(SPOILERS: Children of Men, Aliens, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, 30 Rock – 100th Episode)
There’s a technique in screenwriting known as Preparation in Opposition. This is when you heighten a twist or surprise by setting up the opposite. If you’re going to deliver bad news to the character, for example, set them up to be happy. More importantly, set up the audience to believe happy stuff is going to happen. Then the bad news is a greater shock. It sounds simple, but in practice it’s very easy to miss opportunities to do this.
One version of this technique has become cliché – if you’re watching an action movie and a cop announces he’s near retirement and shows you a picture of his adoring family and/or the boat he’s just bought, you can be sure he’s about to die. Recently I saw a TV show (30 Rock – 100th Episode: written by Jack Burditt & Robert Carlock & Tina Fey) and a movie (Black Dynamite: story by Michael Jai White & Byron Minns, screenplay by Michael Jai White & Byron Minns & Scott Sanders) that both parodied this cliché.
In the 30 Rock version, a maintenance worker on his last day continually shows pictures of his family as he tries to fix a gas leak. The joke is nothing ever happens to him. Ironically, because we’re so familiar with this cliché, the show created preparation in opposition by getting us to expect his imminent demise!
Of course unless you’re doing parody, you’ll want to avoid such an obvious manipulation. Here are some examples where the technique was used effectively:
In Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby), we see Theo and Julian blowing a ping-pong ball back and forth in a car while the other passengers laugh. And then the car is attacked by a gang and Julian is killed. It’s much more impactful than if the group in the car were discussing the danger of the mission immediately before being attacked.
At the end of Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron), Ripley congratulates Bishop on a job well done – an important emotional moment since she hadn’t trusted him through most of the movie. And then we see acid dripping and BLAM – the mama alien’s tail pierces Bishop’s chest. This is actually another somewhat cliché version of the technique from horror movies – just when we think the killer is dead, they rise one last time. When properly planted as in Aliens it can still work quite well.
The opposite works too – would E.T.’s resurrection in E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) be nearly as joyful if we hadn’t gone through the whole traumatic mourning scene first?
Yet too often in weak screenplays we see the surprises and twists coming a mile away. It’s understandable – for a surprise to be believable, after all, the elements need to be planted. But then it’s your job to convince the audience that something else is going to happen. The twist that the queen is still alive in Aliens works because we believe the scene is about something else entirely.
Since this is easy to miss in the first draft, I make it a focus of one of my rewrite passes. I identify the moments where I want the audience to be really surprised, then I revise the scene to set up the expectation of the opposite. But I make sure that I’ve properly planted any information needed to make the twist believable. And then I disguise the plants by drawing attention away from them.
Let me illustrate this last point. In Aliens, the queen getting on the drop ship is planted when the drop ship is blown across a pile of debris on the landing platform. That gives her the opportunity to hide in the wheel well, even though we don’t realize that’s what’s happening at the time. In E.T., it’s well established that we don’t understand E.T.’s physiology or abilities so we can believe that the scientists were wrong about his death. In Children of Men, we’ve seen that the world of the movie contains dangerous gangs… and later we learn this attack was not as random as it appeared.
In a way, the Act Two Turning Point is the ultimate example of Preparation in Opposition. Your goal at this point is to set the audience up to believe that the only possible outcome is the opposite of what the ultimate resolution will be. That’s how you create tension in Act Three. And then you deliver the unexpected in a believable fashion.
Remember the magician’s main technique: misdirection. Lead your audience one way and then surprise them! They’ll love it.