Cause and effect in the Zero Dark Thirty script

Spoilers ahead.

Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

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Why I chose this script

What I loved about this film is how it capitalized on its audiences’ emotional state to tell part of the story. The slow, drawn out pace of the film made you feel the protagonist’s frustration over the hunt for Bin Laden in a way that, when the film ended, made her loss of purpose your own. It was a masterful and supremely confident act of filmmaking, and I wanted to see if I could find traces of it in the Zero Dark Thirty script.

Of course there were a few more things that stood out while I was reading, so let’s see what we can learn from Mr. Boal for our own writing.

Why causes make for bad characters. Usually.

I mentioned in my analysis of the Place Beyond the Pines script that a large cast can stand in the way of developing any one given character. This might make you think that the Zero Dark Thirty script, with its singular focus on protagonist Maya (Chastain), would showcase a lot of development in her. Think again. When you get down to it, Maya doesn’t actually develop as a character at all through the course of the film.

The reason for this is that Maya isn’t really a character. She’s a cause, like retribution, or justice or chaos. Essentially she’s the anthropomorphization of the United States’ desire to kill or capture Bin Laden. We basically learn nothing about her and never see her in an environment that’s not related to her hunt.

Maya turns her attention back to the WHITE BOARD and as Debbie keeps talking we follow Maya’s gaze across the row of MUG SHOTS of Al Qaeda personnel. While a few of the men are African or are distinctive looking for other reasons, most of them look fairly similar in that they’re all wearing the same type of clothes and have the same trademark long gnarly beards.


(pressing on)

Anyway I thought you should know about it.


I just want to say I’ve heard a lot about you. You inspired me to come to Pakistan.

Maya’s eyes narrow. She keeps looking at the WHITE BOARD


Maybe you’ll let me buy you a kabob sometime?



Don’t eat out. It’s too dangerous.

Maya stares at the Al Quaeda mugshots – a thought crosses her mind.

The weird thing about this is, as a character, Maya works in this story. Under normal circumstances, causes make for terrible characters. They give an actor very little to work with in shaping their performance, they can only develop along one dimension – intensity, they give an audience very little to empathize with, they’re predictable, they can’t be influenced much by external factors… The list goes on and on.

So how does the Zero Dark Thirty script get away with focusing so intently on a protagonist who is a cause rather than a character? I think it works for two reasons.

First of all, the hunt for Bin Laden and its conclusion was of global interest. How could the most sought after man in the world evade capture with relatively few resources for so long? What undid him in the end? Everyone was intrigued by these questions, and they hadn’t been around for all that long when the film came out. Only 19 months elapsed between his death and Zero Dark Thirty’s release. For a Hollywood blockbuster that’s a pretty damn quick turn-around. That would probably have been reason enough to draw an audience in and hold on to them for the duration of a feature length film. That’s just my gut feeling, I obviously can’t speak on behalf of audiences worldwide.

Secondly, right at the moment that the audience realize the ending was inevitable, and that they already knew it walking into the cinema, they get hit with one of only two interesting questions that can be asked about a cause. Those two interesting questions are how a cause comes to be, and what happens when it ceases to exist.

I’d like to say at this point that you shouldn’t make causes into your protagonists, but I’ve just pointed out that there are circumstances where it can work. So I guess the best advice I can give here is to be aware of this happening and make sure it’s what your story needs to happen.

Questions to help you tell if your character is a cause:

  • Can you list a handful of distinct ‘wants’ for your character? (Note: they don’t need to pursue them all in your story)
  • Can your character’s goal be partially achieved?
  • Take the protagonist from the last film you watched and give them the same goal as your protagonist. Does your story have to change in any fundamental way?

If you answered “no” to most of those questions, you might have a cause on your hands.

Show me character

On a related note, I want to call out something which the Zero Dark Thirty script only does ‘wrong’ once or twice, but which I want to call out nonetheless.

They remove their masks and we see that one is a beautiful young woman in her mid-twenties.

She has a pale, milky innocence and bright blue eyes, thin and somewhat frail looking, yet possessing a steely core that we will come to realize is off-the-charts. This is MAYA, a CIA targeter and subject-matter expert on her first overseas assignment.

Spelling out the nature of a character like this is clearly cheating. Either your character’s actions are going to reveal that aspect of their essence (in which case you didn’t have to waste the page space) or they won’t (in which case your description isn’t going to change anything). Either way, including it isn’t serving a useful purpose.

Worse than that though, I think it lulls you into a false sense of security. The more you include of these hidden character descriptions, the harder it’ll be to judge how clearly your characters’ actions show their nature on a quick read-through.

It’s a small risk, I’ll admit, but I basically don’t see there being any reward to justify taking it. So just play it straight, show your character through their actions and choices and not in the scene description.

Let bullets fly in action sequences, not bullet points

This is a point which comes up more frequently in the Zero Dark Thirty script than the last one, but it’s less severe. In fact, it’s downright nitpicky because it’s purely a stylistic issue. But it really grates on me so I want to call it out.


- The man enters the hallway of the KHOBAR RESIDENTIAL TOWERS

- And immediately opens fire on TWO WESTERN MEN he happens to find inside, killing them both.

TITLE OVER: MAY 29, 2004

- The CRACK of the shots sends the rest of the residents into a panicky, screaming dash for cover

- As he strides quickly down the hall, he finds three other RESIDENTS scrambling for safety, and shoots and kills them all.

I’m all in favor of suiting your scene description to the content. Like I mentioned in my Gravity analysis, if some flowing elegant prose is called for, then go for it. Or if it’s a fast moving action scene, keep the description tight and punchy. But using bullet points here is just all wrong in my book.






As alarms wail, Maya struggles to her feet, grabs Jessica by the arm, and they stumble to safety.

I think the intention is to create a kind of choppy, stop-motion effect in the description, but to me it’s just jarring enough to pull me out of the reading experience. That’s something we should be trying to avoid at all times.

The hero’s resolution versus the audience’s resolution

Other than successfully using a cause as a main character, the Zero Dark Thirty script does another thing which is unusual and noteworthy. First of all remember how I said I think audiences went into this film to learn more about the events that lead to Bin Laden’s death? Now look at how much Maya cares about how those events unfold:


Bin Laden uses a courier to interact with the outside world. By locating the courier, we’ve located bin Laden.


That’s really the intel? That’s it?


Quite frankly, I didn’t even want to use you guys, with your dip and your velcro and all your gear bullshit. I wanted to drop a bomb but people didn’t believe in this lead enough to drop a bomb, so they’re using you guys as canaries on the theory that if bin Laden isn’t there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser.


But bin Laden is there – and you’re going to kill him for me.



Bullets are cheap.

If you accept these premises, what Mark Boal has now done is create a gap between the audience’s resolution of the story and the protagonist’s. Widening that gap even further is the fact that Maya isn’t even there for the climactic raid on the compound.

What this does is create a kind of dissonance and then uses it in a very creative way. In Zero Dark Thirty the dissonance prompts that question I mentioned earlier – now that he’s dead, what’s left for Maya? What’s she supposed to do next? Forget about Maya, after two hours and 40 minutes of this slowly paced but relentless film, what am I supposed to do next? This is what I meant when I said the film uses the audiences’ emotional state to tell part of the story. It’s a double punch that lands square on the jaw and, as I said, was the reason I wanted to delve into the Zero Dark Thirty script.

The dissonance of separating the hero from the resolution of a story can also be used in other ways, for example to highlight that the hero is done with whatever the sequence of events is. For example, look at The Usual Suspects. Verbal Kint puts a sequence of events into play and walks away as the inevitable result resolves the story for the audience – he is done with this chapter of his life. If you have a story where you want to show that your hero has finished a chapter in their life, consider removing them from the resolution and see how it feels in your story.

In summation

Causes usually (but not always) make for bad protagonists. If you’re not one hundred percent certain that your story requires your protagonist to be one, then you’re better off revisiting the character.

Exposing character in scene description doesn’t serve much purpose and could make you think your job’s done before it really is, so avoid overusing it.

Don’t use bullet points in action description.

Separating the hero’s resolution from the audience’s resolution creates tension which can be used in creative ways, for example to prompt the audience to ask what the hero will do next.

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