool, show how it works in Ben Affleck’s Argo, and then structure and develop an original story so you can see it in action.
The main skill in using Reverse Cause and Effect is to be able to distinguish that which caused an event from those events that merely came before it. Say that your sister calls you one morning and orders you to buy a lottery ticket because she had this incredible dream, and when you do so you win a boatload of money. Now any number of things might happen before you win the money—you lose your car keys, you buy some cigarettes, you get a parking ticket—but the cause of you winning is that your sister made you do it.
Being able to find this linkage of cause and effect in your story material helps you discover what’s necessary, or central, to the spine of your story as opposed to what is peripheral. And when you’re creating a story, it’s easy to get paralyzed by a profusion of unnecessary detail.
In fact, the work of the amateur is characterized by the unnecessary, with overwritten dialog and description, unnecessary scenes and unneeded sequences. Film executives love this tool because it cuts right to the core of the action in any genre. Separating the necessary from the unnecessary is like pruning an overgrown tree, leaving just the trunk and main branches.
So how do you use this tool? First, you need to have the broad strokes of your story figured out. Then you can start by stating the Object of the script—where you, the writer, want it all to end up. Next you state the Final Effect that demonstrates the Object onscreen with real actors.
The Object may be somewhat abstract, but the Final Effect is the concrete action that ends the movie. Next you state the Immediate Cause of the Final Effect. What caused it to happen? Any number of things can come before something, but only one thing actually caused it. And you keep chaining backward from effect to cause as you work your way back through the story.
How It Works
Let’s take a look at the Academy-award winning film, Argo, in which CIA agent Tony Mendez is tasked with getting US embassy staff out of Tehran.
Object: Tony gets the Americans out of Iran and is secretly decorated for it.
Final Effect: They arrive back in America and Tony gets a secret CIA medal for it.
Immediate Cause: They get on the plane and get airborne as ground forces race to stop them.
Cause: The security chief believes their cover story and lets them go, then learns they’re the missing Americans.
Cause: They’re on the edge of failure when John Chambers finally answers the phone in Hollywood, verifying their cover story.
Cause: They just barely get their tickets and are then challenged at the last checkpoint by a skeptical head of security.
Cause: Tony’s boss raises hell in Washington to put the mission back on the front burner.
Cause: Tony defies orders and tells his boss that he’s taking them out, and to do what it takes back in Washington to make the mission work.
Cause: The mission is all set to go when Tony gets the order to cancel everything.
Cause: They complete all the prep work.
And so on back through the whole story. Notice that this is fairly stripped down, with no details, and it enables us to see the spine of the story with everything else pruned away. It gives us a look at the core of the plot, unadorned.
Use this tool on your own script and you’ll get a cold hard look at what you’ve really got. It’s so easy to get hypnotized by your own material, so valuable to get a good clean objective look at what you’re creating.
Also, as you work your way back through the cause and effect in the process of creating your own story, you will often find events that have no cause yet, which is a blank spot in your story, a gap in its logic. So you can create something right then and there that causes it, and thereby fills in that hole.
Once you’ve done Reverse Cause and Effect for your overall story, you then break the story up into acts by finding the natural chapter breaks in the action. Take Act One and do Reverse Cause and Effect for that act, stating the Object of the act, the Final Effect that demonstrates the Object on screen with real actors, the Immediate Cause of that effect, the cause of that and the cause of that, etc., back to the beginning of the act.
It’s the exact same process that you did for the overall script, but now you’re going back through one section of the story and incorporating just a little more detail. You’re weaving in a little more, fleshing it out a bit more, but still separating the necessary from the unnecessary by maintaining tight cause and effect.
This is extremely useful when you’re constructing a plot because it enables you to gradually develop detail as it becomes necessary. It’s a systematic process of weaving just a little more detail in on each pass, so that you never get swamped by too much. You keep the unnecessary at bay, taking only what you need and incorporating it, so that you stay in control of the material as you develop it.
When you’ve done Reverse Cause and Effect for all three acts (or however many acts you have), you then break each act down into sequences. There are two-to-five sequences in an act. If you’ve got a bank robbery movie, then the getting-the-gang-back-together sequence, the planning sequence, and the robbery sequence may well probably constitute Act One.
Now you do Reverse Cause and Effect for Act One, Sequence 1, doing all the same steps—What’s the Object of the Sequence, What’s the Final Effect that demonstrates the Object onscreen with actors, What’s the Immediate Cause of that, and so on back through to the beginning of the sequence. And now you’re incorporating just a little more detail into the weave that you’ve already got, but only as much as is necessary to flesh out the sequence.
Then when you’ve done Reverse Cause and Effect for all the sequences in the script, you divide the sequences down into scenes. There are two-to-five scenes in each sequence. It’s important to note that a change of location does not necessarily mean a new scene. A scene is a complete story unit that may take place over a couple of different locations, so if your slug line changes from INT. COFFEE HOUSE to EXT. STREET, we may still be in the same scene.
Now you do Reverse Cause and Effect for the first scene of the opening sequence. Object, Final Effect, Immediate Cause, Cause, etc. from the end of the scene to its beginning—and then you write the scene.
Now this scene will be tight, because you never allowed the unnecessary into it. So keep it tight. Sure, you need to be able to let the scene breathe and move, but keep it lean. Then this scene will be crisp and tight, and it will be part and parcel of a tight sequence, which is part of a tight act, which is part of a tight overall script.
You never let the unnecessary in. When a tailor is done making a suit, there is leftover cloth on the floor. He doesn’t try to incorporate it into your suit. He throws it away. Then you do Reverse Cause and Effect for the next scene, and then write it. And so on for all the scenes until you’ve got a completed screenplay.
By applying Reverse Cause and Effect to the whole script, then to each act, then to each sequence, and then to each scene you gradually assemble a script in which every part consists only of those actions that advance the plot. By sticking with strict cause and effect, you continually eliminate the unnecessary, like a chemical process that expels undesired byproducts and retains only the desired pure product—in this case, clean, coherent, compelling, forward-moving dramatic action. Aristotle says that the writer “should first sketch its general outline, and then fill in the episodes and amplify in detail.” That’s exactly what we’re doing.
Okay, so let’s see it in action. Suppose we have three young teenagers, two 14 and one 16. Their two fathers are mobsters who run a bookie joint together and the boys are expected to join the family business. But they hate it and want to go to MIT to study robotics.
Their fathers scorn their “stupid geek crap” and won’t hear of it. They laugh and say, “Pay your own damn way to college if you want to go so bad.” The kids get upset and decide to get in disguise and rob their dads’ operation.
So let’s sketch out the most basic steps in this potential story.
1 - Their dads are forcing them to be career criminals.
2 - They decide to rob the bookie joint to pay for college.
3 - They case the place, adding to what they already know about it.
4 - They create a plan.
5 - They launch the robbery.
6 - Things go wrong, but they manage to heist a huge sum of crooked money.
7 - They exit the building and vanish like ghosts.
Now let’s link those steps together with reverse cause and effect.
Object: They get away clean with the money.
Final Effect: They get outside and pull off a vanishing act.
Immediate Cause: They just barely manage to steal the money, trying not to hurt workers they’ve known all their lives.
Cause: They launch their robbery, but things go wrong.
Cause: They complete their plan.
Cause: They case the joint and start planning.
Cause: They decide to rob their dads’ bookie joint.
Cause: Their dads say the only way they can go to college is if they pay for it themselves.
Cause: The kids get furious.
Cause: The dads insist that they forget their geek nonsense and join the family business.
Cause: The kids don’t want to be bookies, but want to study robotics at MIT.
So that’s the big picture, which is all you need at first. Read it from the bottom up and you get the story.
The kids refuse to be bookies and want to study robotics at MIT, but their dads insist they forget that crap and join the family business, which makes them furious. Their dads laughingly say the only way they can go to college is if they pay for it themselves, so they decide to rob their dads’ bookie joint.
They case the operation and make a plan, then launch their robbery, but things go wrong. They just barely manage to steal the money, trying not to hurt workers they’ve known all their lives. They get outside and vanish like ghosts.
We sketched out the story in broad strokes, so now we’ll break it into sections (this demo story is too short for acts). Let’s take the robbery and vanishing section, seen below, and figure it out in a little more detail. Here’s the section that we’re amplifying.
-They launch their robbery and things go wrong.
-They just manage to steal the money, trying not to hurt workers they’ve known all their lives.
-They get outside and vanish like ghosts.
Now we want to think it through in a little more detail, fleshing out the story a bit more. So let’s say they have to blow the door with a small explosive, but they don’t want to hurt their uncle, the doorman, so they create some kind of distraction to get him to move.
When they get inside and announce that they’re robbing the place, they’re surprised when their grandfather, who’s usually nodding off in the corner, comes to, and thinking he’s back in World War II, pulls out a pistol.
Let’s incorporate these ideas into the robbery section using Reverse Cause and Effect, which will create certain questions.
Object: They disappear outside and create a distraction to lead the chase away.
Final Effect: The boys point at where the getaway car went and angry mobsters race after it.
Immediate Cause: They get outside and hide the money and disguises in the older boy’s car, then the furious mobsters pour out looking for the thieves.
Cause: They lug the money away and get out the door, saying they’ll shoot anyone who comes after them.
Cause: They force their dads to pull out the cash and bag it up.
Now, what would cause their dads to fork over the money when they’re hardened mobsters who aren’t easily scared by guns? What if they had a hostage?
Cause: They grab their grandfather and put a gun to his head.
What would cause them to do this, since in their planning session they swore to not hurt any of their family?
Cause: Their dads tell them to just shoot them ’cause they ain’t forking no money over.
Cause: They demand the cash.
Cause: They trick their grandpa into firing the gun at a mirror and the gun’s kick knocks him over. They disarm him and get back to their robbery.
How would they get the gun away from him?
Cause: Their grandpa thinks he’s back in World War II and pulls out a huge Army Colt.
Cause: They fire at the ceiling to show they’re serious.
Cause: Their dads scream that they ain’t giving money to nobody.
They will also need a voice-changing device so no one recognizes their voices. Not hard since they’re science geeks.
Cause: They get in and announce they’re robbing the place.
Cause: They create a distraction with a small hidden robot and then breech the door with a small explosion.
You can see how as I’m creating as I go. Having to continually find causes for events raises certain questions, the answers to which fill in the plot.
Imagine that we also did Reverse Cause and Effect for the other sections in this story: the fight with their dads, casing the operation and the planning. Now let’s take an even smaller section of what we just did—the getaway. Here’s what we’ve got now:
-They get outside and hide the money and disguise in the car.
-The furious mobsters pour out looking for the thieves.
-They point at where the getaway car went and the angry mobsters race after it.
Now let’s expand on that section and think it through in more detail. At this point we need to know more about their disguises, about how they deflect potential suspicion and about how to send their dads on a wild goose chase. Let’s give the boys names, too. We’ll call the two 14 year-olds Mikey and Stitch, and the 16 year-old Suds.
Object: They watch as the mobsters race after the decoy getaway car, knowing they’ve pulled it off.
Final Effect: They celebrate their successful heist as the last of the mobsters race off after the dummy getaway car.
What are the particulars of the dummy getaway car? I’m assuming that Suds is going to pilot it for a few blocks, then abandon it and race back to the other boys.
Immediate Cause: Mikey and Stitch point at the disappearing getaway car as their dads and others pour out of the building in a rage.
Now what would help make the dads never have any suspicion of the kids sitting out front while these thieves ran right past them with a ton of money?
Cause: Mikey and Stitch pick themselves up off the ground with bloody noses and bruises as people start to emerge from the building.
Cause: Suds punches Mikey and Stitch in the face to make it look like they tried to stop the thieves, then he runs for the dummy car at the end of the cul de sac and gets in.
What would their disguises consist of? Ski masks and windbreakers, nylon pants? Also, they’re still kids, so they’d need platform shoes to look big.
Cause: They hide the bags of cash in their car trunk and strip off their disguises and platform shoes.
Cause: They run from the building to their nearby car with the cash.
OK, now let’s write the actual getaway scene based on this outline.
Ext. Building – Day
Three guys in black ski masks lugging heavy gym bags burst out the door brandishing guns. They hustle to a nearby black Mercedes, pop the trunk and heave the bags into it. They strip their masks, coats, platform shoes, and nylon pants off, then jam them in the trunk and slam it shut.
MIKEY - OK, Suds. Do us. And make it real.
Suds slugs him hard in the face and blood gushes out his nose, then he punches Stitch hard on his cheekbone, his ring drawing blood.
STITCH - OW! That oughta look good.
MIKEY - OK, quick! They’ll be out in a second.
SUDS - I’m outta here. Back in a flash.
He runs to a red Camaro with black tinted windows and burns rubber out of there as the building door opens. Furious mobsters pour out, led by the boys’ fathers.
DAD #1 - There they go!! (Seeing the hurt boys) Holy crap, you OK? (Mikey nods, holding his bloody nose) So you seen them come out, I guess?
MIKEY - Frickin’ punched my lights out. Thought I could stop ‘em.
STITCH - That’s them in that Camaro!
DAD #2 - Get ‘em, but no shooting. There’s cameras everywhere out there!
DAD #1 - And I want them alive! Alive, you hear me?! (turning to Mikey again) You sure you’re OK? Where’s Suds?
STITCH - Went for a soda. He’ll be right back. We’re gonna chase them too! Who the hell was it?
DAD #1 - No frickin’ idea, but they are dead men!
He jumps in his Cadillac and tears off as Mikey and Stitch turn to each other, grinning.
STITCH - And that, my good man, is how you do it.
MIKEY - MIT, here we come. We pretend like we sold a few robots or some crap to explain the money, and we’re gone like the frickin’ March Hare.
Suds sprints in, grinning like a jack o’lantern.
SUDS - Ditched that puppy in a back alley and here I is (laughing as he gets in his Mercedes). Now let’s chase them thievin’ varmints down, college boys.
They roar off, laughing.