By Lee Hamilton.
Starting a screenplay can be intimidating. You may have a handful of great ideas for an interesting character, scenario, or problem, but when faced with filling the gaps in between the beginning and the end, even experienced writers can begin to flounder.
The obvious place to start would be from the beginning, right? Especially if you’re a writer who isn’t a fan of outlining and likes to see where the characters take you on their own. Writing a screenplay chronologically, scene, by scene, makes sense: after all, you can’t write the second scene unless you know what happens in the first, right?
The risk that comes with this method is that if you start a script with no clear idea of where it’s going to lead, you may end up with a conclusion that doesn’t quite deliver on the setup.
For an ending to have the most impact, everything that’s happened beforehand needs to have somehow contributed to that final moment, but if your story ends somewhere you’d never considered at the start, then you may have missed lots of opportunities to foreshadow events, complete character arcs, or plant setups and payoffs along the way.
“Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle” is the 7th Golden Rule in Pixar’s Rules for Great Storytelling; and if Pixar is promoting this method, you know there’s got to be some value to it.
But what are the benefits of knowing how your story ends before you begin? And won’t knowing the ending just take all the fun out of it?
THE BENEFITS of BACKWARDS WRITING
Character Arc: If you know where you want your protagonist’s character development to end, you’ll be able to better establish how it should begin. If your protagonist is going to end up sacrificing themselves to save others, then introducing them as selfish and unsympathetic at the beginning is going to help magnify this transformation. Knowing the endpoint will also allow you to figure out all of the small life lessons a character needs to learn to reach that point too.
Create Emotion: Knowing what emotion you want the audience to feel as they walk out of the cinema can help you find a way of ensuring they reach that point. Video game director and scenario writer Yoko Taro, best known for creating the cult hit Drakengard is an advocate of what he calls ‘Backward Scriptwriting,’ where he first considers the powerful emotion and feelings he wants to create, say sadness, then he figures out how to evoke that emotion through specific characters and events in their journey. Working backwards to figure out how to best create an emotional connection between audience and character can lead to a powerful and memorable movie.
Plot Reveals: If you start with the climactic reveal you want to end on, you can then plot all the various steps back to an origin point. Start with where your protagonist discovers the reveal. Figure out what clue led them to that specific place and what line of dialogue prompted the protagonist to look for that clue. Decide what event was happening that led to that line being spoken and what problem led to that event occurring. Figure out how the protagonist got into that problem in the first place and what goal was they were trying to achieve when they caused or hit that problem. And finally, you can decide on what prompted the protagonist to have this goal in the first place.
Avoid plot holes: It’s very easy to create plot holes when you start a story from the very beginning and it’s also very time-consuming. If you’ve already put in a lot of hard work into writing a script, it’s hard when you reach the end and discover a major story flaw. It can be crushing. For example, wouldn’t it be easier to train the astronauts how to drill rather than train a bunch of oil-riggers how to become astronauts in Armageddon? And why would aliens who could easily be killed by water invade a planet covered in 70% of the stuff in Signs? Had the writers worked backward, they might’ve been able to avoid such huge questions. Bullet-pointing plot points backwards can help avoid this because you can keep track of all the moving parts.
WHEN TO TRY WRITING BACKWARDS?
Let’s consider the real world for a minute. If you’re stuck or having difficulty getting from A to B, then it might be time to try to get from B to A. Instead of trying to find out what’s coming next, you’ll be figuring out what happened to get you to a certain time and place. Sure, this limits the potential possibilities, but this, in turn, might help you keep focus.
You don’t have to start at the very end to use this technique either! Plotting backwards from any scene or act break can also help make plotlines, character arcs, and themes much more tightly weaved together. There is every chance that you might need to adjust the beginning to better fit the ending, but as the majority of script problems can usually be traced back to issues in the first act, you’d potentially be avoiding costly rewrites too.
To sum up, writing backwards is just one of many methods to write a screenplay, and with everything, it’s often a case of trial and error until you find what works best for you.
Have fun, experiment, the main thing is to keep writing!
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.
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