Nothing should ever come easy to anyone, but obstacles need to be foreshadowed ahead of time or else they’ll seem fake and unreal.
In most bad horror movies, a woman is running away from a killer and after taking a huge lead where she looks like she’s going to get away with no problem, this woman usually trips on a branch and falls just long enough for the bad guy to almost catch up to her, thereby providing the suspense that was formally lacking in the scene.
Such obstacles for the sake of an obstacle are a hallmark of poor writing. If you’re going to have an obstacle trip up a character, you need to foreshadow that ahead of time and that foreshadowing element has to be interesting in itself the first time we see it.
In “The Truman Show” Jim Carrey’s character is living in a reality TV show but doesn’t know it. To keep him from wandering off the set, the director has helped instill in him a deep fear of water, which began when he saw his father supposedly drown before his eyes.
That’s the first time we learn of Jim Carrey’s fear of water. To remind us that he’s afraid of water, Jim Carrey’s boss orders him to take a ferry to an island, but Jim Carrey cannot because he’s too terrified to cross open water. This reminds us of his fear of water.
Now for the third time when we see Jim Carrey facing open water, we remember how much the fear of water has stopped him before, so when he’s trying to sail and the waves are knocking him about, nearly drowning him, we can see that this fear of water is a real obstacle and not something that just popped out of nowhere like a tree root tripping up a lady running from a stalker.
For the tripping scene to work effectively, it should be introduced early by having the main character trip over the tree root. Then it needs to be reinforced a second time by having the character trip over the root again. Finally when the character is running from the killer, we can see that the tree root tripping the character up makes sense since it was foreshadowed, reinforced a second time, and finally delivered as a payoff the third time.
The next time you need an obstacle in your script, make sure you introduce it ahead of time and reinforce it a second time before making it pay off as a true obstacle in your movie.
In “Die Hard,” Bruce Willis is first introduced as a cop carrying a gun on the plane. The second time we see Bruce Willis is when he uses his gun to shoot one of the terrorists and take his machine gun. This second time reinforces the face that Bruce Willis has a gun.
The third and final payoff occurs at the end when Bruce Willis faces the head terrorist with his gun with limited ammunition. If we had just seen Bruce Willis with a pistol, we might wonder where the hell he got it from, but by planting this information early, reinforcing it a second time, and paying off this information a third time, we accept this information as valid.
So the lesson for today is to make sure you plant all your information ahead of time, reinforce it at least once, and then pay it off the third and final time. This will keep the obstacles or important facts of your screenplay from looking like it came out of nowhere like a lady suddenly tripping in the woods for no apparent reason.