In my years doing coverage for Alliance Atlantis back in the 90’s, I probably read a few hundred submitted screenplays. Most, if not all, were pretty bad. While it was kind of monotonous, it also made me realize that writers shouldn’t be intimidated by the sheer number of screenplays floating around. Most of them are terrible.
Being a reader never paid very much, but was invaluable as a way of learning screenwriting and, even more important, getting a feel for why a screenplay didn’t work. Just like watching bad movies, reading a terrible screenplay can be almost more educational than reading Chinatown. Most of the screenplays I was reading were basically carbon copies of other successful movies of the time. But even while attempting to clone another successful story, the writers would completely miss the mark on why the source material worked in the first place.
We all know that films need structure and structure can be broken down from Acts (Whether 3 or 5 or 10), and then further broken down into scenes. What I would like to discuss for a moment is something I very rarely see discussed in screenwriting books, but it’s a huge part of why a story works. To make it simple, I will call it MAC. Mystery, Action, Complication.
As with any story, there are plenty of great screenplays that don’t have this. But I find that, if you go through your scenes and try to find ways of using this technique your story will not only be more dynamic, but it will also pull your audience in quickly and allow them to engage with the story by simply becoming an active participant.
1. Mystery or Problem
When I talk about mystery, I’m not talking about finding a dead body at the opening like CSI. Creating a mystery at the opening is all about withholding information so an audience must be active participant in the story. Directors use this all the time when starting a scene. For example, whenever you start a sound for a scene before you see what the sound is, you are dynamically pulling the audience in because they are trying to figure out what they are hearing. Its something so small that we don’t even notice it these days unless it’s not there. The same when you start with an extreme close-up and then cut to a wide shot…you want the viewer to start problem solving. Where are they? What’s going on?
In screenwriting, one of the best ways to create this mystery is presenting a false reality. We are presented with a world where there is something we’re not seeing. Whatever it is, you always want your audience a little ahead of your protagonist. Once we get started, there should be some part of the viewer that says “Wait a second, there’s something going on here.”
In most bad screenplays, writers have misunderstood the first act as simply a place to introduce characters and their worlds. And, on the surface that’s true. We have to empathize in some way with our protagonist so that we care when something happens to them in the second act. But the good screenwriters go much further than simply introducing characters. They engage with the reader and from the first moment are challenging us to figure things out. We may see a character who at first appears happy, but there are small clues that show that this is purely a facade. We begin to engage as a way of understanding the information we are being given.
2. Action or Reaction
Once the reader is engaged and actively with our protagonist trying to figure out what is going on, they will then decide on the proper action to resolve it. In many scripts this is where we really connect with a character because how they react to a problem will give us a lot of insight into their character. This is also a great moment for comic relief. I always remember the movie Signs, when Mel Gibson walks in to find the rest of the family wearing Aluminum Paper hats. This is funny because we are seeing a the reaction to a problem. In Lights Out, this comic moment happens when Lotta puts tape over the light switch as a reaction to the creature in the dark.
3. Complication or Twist
As our protagonist goes out to solve their problem, through their expectation we have our own idea of what the result will be. Imagine how boring it would be if a character worked towards a goal and then simply got what they were expecting. The TWIST or the complication comes at the end of the scene or series of scenes when the action of a character brings unexpected consequences and a new problem. Then, we start all over again. Dynamically pulling the audience through the story with the promise that all mysteries will be solved over time.
As with all screenwriting, there are no rules. NONE! But I find it helpful with my own writing to look at each scene and try to figure out why it’s not working. In many cases it’s because it could use more of this MAT technique to propel the story forward.
Mixing MAC with Bomb In A Box
On a side note, there are many other ways to bring an audience into a story quickly that are employed throughout great screenplays. One of the best is the Bomb In A Box technique which is the foundation of most modern horror films. Jaws is a perfect example, but if we look at it we have both of these techniques going on at the same time.
Let’s take a look…
We start with the POV of a shark under water with the famous Jaws theme. This is a Bomb In A Box. In other words, this is setting our expectation that at some moment this bomb is going to explode. Then, as we go to the kids on the beach, it isn’t just kids on the beach. We know there is danger lurking very close by.
When we start with Sheriff Brody, we’re back to MAC. Mystery: What killed the girl? Action: Close the Beaches Twist: The town doesn’t want the beaches closed.
Another great scene where we have the combination of both a Bomb In A Box and MAC is when Brody sits on the beach after he has been told not to close the beaches. We already have the bomb in the box in place (Shark), so now we start with mystery and putting the audience to work. With the opening of this entire sequence, we know something bad is going to happen and Spielberg plays with us because the biggest mystery of all is….where is the Shark? He also gives us some other little mysteries. The dog Pippet disappears. Although nobody else seems to really notice, the audience is getting a little red warning light. We have already solved this mystery for the dog’s owner. But the mystery remains, where’s Bruce the shark? Spielberg knows he has us. He tricks us with the sound of a screaming couple.
What is Brody’s ACTION? Nothing. Brody is impotent. In many ways this is the worst horror of all. Like being chased by a monster and suddenly your legs won’t work. So his action is in not warning people on the beach, and going against his better judgment. Imagine if Brody stood up and starting blowing his whistle, like he does in Jaws 2. Everyone gets off the beach. The scene dies.
But Brody just sits there, conflicted and annoyed. His lack of action will, of course, cause many complications especially when Kentner boy’s mom smacks him later and makes him face what his inaction cost. Of course, the final complication and the action that pulls us through to the next scene is the consequences of Brody’s action…the shark kills Alex Kentner thus propelling us to the next scene where a reward is put out and for the shark and Brody is faced with a set of new problems.
Storytelling is all about originality, so I honestly get sick of rule books and screenwriting gurus telling you what you have to do or shouldn’t do. Take this all with a grain of salt and if it helps a scene, use it. But don’t second guess yourself if a scene doesn’t follow this format. Tools are used to help the writing process, not to force your story into like a pair of ill fitting shoes.