According to the well-known Chinese proverb, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Writing a screenplay or novel can certainly feel like such a journey. But that doesn’t mean your first step has to be the first scene or sentence of your story. In fact, I’m beginning to think another process works must better: start with the climax.
By writing the climax first, you’ll then know what elements must be in the beginning and middle.
The reason this works is because the climax is what I like to call a singularity setpiece.
A setpiece is a big, dramatically important sequence (a series of scenes) in a story, such as the dance competition in Silver Linings Playbook.
And by singularity, I mean a gravitational singularity, such as what we had just before the Big Bang, when there was infinite density of matter compressed into an exceedingly small space.
So, by analogy, a singularity setpiece in a film is a setpiece in which the various story threads or lines of action are at maximum density during a short period of time (usually somewhere between 2 to 20 minutes). That is, all the story threads from the movie, or nearly all of them, converge in one setpiece.
For example, in Silver Linings Playbook, there are several story threads: Pat’s pursuit of his ex-wife, Nikki; the father’s parlay bet with the neighbor; Pat and Tiffany’s romantic relationship; and Tiffany’s promiscuous behavior. All four story threads converge in the climactic dance competition sequence and its aftermath.
Thus, if you know what is in your singularity setpiece (i.e., your climax), you have the ingredients for the whole story. That is, the singularity setpiece, just like the singularity before the Big Bang, contains everything you need to seed your story universe.
Enter Chekhov’s Grenade . . . I Mean, Gun
The reason the climax gives you the beginning and middle of your story is because of Chekhov’s gun, which in short states, if there is a gun in the first act, it must go off in a later act; otherwise, the gun shouldn’t be in the story at all.
Chekhov’s gun doesn’t only apply to physical objects in a story; it applies to any story element. Thus, if in the story’s beginning, we learn that character A has never cried in her adult life, that information, that element, must pay off in the end. See The Holiday.
In other words, screenplays and novels are like an equation that must balance out. Everything that is set up in the beginning and middle must be paid off in the ending, and everything in the ending must be set up.
What I mean by “set up” is that the element must be introduced or established. What I mean by “paid off” is that we return to the element that was established or introduced.
If you were to express Chekhov’s gun algebraically, it would looks something like this: If the beginning and middle contain A, B, C, D, and E, then the climax must also contain A, B, C, D, and E.
You can see this algebraic relationship very clearly in the recent movie Ready Player One, a fun, conflict-driven movie from Steven Spielberg.
The singularity setpiece of Ready Player One is the climactic battle between all the avatars on Planet Doom. In that climax, nearly everything the writers set up in the beginning and middle of the movie is present: the Back to the Future car, the Iron Giant, the orb of osuvox, all of the main and supporting characters on both sides, and the special grenade that Parzival buys after winning the first challenge.
(Yes, if there is a grenade in the first act, it must go off in the third.)
Whereas each of these elements was the focus of an entire scene earlier in the movie, they are all there at once in the singularity setpiece of the climax. We get maximum density, compressed into a short time frame.
Yes, there are some things that are set up in the middle and not paid off until the denouement, such as the idea of taking the leap and kissing the girl. But if you include both the climax and denouement, every one of Chekhov’s guns from the beginning and middle goes off. Both sides of the equation are equal by the end of the movie.
If There is Dancing in the First Act, There Must be Dancing in the Third Act
Imagine if I pitched you an action/adventure movie in which the climactic choice will be the hero taking another person’s hand.
You’d probably stare back at me blankly, underwhelmed.
Imagine that I added that the hero also dances to distract the villain.
Another blank stare. Ummmmmm.
What I’m describing, of course, is one of the most popular movies of the last ten years: Guardians of the Galaxy.
Like Silver Linings Playbook and Ready Player One, Guardians also has a singularity setpiece that pays off everything that the writers set up in the beginning and middle of the movie. That setpiece is the battle with Ronan.
In the first scene of the movie, we see Peter failing to take his mother’s hand. In the second scene, we see him dancing as he goes about his thieving.
In the climax, both things play a significant role: first, he dances to distract Ronan, and then he takes Gamora’s hand to help control the power of the Infinity Stone.
Here are the other set-ups that pay off in the climax:
— The writers set up the Nova Corps officers when the Guardians are captured; the officers then play a role in the battle against Ronan.
— The writers set up “I am Groot” as the only thing Groot says throughout the movie. Then, we pay it off with the emotional “We are Groot” line.
— Nebula is set up as a character in the middle of the movie and shows up in the climax.
— The writers set up Yondu’s arrow as a threat in the beginning and middle of the movie, and then we finally see it in action during the climax.
— The writers set up the troll doll earlier in the movie, and then we see it in the climax when Peter uses it as part of his switcheroo for the Infinity Stone.
I may be forgetting other elements that pay off in the climax, but as you can see from the above, both sides of the equation are once again equal.
Aiming Chekhov’s Gun Right at the Heart
Peter’s failure to take his mother’s hand and his taking of Gamora’s hand, along with the “I am Groot” to “We are Groot” change, provide the emotional power of Guardians of the Galaxy, elevating the movie from something merely fun to something great.
So, how can you do something similar with the climax of your story? The three-step key to creating an emotionally powerful moment through Chekhov’s gun is this:
1. Ask yourself what is the thing your character can’t do at the start of your story that he or she can do by the end?
2. Decide what that thing means emotionally and figure out how to convey that emotion.
3. Be as visual as possible in coming up with the setup and payoff moments, even imagining that you are writing a silent film, and dialogue is not an option. (But you can use dialogue if that works best.)
Take My Hand
We can see each of these steps in Guardians. Let’s look first at Peter’s hand-holding issues.
In the set-up, we see him in the hospital, and he fails to take his mother’s hand after she asks. Peter doesn’t say why, but we can guess: seeing his mother die is just too hard for him.
Step 2 is subtler, and with something like taking a hand, additional information isn’t really needed: the act is already imbued with meaning in our culture: hand-holding means connection and affection.
But, even so, the writers set up the significance of the Guardians joining hands during the climax with Peter’s speech before the battle. Peter says, “When I look around, you know what I see? Losers. I mean like, folks who have lost stuff. And we have, man, we have, all of us. Homes, and our families, normal lives. And you think life takes more than it gives, but not today. Today it’s giving us something. It is giving us a chance.”
As this speech shows, Peter and the rest of the Guardians are clone characters: each has lost something: Drax has lost his wife and child, Gamora lost her mother and home planet, Peter lost his mother and home planet, and Rocket lost his innocence by being made into what he is from the raccoon he started out as.
[If you want to read more about clone characters, check out How Clone Characters Can Improve Your Story.]
No, we don’t know what Groot has lost, if anything, but he doesn’t play a role in the hand-holding scene.
Step 3 is the visual payoff of Peter doing the thing he couldn’t do at the start of the movie: he takes someone’s hand. The writers make sure to show us Peter’s mother again so that the audience, which hasn’t seen the first scene in over an hour, makes the connection. Drax and Rocket then also join hands with Peter and Gamora, and it’s clear without needing to be said what has happened: these four have created a family after losing their own families.
We Are Groot
The same steps exist in the We are Groot change.
Step 1: What is the thing that Groot can’t do at the start of the film? He can’t say anything other than I am Groot.
Step 2: What does this mean emotionally? Here, again, it’s more implied than anything, so it’s not as though you need a scene for this step. But, to most people, when they see Groot and understand that all he can say is this simple phrase identifying himself, they get the impression that Groot is simple and child-like. Other moments underscore this, such as his innocent expressions as he kills various foot soldiers. We don’t really consider Groot capable of profound insights, so it comes as a surprise when . . .
Step 3: Groot says something insightful and different. Although only one word changes, the difference in meaning is great, with Groot in effect saying, “We are all in this together as a family.” The moment is also very visual, with Groot having wrapped the team in a protective thicket of roots.
The Dark Knight Dines on a Palazzo
One more quick example is worth covering. In The Dark Knight Rises, we get the set-up of Alfred’s hope that he would one day see Bruce in Italy, that they wouldn’t say anything to one another, but Alfred would know that Bruce was finally all right.
Notice that the set-up contains both steps 1 and 2: the thing that Bruce hasn’t done at the start of the story (being seen by Alfred in Italy) and what it would mean emotionally–that Bruce is now okay. In the film, as Alfred describes his hope, we even get the visual of Alfred in Italy in the past looking for Bruce but not seeing him.
We then get the payoff at the end of the film, just as Alfred wanted it: Alfred and Bruce see one another across the way at the cafe in Italy, neither says anything, and Alfred, as well as the audience, know that Bruce is finally okay.
Setup and payoff. Balanced equation.
Imagine if we had only one scene and not the other. Imagine, for example, we had the set-up scene but not the denouement scene with Bruce in Italy. We would wonder why the movie had included the Alfred speech. It would seem unnecessary.
Similarly, if we had the ending scene without the setup, we wouldn’t fully appreciate the Italy scene, and Italy would strike us as a random place for Bruce to re-surface.
Thus, both the setup and payoff scenes are necessary.
Mystery Climaxes vs. Conflict Climaxes
Ready Player One, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Silver Linings Playbook all have climaxes/singularity setpieces driven by conflict. In the case of Silver Linings Playbook, the conflict comes from Pat and Tiffany’s tension and their dance missteps.
But you can also have a climax / singularity setpiece in which all the unanswered questions that were set up in the beginning and middle are paid off. You can find this type of mystery climax in any PBS British mystery show or movie. The first two-thirds are introducing questions, and the climax is the detective explaining what everything we saw and had questions about meant.
Setup and payoff. Balanced equation.
Starting at the End
You’ve probably had a similar experience to me in writing a story from the beginning of the plot to the end. In doing so, you create A, B, C, D, and E during the beginning and the middle, and then you go to write your climax, and you realize, “Actually, I don’t need B or D, and moreover, I do need R and S.”
So, now, of course, you have to go back and cut B and D from the story and make sure you set up R and S.
If you instead start with the climax and the denouement, you will
1) be able to see whether you have an exciting, satisfying climax and ending, and
2) you will know exactly what you need for the story’s beginning and middle. You can then write the story either backwards from the end, or you can write it from the beginning until you get to the already-completed climax and denouement.
The first point is important because the climax is where all the emotional power of the story is. If you write the climax first, and you’re underwhelmed or bored, you’ll know that the overall story won’t work. You can then fix the climax and ensure that your story will have emotional punch before you spend all that time on the beginning and middle.
Of course, to write the climax, you’ll have to contemplate to some extent where your character starts in the story and what it is he or she is incapable of at the beginning. So, I don’t mean to imply that it’s easy to write the climax without thinking about the beginning. But you don’t have to write the beginning. You can just think about who your character is at the start.
Paint Your Character into a Corner
If you’re writing a conflict-driven singularity setpiece / climactic battle, one effective approach to making it exciting is to keep painting your character into a corner. You have to keep putting the character into situations for which you have no idea how you’ll get him out.
Eventually, you’ll figure out a way to extricate your character, generally with an element that will then become a setup.
For example, in Ready Player One, during the climactic battle, there is a scene in which Parzival is surrounded by many enemy “Sixers” and has no way through. He’s in a corner. Now, imagine you were writing the scene, without knowing the beginning of the movie. How would you get him out?
After some time, you might realize that a grenade would work. So, you have Parzival use a grenade to get out of that corner. Now, all you need to do is set up that grenade earlier in the story (ideally in a way that the audience will have forgotten about it by the time they get to the climax). That, of course, is what actually happens in Ready Player One; the writers set up the grenade early in the story, and most audience members promptly forget about it.
Then, you just repeat the process: put the character in another situation where his goal seems insurmountable (even to you). Then, once you come up with some solution, some X element, then you know that you need to set up “X” in the beginning or the middle.
Design the Climax to Force the Climactic Choice
The climax of the climax is the climactic choice–the one thing the whole movie has been building toward. In Guardians of the Galaxy, that climactic choice is Peter taking Gamora’s hand.
So, in getting to that moment, design the climax in a way that forces the character to make a choice: the character must either do the thing they couldn’t do at the start of the movie or fail. In Guardians, Peter can either hold the Infinity Stone by himself and be torn apart by its power, or he can finally take a family member’s hand.
In Silver Linings Playbook, Pat, having danced well in front of Nikki, faces his climactic choice: return to his ex-wife (which would represent a failure of personal growth) or move on with Tiffany. His ex-wife is right there for the taking; she has come to the dance competition and smiled as Pat performed. She was impressed. Pat could probably have her back if he wanted. But he chooses Tiffany. He does the thing that at the start of the movie he couldn’t do: he moves on from his ex-wife.
(And, yes, Pat had actually already chosen Tiffany in his mind (off-screen) before the competition, as the letter he reads to Tiffany in the last scene reveals, but the audience experiences the climactic choice in the climax because we’re not privy to his letter until then.)
An Incomplete Setup
As for Ready Player One, it’s not as clear what the climactic choice is. As much as I enjoyed the movie, and as loath as I am to criticize it, I think the movie was robbed of some of its potential emotional power by the very limited first act we got.
We don’t really have a clear understanding of Wade’s emotional need.
I think what the writers could have instead done was set up Wade as a character who needs to connect with others. Then, when we get to the climax, he has to make a choice that shows he can now actually connect with others.
“People should connect with one another in a meaningful way” seems to be the most obvious theme of the story, and Halliday, the inventor of the Oasis, would then be a clone character of Wade: a cautionary tale about what will happen to Wade if he doesn’t learn to connect with people.
But that’s not what we get in the movie. From the beginning, Wade seems capable of connecting with people just fine; he already has several friends in the Oasis.
Of course, we do get the nice moment of Wade “taking the leap” with the girl at the end. Plus, in the ending, Wade chooses to “clan up” and to close the Oasis for two days each week. All of this supports a central dramatic argument that we all need to connect with other people. But these moments don’t “land” as emotionally powerfully as they could have because the beginning doesn’t set up Wade sufficiently. The equation is not balanced.
I could be wrong, but that it is how the movie played for me.
Time to Pay Off this Post
So, I began / set up this post with a quote, and now I must pay off that beginning with another quote:
“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
For stories, on the other hand, while we can only understand those backwards too, we can write them backwards as well.
So, instead of living/writing your plot forwards and not understanding what each individual plot choice from the beginning and middle is going to add up to, start with your climax, which contains the meaning of the story, and then go backwards from there.
Create your climactic singularity setpiece, packing it as densely as possible with characters, choices, emotions, and meaning, and then take that singularity, unleash the Big Bang, and scatter those story elements across your story universe, sprinkling parts of that singularity throughout the beginning and the middle of story, so that everything in the climax is properly set up.
After all . . . you are the God of this universe, aren’t you?
If you’re interested in building your story around a central dramatic argument, sign up for the below Holy Grail of Story Design.