Script Coverage Chronicles – December 2015: Cheating On Your Loved One

When I say cheating on your loved one in this blog, I’m of course referring to cheating on your screenplay’s plot.  Our stories are dear to our hearts, and they depend on us, so in the New Year let’s all resolve to cheat less (in our plotting). 

Reading as many screenplays as I do has made me notice certain shortcuts screenwriters use in early drafts.  These shortcuts or “cheats” can detract from what is otherwise a strong story. 

Here are three of these “cheats” to keep in mind:

The False Holdback

This is when a character in your story has the ability and the motivation to take an action early in the story but for no other reason but plotting convenience decides to wait until later. 

Here’s an example from an actual script:

A guy is stuck in this mysterious underground labyrinth.  While exploring the place he finds some kind of weird electronic device and puts it in his backpack.  During the next hour or so, the guy meets various other characters who have knowledge of the labyrinth, but this guy never mentions the device he’s found or thinks to ask about it. At an opportune moment, a light bulb goes off in the guy’s head, and he takes out the device and asks, “Any of you guys know what this is?”  Turns out it’s an electronic key that facilitates eventual escape.

This is a false holdback because the guy is totally motivated to escape and he has something that might be a tool.  He has the opportunity to ask about it right away, but he waits.  His delay until later in the story is purely for plot convenience. 

There are various other ways one can commit a false holdback, and it’s often a bit subtler than the example above.  For instance, a character chooses not to reveal a secret until Act Three when there really isn’t any good reason for that character to wait so long (other than plotting convenience). 

Whenever you have a character that has the motive and opportunity to do something but that character inexplicably hesitates, it may be time to ask:

Am I cheating here?

The Coincidence

A producer I worked with once said to me that in each screenplay you’re allowed one coincidence, and in a comedy it can be big. 

Whenever possible, in whatever genre, it’s ideal to plot around all coincidences, but this producer’s point is well taken:  You certainly don’t want multiple coincidences, and you really don’t want large coincidences in the more “realistic” genres.

A writer once told me he went through a twenty minute pitch in front of an exec – really put his heart into it – and at the end of the pitch the exec had only one comment:  “Too many coincidences.” 

There’s really no secret to avoiding this kind of cheat.   We all know what a coincidence looks like.  It’s just a matter of discipline.  Every once in a while, the use of a coincidence is the lesser of evils at hand, but ninety five percent of the time, it’s just not necessary.  So if you’ve got one or more coincidences in your screenplay, it may be time to ask: 

Am I cheating here?

The Out Of Nowhere Resolution

We’re late in Act Three, and it’s finally time for your protagonist to defeat the bad guy.  Let’s say for purposes of discussion that this happens in a gunfight.  Bullets are flying, and your protagonist takes a shot at your bad guy, and he hits him, and it’s over. 

That feels pretty anti-climactic, doesn’t it?  Okay, so you rewrite.  Your main character finds a cannon next to him and blasts the bad guy to smithereens.  That’s a much bigger boom.  And yet it still feels anti-climactic. 


Because you’re committing some serious narrative adultery here.

It’s a resolution that needs to be set up.  Big moments like that, when the good guy finally prevails, they need to be set up earlier in the script.  In other words, when you’re dealing with the resolution of a major conflict, it’s almost always better when that resolution is a pay off to a set up.

So you go back to the gunfight to rewrite.  This time, you’ll add some backstory.  Earlier in the script the buddy of your good guy has been telling him about a secret weapon the government has been developing, a laser gun, like in Star Wars.  Your main character has heard the rumors and believes they’re completely bogus.  Now we’re in this gunfight, in some secret bunker, and just when things are looking grim for the good guy, he finds this laser gun, and that’s what he uses to dispatch his nemesis.

This version of the plot (while admittedly not pure genius:-), feels much more climactic, because the key resolution – killing the bad guy – has been done in a way that was previously set up.

So if your climactic moments are going down in ways that seem to come out of nowhere, it may be time to ask:

Am I cheating here?

Happy 2016 to all!