David Ball on Breaking Down the Action
Using backwards and forward writing to craft a cohesive screenplay
“An event is anything that happens. When one event causes or permits another event, the two events together comprise an action. Actions are a [screenplay’s] primary building blocks.”—David Ball
by Carla Iacovetti
In order to comprehend how a screenplay works, you need to have a keen understanding of action and be more than familiar with the tools to create an engaging story that moves forward. Action is a springboard; it gives impetus to the story, and a screenplay is comprised of a series of events that are connected by action.
Sir Isaac Newton said, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction,” and while screenwriting has little to do with physics, there appears to be a connecting thread. Action is the result of an event. The incident brings about conflict and the action is the response to the conflict. Dramatic action has two parts.
David Ball, the author of the bestseller Backwards & Forwards says, “Find the first event of each action, then the second, then the connection between the two.” While Backwards & Forwards was originally written for a graduate class when Dr. Ball was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, it has been used as a reference book for both theatrical students and film schools since it was first published in 1983.
Ball suggests you cannot have an action without a response or reaction. So, when you take the time to locate the first event of each action, you will discover a link between actions. For example: Julie is visiting her friend Becca and Julie says, “My throat is parched.” It should be no surprise when Becca offers Julie a cold beverage. Her action is a response to Julie’s need—action and reaction. Of course, this is easy to track because Becca was politely compliant. Imagine what would happen if Becca’s response was aggravated and incompliant saying, “I don’t really have anything to give you, and the nearest store is 10 miles up the road.” The tone significantly changed with the addition of conflict. Becca’s interaction with Julie is not only abrupt and rude; it stands in the way of Julie getting what she wants. This is the kind of dramatic conflict (opposition) that opens the door for action, and action is always the byproduct of conflict.
In real life, every day is about connected events. A mother is in the kitchen making lunches for her three kids who sit at the table eating breakfast. Once they have finished eating, they each grab a lunch and rush out the door; events lead to other events. “One event requires a second event,” says Ball.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the domino effect as a “Cumulative effect produced when one event initiates a succession of similar events.” It is best compared to a ripple effect or chain reaction that can typically be observed with a falling row of dominoes. What does this have to do with writing a screenplay? A lot.
In the Academy Award winning movie Braveheart, the audience is introduced to the young William Wallace after viewing a beautiful pastoral setting, which gives the impression of complete serenity—a serenity that is about to change. We are immediately moved into Scotland’s violent and tempestuous history, and the events that lead up to William Wallace’s fight for freedom. Events like Young William walking into a barn full of hanging nobles, women and children, a message from his dead father, encouraging William to follow his heart, and the vision of his beautiful wife Murron, who was brutally murdered by Longshank’s men.
These events are pivotal to the plot moving forward, and they give the audience pertinent information to help them understand William’s crusade to avenge the murder of his wife, and the innocent people of Scotland. Without an understanding of prior events, the story will not make sense, and each event triggers a succession of following events, which birth action.
Action-producing events are the glue that holds a story together, and takes the audience into the story. For a story to have cohesiveness the dominoes need to connect. In other words, a well-written screenplay must have a sequence of events that are united. In Backwards & Forwards, Ball encourages writers to “find each action: find each action’s first event (its trigger), then its second event (its heap).”
How do you successfully examine the plot, the characters and theme of a screenplay? How do you break a script down? It’s all about analysis and understanding the mechanics of well-crafted writing, and according to Ball, “The story works better if the dominoes connect. Reading a script backwards and forwards enables you to make sure you recognize its cohesiveness. Going backwards is from event to event to event.” To understand the immediate, you have to look at what happened prior.
The beauty behind this kind of script analysis is that it becomes very easy to see where things are not working. Ball says, “Going backwards exposes the blanks.” It is also a great way to determine if the events are being manipulated in the writing.
Go to the action and look backwards. What triggered the action? In Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith’s screenplay for Legally Blonde, Elle Woods (the protagonist) zealously studies to get into Harvard Law School. Why does she do that? Why does a social butterfly from Beverly Hills, who relates to designer labels, and extended shopping sprees while living in the lap of luxury decide to completely alter her life and move to Cambridge Massachusetts to embark on a law degree? Looking backwards to the events that lead up to her actions will connect the dots. Her fiancé Warner Huffington III breaks up with her instead of proposing marriage, and this is the catalyst that sets her on the journey of a lifetime.
Elle doesn’t really look like the Harvard Law type, and the once popular sorority sister finds herself in a situation; she doesn’t fit in, and her peers reject her. Worse still, she believes that she “looks the part.” On her way to class, she sees Warner and walks toward him, but she walks right past him instead.
Examining the events in reverse order, as Ball suggests, enables us to see how the dominoes fell. Ball says, “Going forwards allows unpredictable possibility. Going backwards exposes that which is required.” It is reflective—it has already happened. So, when looking objectively at a script, it becomes much easier to identify problem areas. “When you discover an event you cannot connect to a previous event, you know there is a problem for either reader or writer to solve.” Looking at Legally Blonde backwards reveals how the scenes are linked together from beginning to end.
In addition to reading a script backwards to connect every action, a good screenwriter knows how to build an audience’s anticipation. This technique is commonly known as “a forward.” Ball says, “The most important thing is the concept of forward, and it will make the difference between a good script and a bad script. A script without a forward is nothing but wishful thinking on the part of the writer. If you master your forwards, the audience will be more interested in your script.”
The forward is not foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is used as a plot device to help make the story believable, and it becomes apparent as the plot unfolds. It reveals. The forward is what creates dramatic tension, and pulls the audience deeper into the story. Making a comparison between dramatic and non-dramatic writing, Ball reveals that there is a distinct difference between dramatic writing (whether for the stage or screen) and non-dramatic writing.
There is a distinct rhythm that can be found in all writing. In the same manner that a piece of music has variations in tempo, writing is much the same. When the cadence in a melody crescendos, the volume rises, and a listener can feel tension in the music, and often the body responds. In film, the movement of action goes from scene to scene, which is prodded largely by conflict. It creates a rhythm, and each scene must have it to keep an audience interested. So, in the same way that a piece of music has high and low points, a well-crafted screenplay should have the same. In the same way that each measure of music is connected, so every scene should connect to the previous scene. In addition, a good scene should open with a question and end with a question. This kind of writing device will taunt the audience and keep them in a constant state of anticipation.
“A forward is any of a myriad of devices, techniques, tricks, maneuvers, manipulations, appetizers, tantalizers, teasers, that make an audience eager for what’s coming up,” says Ball. A forward is a type of structural strategy.
In the awarded film The Graduate (1967), written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham, the writers effectively keep the audience suspended from scene to scene, and they do it in a remarkable way. The flawed protagonist, Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate is in for the education of a lifetime after he moves back home and is seduced by the wife of his father’s business partner. Quite ironically, he is anxious about his future.
Part of the brilliance of Henry and Willingham’s story is that the writers use the dualities of two characters—characters representing two different generations, and who are as different as night and day. Ben is a worrywart, naïve, turned-off by a plastic, adult world, and completely out of his element, while Mrs. Robinson (the antagonist) is calculating, unhappy in her marriage and sexually frustrated. Robinson is like a fire to his icy, passive personality. While attending Ben’s graduation party, a party that Ben doesn’t even want to be at, Mrs. Robinson shrewdly wanders into his bedroom pretending to look for the bathroom. She has had her eye on him the entire evening, and Ben’s world is never the same.
There are a series of forwards in the scenes that follow that shift the focus of the story to a promising premise—an affair between Ben and Mrs. Robinson. This maneuver helps to keep the audience waiting with eager anticipation. The audience is already aware that Ben is in serious need of change. He is worried and disillusioned with the superficial world of his parents, and he wants to make his own way. Mrs. Robinson wants a ride home. Ben is reluctant, but she persuades him. From the moment Ben grudgingly agrees to drive her home, the rhythm shifts, and things crescendo. Mrs. Robinson is a master of manipulation, and lets Ben know that she does not want to be home alone. He surrenders and goes inside her house. Once inside, she offers him a drink and the intensity of the awkward situation continues.
She has had this planned from the get go, and the audience knows it, but the tension that is created with this kind of forwarding dialogue keeps the audience transfixed in the story, and hanging on every word.
Embarrassed and confused, Ben starts to guzzle his drink. With a definite goal in site, Mrs. Robinson lures him upstairs to show him a recent portrait of her daughter Elaine. It is an interesting twist in the plot, because he will end up falling in love with Elaine. While Ben looks at the portrait, Mrs. Robinson nonchalantly begins to undress and asks Ben for his help.
The tension mounts as Mrs. Robinson continues with her sexually aggressive pursuit and suddenly appears naked. Freaked-out, Benjamin tries to avert his eyes, yelling: “Oh God, oh, let me out.”
The audience knows what’s coming, but the anticipation is the tool that maneuvers them. This is not the time anyone will run out to grab popcorn. They will want to stick around to watch the unfolding.
“In a dramatic format, your primary job is to make the audience want to hear or see what’s coming next. If you have a moment in your script where there are no forwards in place, fix it! The forward is the ultimate measure, and this is true for all forms of dramatic art,” says Ball.
Whether you are writing science fiction, a suspenseful thriller, an action-packed adventure, a dramatic tearjerker or a side-bending comedy, understanding how action works to move the story forward is vital. Part of that understanding comes by reading your script objectively, and reading backwards and then forwards is a great way to locate problem areas in the script. A script is all about action, not dialogue, and mastering technique is not an option.
Ball says, “Screenwriting is a group art form. It is largely technique, plus art and inspiration. If you want to play, you have to learn how the game is played. Successful writers master a technique before they reject it.”
Many of the concepts quoted by Dr. Ball in this article are more fully explained, along with others, in his book Backwards & Forwards.