MONDAY'S SCRIPT TIP:

TENNIS PLOTTING


In THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING there's a chapter on character, coincidence, and plot. The best way to avoid coincidence is through cause and effect plotting. Everything happens for a reason - nothing is the result of coincidence.

Think of your story as a game of tennis. The ball doesn't just hop over the net on its own... somebody has to hit it. Same thing with a story. Things don't just happen on their own, they happen because someone causes them to happen. After that, another character reacts to that event, and that reaction knocks the ball back over the net, so that the other player must react to it. The ball isn't going back and forth on its own, characters are hitting it!

Usually the antagonist serves - they create the problem that the protagonist must solve.

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In Graham Yost's SPEED Dennis Hopper rigs explosives to the cables of an elevator. He blows up the elevator cables, sending a car full of people into free-fall... until the emergency brakes catch them... but Hopper has explosives attached to the brakes, too, and he demands $3 million or he'll send the elevator car full of passengers crashing to the basement. That's his serve.

Keanu Reeves and the SWAT Team show up to prevent the elevator car from falling. The ball is in their court, and they have to hit it back. Keanu and Jeff Daniels volunteer to check the explosives on the elevator. They discover it's a very professional job - no way to disarm the bomb... but Keanu has an idea. He takes the cable from a window washer platform and attaches it to the elevator... The ball has been knocked back into Hopper's court.

Hopper hears them do this, and blows the elevator brakes. The elevator falls... Knocking the ball back into Keanu's court.

But is stopped by the window washer cable. Keanu and Jeff save the passengers. They realize that Hopper blew the brakes in response to them attaching the window washer cable... which means he's in the building. Jeff and Keanu figure out he's in the freight elevator, and climb down to attack. Knocking the ball back to Hopper's side of the net.

Hopper captures Jeff, reveals that he has explosives strapped on his body and a pressure release trigger in his hand - he will explode himself, Jeff, and the whole building unless Keanu drops his gun and allows Hopper to escape. Knocking the ball back to Keanu.

Keanu shoots Jeff in the legs - making him a hostage that Hopper must carry. How can Hopper escape while carrying a guy? That knocks the ball back into Hopper's court. Hopper lets go of Jeff and escapes... only to explode in the building's garage. You might think that Keanu has won this round, but the explosion is Hopper's return volley. He has faked his own death in order to get away.

Now, if we were to look at the MOTIVATION for Dennis Hopper's elevator plan, we'd find out that he was a 30 year veteran of the Atlanta PD bomb squad who was injured in an explosion and has been denied his pension. He wants $3 million - $100k for every year he spent on the police force... every year he wasted in service of a police force that didn't appreciate him. "I got a medal and a pink slip." So Hopper's "serve" is motivated. That serve is in reaction to another action. We could trace back the actions and reactions behind being denied his money if we wanted - there would be a reason. Everything has a reason - there is no coincidence in this story.

Hopper still needs his pension, and now he's mad at Keanu for screwing up his plan. He spent 2 years setting up that job, and wants the money due him. He sees Keanu getting a medal on the news, and decides to hit the ball back into Keanu's court...

By planting a bomb on bus #2525 that will explode if the bus goes below 50mph... and calling Keanu to tell him about it. Again - this is a logical reaction to Keanu foiling the elevator plan. He not only wants his money, he wants revenge against Keanu for foiling his elevator plan. The ball is back in Keanu's court.

Keanu hops on the bus to save the passengers and foil Hopper's new bus plan.

On the bus there are many times where they hit the ball back-and-forth to each other. Keanu gets the injured driver off the bus, and a passenger tries to get off at the same time... so Hopper sets off an explosive charge near the doors and kills the passenger. Hopper's bomb will explode if the bus goes below 50mph and rush hour traffic threatens to slow them down, so Keanu takes the buss off the freeway and onto the LA Airport runway where there is no traffic. Hopper has a timer (attached to his gold watch) that will blow up the bus even if it continues circling the runway at 50mph. Ball back in Keanu's court. Hopper seems to know exactly what is going on in the bus, Keanu searches and discovers the hidden cameras on the bus. Keanu has a video loop made of the passengers on the bus to fool Hopper so that he can off-load the passengers. Ball back in Hopper's court. Back and forth - each one knocks the ball back to the other. Each even is in reaction to the one that comes before it. Nothing happens by coincidence, it's all a result of cause and effect.

Here's where plotting often breaks down in bad scripts - after the initial "serve" the protagonist or antagonist quit playing for a while, and the ball bounces back and forth on its own. That's impossible, and we know it. Or the ball is hit to some other player on some other court, and even if the ball is hit back to our court and our protagonist, it isn't really part of the game, is it? When something (good or bad) happens without reason, it seems impossible. It's that ball bouncing back on its own, or the protagonist swings his racquet and misses but the ball hits a bird flying over the court and goes back to the antagonist's side of the net. That just doesn't seem within the rules!

We want the ball to bounce back and forth between the antagonist and protagonist - each reacting to what the other has done.

If the antagonist has a gun to the protagonist's head, and suddenly the police show up to save the day, that's not real. Nothing has caused the police to show up. If the protagonist tells the police that the antagonist will soon put a gun to his head, that's unreal - how can the protagonist know exactly what the antagonist will do? Everything that happens has to be logically motivated. Everything is a reaction to some action that happened previously. You need to be able to trace back the reactions to actions - and those actions need to be logical... something the audience might do if they were the character. Hopper may be a mad bomber, but he's got a logical reason for everything he does. He wants the money he thinks he deserves, and will blow stuff up until he gets it. There are reasons behind his actions. Nothing is a coincidence.

Think of your story like a game of tennis.


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