Screenwriters, playwrights and novelists have a wonderful tool that serialized writers lack: we can write backwards. If you find you’ve run into trouble with a scene, or a character, or a plot, don’t try to plow forward and write your way out of it. Plow backwards, and bury the seed of the solution far enough in the past that it’ll be ready to sprout just when you need it. As with most other problems in life, the best time to fix a scene is before it starts:
- If something wild is going to happen in this scene, can you foreshadow it? The audience is less likely to say “this makes no sense,” if they’re too busy saying, “Oh, this must be what that was referring to earlier! How clever!” “Doctor Who” gets away with this trick a lot.
- Can you establish that the characters have painfully unrealistic expectations about what’s going to happen? A reversal is so much more upsetting if we know that the character (and the audience) were fully expecting and depending on a totally different outcome. Maybe you can add a little brief scene beforehand where the hero rehearses how well they think that it’s going to go… Or if they’re about to find a key resource is gone, then you end the previous scene by giving them a boast about how they’ve got an ace in the hole.
- Can you pre-load the dialogue with meaning? If the hero said, many scenes back, “I always know she’s coming back because she always says [blank]” Then, in this scene, when she doesn’t say that, we instantly guess how serious it is, at the same time our hero does.
Think of the scene in Singles where Bridget Fonda sneezes and her humbled ex-boyfriend Matt Dillon automatically mumbles, “Bless you.” That’s it, but it’s a wonderful love scene, because we had heard her tell a friend many scenes back about how heartbreaking it was that he never said that. Rather than put them in that elevator and force them to spew reams of dialogue about how he’s changed and how she’s maybe ready to believe him, we get a wonderful two word scene that convinces us they will get back together, because the writer was clever enough to lay the groundwork beforehand.
Audiences love this. We love learning the secret language of characters. We love knowing that, for her, “bless you” means, “I love you.” We love it especially when we forget all about it, then see it suddenly pay off much later. Only if we know the characters’ expectations beforehand can we experience the same emotion reactions at the same time as they do. This is true emotional identification.