Saturday, October 31, 2009

Nanowrimo prep: Elements of Act Three - Elevate Your Ending

Eek, October 31. And Halloween, too.

Well, I know everything starts tomorrow and I haven't covered half of what I wanted to, but I'll just keep going anyway.

Today we finish off Act Three.

Think about the endings of films and books that stay with you. What is that extra something they have that makes them stand out from all the hundreds and thousands of stories out there? That’s your mission, today, Jim, should you decide to accept it: Figure it out.

As a storyteller the best thing you can do for your own writing technique is to make that list and analyze why the endings that have the greatest impact on you have that impact. What is/are the storyteller/s doing to create that effect?

When you start to analyze stories you love, you will find that there are very specific techniques that filmmakers and novelists are using to create the effect that that story is having on you. That’s why it’s called “art”.

Now, you’re not going to be able to pull a meaningful ending out of a hat if the whole rest of your story has one-dimensional characters and no thematic relevance. But there are concrete ways you can broaden and deepen your own ending to have lasting impact or even lasting relevance. Today I’d like to look at some endings that have made that kind of impact on me, and I hope you’ll take the cue and analyze some of your favorite endings right back at me.

And I must say up front that this whole post is full of spoilers, so if you don’t want to know the endings before you see or read some of these stories, you’ve been warned.

For me I think the number one technique to create a great ending is:

MAKE IT UNIVERSAL.

Easy to say, you say! Yeah, I know.

My favorite movie of this year so far, maybe of the last five years, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, does a beautiful and very simple thing in the third act that makes the movie much bigger in scope.

The story has set up that the “slumdog” (boy from the Mumbai slums) hero, Jamal, is on a quiz show that is the most popular show in all of India: “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. In several scenes the characters talk about the show briefly – that it represents the dream of every Indian: escape. As the story moves into the third act, Jamal has advanced on the show to a half-million rupee pot – larger than anyone has ever won on the show, and the film shows shots of crowds of people watching the show in the streets – the whole country has become involved in Jamal’s story. More than that – Jamal’s story has become the story of every Indian – of India herself. This is made very poignantly clear when Jamal and his handlers are fighting through the crowd to get to the studio for the final round and an old Indian woman grabs his arm and says “Do it for all of us. Win it all.”

This is one of those archetypal moments that has amazing impact because it is played perfectly. In this moment the woman is like a fairy godmother, or a deva spirit: in every culture elderly women and men are magically capable of bestowing blessings (and curses!). That’s a bit of luck that we trust, in that moment. The gods are on Jamal’s side. It also blatantly tells us that Jamal is doing this for all of India, for all the Indian people. You know how I keep saying that you should not be afraid to SPELL THINGS OUT? This is a terrific example of how spelling things out can make your theme universal.

So really very simply, the author, screenwriter and director have used some crowd shots, a few lines of dialogue about the popularity of the quiz show, and one very very short scene in the middle of a crowd to bring enormous thematic meaning to the third act. It would certainly not have the impact it does if the whole rest of the film weren’t as stellar as it is (have you seen it yet? Why not????) – but still, these are very calculated manipulative moments to create an effect – that works brilliantly.

There are many, many techniques at work here in that film’s ending:

--making your main character Everyman.
-- giving your main character a blessing from the gods in the form of a fairy tale figure
-- expanding the stage of the story – those crowd shots, seeing that people are watching the show all over the country.
-- spelling out the thematic point you are trying to make! (and this usually comes from a minor character, if you start to notice this.)

This film is also a particularly good example of using stakes and suspense in the third act. (At this point it would be good to reread the post on Creating Suspense, since all of those techniques are doubly applicable to third acts).

The stakes have become excruciating by this point in the story – not only is Jamal in an all-or nothing situation as far as the quiz show money is concerned, but he feels appearing on the quiz show is the only way to find his true love again. (But I still think the biggest stake is the need to win this one for the Indian people). And there’s the suspense of will he win or will he lose, and will his love escape her Mafioso sugardaddy (sorry, I was not a fan of this subplot). And the suspense of “Will she get to the phone in time…”

This movie is also a good example of bringing all the subplots to a climax at the same time to create an explosive ending: the quiz show, the brother deciding to be a good guy in the end, the escape of the lover…

The ending also uses a technique to create a real high of exhilaration: it ends with a musical number that lets you float out of the theater in sheer joy. I can’t exactly describe an equivalent to a rousing musical number that you can put on the page in a novel, but the point is, a good story will throw every trick in the book at the reader or audience to create an EMOTIONAL effect.


- GIVE YOUR HERO/INE A BIG CHARACTER ARC

This is something you must set up from the beginning, as we discussed in Elements of Act One

And I will say up front – a huge character arc is NOT necessary for a great story. In SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Jamal’s character doesn’t really change. He is innocent, joyful, irrepressible, relentless, and pure of heart in the beginning of the story, as a little boy, and he is essentially the same lovely person as a man. That’s why we love him. He is constant and true.

But most stories show a character who is in deep emotional trouble at the beginning of the story, and the entire story is about the hero/ine recognizing that s/he’s in trouble and having the courage to change: from coward to hero, from unloving to generous.

If you start to watch for this, you’ll see that generally the big character change hinges on the difference between the hero/ine’s INNER and OUTER DESIRE, as we talked about in Elements of Act One. Very, very often the hero/ine’s big character change is realizing her outer desire is not important at all, and might even be the thing that has been holding her back in life, and she gives that up to pursue her inner desire, or true need.

For me personally it’s a very satisfying thing to see a selfish character change throughout the course of the story until at the climax s/he performs a heroic and unselfish act. The great example of all time, of course, is CASABLANCA, in which Rick who “sticks his neck out for no one” takes a huge risk and gives up his own true love for the greater cause of winning the war. Same effect when mercenary loner Han Solo comes back to help Luke Skywalker in the final battle of STAR WARS.

Scrooge is another classic example – the events of the story take him believably from miser to great benefactor – who “kept Christmas in his heart every day.”

I’ve said it before, but I also thought it was a beautiful and believable character change when Zack Mayo in AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN – gives up his chance at being first in his class to help his classmate complete the obstacle course, thus turning into a real officer before our eyes.

This sense of big contrast and big change makes for a dramatic and emotionally satisfying ending.

Of course, you may not be writing a happy ending, and the dramatic change may be for the worse. That can be just as powerful. In the end of THE GODFATHER Michael Corleone ends up powerful, but damned – he has become his father – which even his own father didn’t want to happen. Michael goes from the least likely of the family to take over the business - to the anointed heir to his father’s kingdom. It’s a terrible tragedy from a moral point of view - and yet there’s a sense of inevitability about all of it that makes it perversely satisfying - because Michael is the smartest son, the fairy tale archetype of the youngest and weakest third brother, the one whom we identify with and want to succeed… it’s just that this particular success is doomed.

Another dark example: PAN’S LABYRINTH had one of the most powerful endings I’ve experienced in a long time. It is very dark – very true to the reality of this anti-war story. The heroine wins – she completes her tasks and saves her baby brother with an heroic act – but she sacrifices her own life to do it. In the last moments we see her in her fantasy world, being welcomed back as a princess by her dead mother and father, as king and queen, and see the underworld kingdom restored to glory by the spilling of her blood (rather than the spilling of her brother’s blood). But then we cut back to reality – and she’s dead, killed by her evil stepfather. The film delivers its anti-war message effectively precisely because the girl dies, which is realistic in context, but we also feel that the death did tip the balance of good and evil toward the good, in that moment. It’s a satisfying ending in its truth and beauty – much more so than a happy ending would be.


- SUBPLOTS

can be used very effectively to deepen the effect of your ending.

As I’ve said before, in great stories like THE WIZARD OF OZ, and PHILADELPHIA STORY, every subplot character has his or her own resolution, which gives those endings broader scope.

Think of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – one of the very few thrillers out there that creates a victim we truly care for and don’t want to die. In a very few strokes, Harris in the book, and Demme and Tally and actress Brooke Smith in the film, create a ballsy, feisty fighter who is engineering her own escape even at the bottom of a killing pit. In a two-second shot, a few sentences on a page, Catherine’s loving relationship with her cat is set up before she is kidnapped. Then on the brink of a horrible death, Catherine uses that facility with animals to capture “Precious”, the killer’s little dog, to buy her escape (thus driving the killer into a bigger frenzy). It’s a breathtaking line of suspense, because we know how unwilling Catherine is to hurt that little dog, which has become a character in its own right. (Lesson – infuse EVERY character, EVERY moment, with all the life you can cram into it). And of course the payoff makes Catherine’s survival even more sweet – she won’t let anyone take the dog away from her when she is being taken to the hospital.

And of course I’ve already gone into this, but the intricacy of detail about the killer’s lair, and the fairy tale resonance of this evil troll keeping a girl in a pit, give that third act a lot of its primal power.

I know, I know, a lot of dark examples. Okay, here’s a lighter one, one of the happiest and most satisfying endings in an adventure/comedy: BACK TO THE FUTURE. This is a great example of how careful PLANTS can pay off big when you pay them off in the end. In the beginning we see high school student Marty McFly in a life that, well, sucks. His family lives in a run-down house, his sweet but cowering father won’t stand up to the bully he works for, the parents’ marriage is faltering. Marty is transported back to the past by mistake, and is confronted with a fantastic twist on the classic time-travel dilemma: he is influencing his future (present) with every move he makes in the past – and not for the better. In fact, since his high-school age mother has fallen in love with him, he’s in danger of never existing at all, and must get his mother together with his father. Brilliant.

All Marty wants to do is get his parents back together and then get back to the future before he does too much damage. Mission accomplished, he returns… to find that every move he made in the past DID influence his future – and much for the better. The house he returns to is huge and gorgeous, his parents are hip and happy, and the bully works for his father. It’s a wonderfully exhilarating ending, surprising and delightful – and it works because every single moment was set up in the beginning.

This ending owes a lot to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and GROUNDHOG DAY (which itself owes a lot to IAWL). All three are terrific examples of how you can use the external environment of the main character to illustrate character change and make your theme resonate in the third act and for years to come.

To give a completely different example – suppose you’re writing a farce. I would never dare, myself, but if I did, I would go straight to FAWLTY TOWERS to figure out how to do it (and if you haven’t seen this brilliant TV series of John Cleese’s, I envy you the treat you’re in for). Every story in this series shows the quintessentially British Basil Fawlty go from rigid control to total breakdown of order. It is the vast chasm between Basil’s idea of what his life should be and the reality that he creates for himself over and over again that will have you screaming with laughter.

Another very technical lesson to take from FAWLTY TOWERS – and from any screwball comedy – is speed in climax. Just as in other forms of climax, the action speeds up in the end, to create that exhilaration of being out of control – which is the sensation I most love about a great comedy.

The TICKING CLOCK is often used to speed up the action, especially in thrillers – in ALIEN there’s a literal countdown over the intercom as Ripley races to get to the shuttle before the whole ship explodes. But I’ll warn again that the ticking clock is also dangerous to use because it has been done so badly so many times, especially in romantic comedies where the storytellers far too often impose an artificial clock (“I have to get to the airport before she leaves! Oh no….TRAFFIC! I must get out of the taxi and run!”). SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE unfortunately succumbed to that cliché and I swear it nearly ruined that otherwise perfect film for me.

So just like with all of these techniques I’m talking about – the first step is just to notice when an ending of a book or film really works for you. Enjoy it without thinking the first time… but then go back and figure out how and why it worked. Take things apart… and the act of analyzing will help you build a toolbox that you’ll start to use to powerful effect in your own writing.

Any examples for me today?

Alternatively, what is everyone wearing tonight?

Have a fantastic Halloween and may the Force be with you tomorrow.


------------------------------------------------

The Screenwriting Tricks workbook is now up in all e formats, including on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

-------------------------------------------------------------
----------------------------------------------------



Previous articles on story structure:

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

What's Your Premise?

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Nanowrimo prep: What Makes A Great Climax?

(Come on, admit it, one of the great things about being writers is that we get paid for them.)

I was watching “The Making of Jaws” the other night. I swear, DVD bonus features are the best thing that EVER happened for writers and film students. No one needs film school anymore – just watch the commentaries on DVDs. (That’s something you’re not going to be able to experience the same way when everything goes to Internet downloads– could be a big problem, there…)

Peter Benchley, the author and co-screenwriter, was talking about the ending of the film. He said that from the beginning of production Spielberg had been ragging on him about the ending – he said it was too much of a downer. For one thing, the visual wasn’t right – if you’ll recall the book, once Sheriff Brody has killed the shark (NOT by blowing it up), the creature spirals slowly down to the bottom of the sea.

Spielberg found that emotionally unsatisfying. He wanted something bigger, something exciting, something that would have audiences on their feet and cheering. He proposed the oxygen tank – that Brody would first shove a tank of compressed air into the shark’s mouth, and then fire at it until he hit the tank and the shark went up in a gigantic explosion. Benchley argued that it was completely absurd – no one would ever believe that could happen. Spielberg countered that he had taken the audience on the journey all this time – we were with the characters every step of the way. The audience would trust him if he did it right.

And it is a wildly implausible scene, but you go with it. That shark has just eaten Quint, whom we have implausibly come to love (through the male bonding and then that incredible revelation of his experience being one of the crew of the wrecked submarine that were eaten one by one by sharks). And when Brody, clinging to the mast of the almost entirely submerged boat – aims one last time and hits that shark, and it explodes in water, flesh and blood – it is an AMAZING catharsis.

Topped only by the sudden surfacing of the beloved Richard Dreyfuss character, who has, after all, survived. (in the book he died – but was far less of a good guy.) The effect is pure elation.

Spielberg paid that movie off with an emotional exhilaration rarely experienced in a story. Those characters EARNED that ending, and the audience did, too, for surviving the whole brutal experience with them. Brilliant filmmaker that he is, Spielberg understood that. The emotion had to be there, or he would have failed his audience.

This is a good lesson, I think: above all, in an ending, the reader/audience has to CARE. A good ending has an emotional payoff, and it has to be proportionate to what the character AND the reader/audience has experienced.



IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is another terrific example of emotional exhilaration in the end. Once George Bailey has seen what would have happened to his little town if he had never been born, and he decides he wants to live and realizes he IS alive again, the pleasures just keep coming and coming and coming. It is as much a relief for us as for George, to see him running through town, seeing all his old friends and familiar places restored. And then to see the whole town gathering at his house to help him, one character after another appearing to lend money, Violet deciding to stay in town, his old friend wiring him a promise of as much money as he needs – the whole thing makes the audience glad to be alive, too. They feel, as George does, that the little things you do every day DO count.

So underneath everything you’re struggling to pull together in an ending, remember to step back and identify what you want your reader or audience to FEEL.

Another important component in an ending is a sense of inevitability – that it was always going to come down to this. Sheriff Brody does everything he can possibly do to avoid being on the water with that shark. He’s afraid of the water, he’s a city-bred cop, he’s an outsider in the town – he’s the least likely person to be able to deal with this gigantic creature of the sea. He enlists not one but two vastly different “experts from afar”, the oceanographer Hooper and the crusty sea captain Quint, to handle it for him. But deep down we know from the start, almost BECAUSE of his fear and his unsuitability for the task, that in the final battle it will be Sheriff Brody, alone, mano a mano with that shark. And he kills it with his own particular skill set – he’s a cop, and one thing he knows is guns. It’s unlikely as hell, but we buy it, because in crisis we all resort to what we know.

And it’s always a huge emotional payoff when a reluctant hero steps up to the plate.

It may seem completely obvious to say so, but no matter how many allies accompany the hero/ine into the final battle, the ultimate confrontation is almost always between the hero/ine and the main antagonist, alone. By all means let the allies have their own personal battles and resolutions within battle – that can really build the suspense and excitement of a climactic sequence. But don’t take that final victory out of the hands of your hero/ine or the story will fall flat.

Also, there is very often a moment when the hero/ine will realize that s/he and the antagonist are mirror images of each other. And/or the antagonist may provide a revelation at the moment of confrontation that nearly destroys the hero/ine… yet ultimately makes him or her stronger. (Think “I am your father” in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK)

The battle is also a chance to pay off all your setups and plants. Very often you will have set up a weakness for your hero/ine. That weakness that has caused him or her to fail repeatedly in previous tests, and in the battle he hero/ine’s great weakness will be tested.

PLACE is a hugely important element of an ending. Great stories usually, if not almost always, end in a location that has thematic and symbolic meaning. Here, once again, creating a visual and thematic image system for your story will serve you well, as will thinking in terms of SETPIECES (as we’ve talked about before) Obviously the climax should be the biggest setpiece sequence of all. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice must go down into the labyrinth to battle the monster and save the captured princess. In JAWS, the Sheriff must confront the shark on his own and at sea (and on a sinking boat!). In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy confronts the witch in her own castle. In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indy must infiltrate the Nazi bunker. In PSYCHO, the hero confronts Tony Perkins in his basement – with the corpse of “Mother” looking on. (Basements are a very popular setting for thriller climaxes… that labyrinth effect, and the fact that “basement issues” are our worst fears and weaknesses).

And yes, there’s a pattern, here - the hero/ine very often has to battle the villain/opponent on the villain's own turf.

A great, emotionally effective technique within battle is to have the hero/ine lose the battle to win the war. AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN did this beautifully in the final obstacle course scene, where the arrogant trainee Zack Mayo, who has always been out only for himself, sacrifices his own chance to graduate first in his class to help a classmate over the wall and complete the course, thus overcoming his own flaw of selfishness and demonstrating himself to be true officer material.

Another technique to build a bigger, more satisfying climax is is to have the allies get THEIR desires, too – as in THE WIZARD OF OZ.

And a particularly effective emotional technique is to have the antagonist ma have a character change in the end of the story. KRAMER VS. KRAMER did this exceptionally well, with the mother seeing that her husband has become a great father and deciding to allow him custody of their son, even though the courts have granted custody to her. It’s a far greater win than if the father had simply beaten her. Everyone has changed for the better.

Because CHANGE may just be the most effective and emotionally satisfying ending of all. Nothing beats having both Rick and Captain Renault rise above their cynical and selfish instincts and go off together to fight for a greater good. So bringing it back to the beginning – one of the most important things you can design in setting up your protagonist is where s/he starts in the beginning, and how much s/he has changed in the end.

I bet you all can guess the question for today! What are your favorite endings of screen and page, and what makes them great?

------------------------------------------------

The Screenwriting Tricks workbook is now up in all e formats, including on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

-------------------------------------------------------------

Previous articles on Story Structure:

What's Your Premise?

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Creating Suspense:

Elements of Act Two, Part Two:

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nanowrimo prep: Elements of Act Three



So why is this so hard?

The third act so often falls apart or disappoints, don’t you think? We all seem to be somewhat afraid of it – that is, unless it’s all there in our heads to begin with and we can just – “speed we to our climax”, as Shakespeare said.

But even then, a third act is a lot of pressure. So maybe I’ll just make it easier on myself and say that this is going to be just the start of a SERIES of discussions on the third act. (There, I feel better already.)

As a reminder – the third act is generally the final twenty to thirty minutes in a film, or the last seventy to 100 pages in a four-hundred page novel. The final quarter.

To study how to craft a great third act, you have to look specifically at the endings that work for YOU. (Back to “The List”. Have you made yours yet?).

But let me be entirely general for a second, and give you the bottom line:

The essence of a third act is the final showdown between protagonist and antagonist.



Sometimes that’s all there is to it – one final battle between the protagonist and antagonist. In which case some good revelatory twists are probably required to break up all that fighting.

By the end of the second act, pretty much everything has been set up that we need to know – particularly WHO the antagonist is, which sometimes we haven’t known, or have been wrong about, until that is revealed at the second act climax. Of course, sometimes, or maybe often, there is one final reveal about the antagonist that is saved till the very end or nearly the end – as in THE USUAL SUSPECTS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and PSYCHO.

We also very often have gotten a sobering or terrifying glimpse of the ultimate nature of that antagonist – a great example of that kind of “nature of the opponent” scene is in CHINATOWN, in that scene in which Jake is slapping Evelyn around and he learns about her father.

There’s a location aspect to the third act – the final battle will often take place in a completely different setting than the rest of the film or novel. In fact half of the third act can be, and often is, just GETTING to the site of the final showdown. One of the most memorable examples of this in movie history is the “storming the castle” scene in THE WIZARD OF OZ, where, led by an escaped Toto, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion scale the cliff, scope out the vast armies of the witch (“Yo Ee O”) and tussle with three stragglers to steal their uniforms and march in through the drawbridge of the castle with the rest of the army. A sequence like this, and the similar ones in STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, can have a lot of the elements we discussed about the first half of the first act: a plan, assembling the team, assembling tools and disguises, training or rehearsal.

And of course speed is often a factor – there’s a ticking clock, so our hero/ine has to race to get there in time to – save the innocent victim from the killer, save his or her kidnapped child from the kidnapper, stop the loved one from getting on that plane to Bermuda…

NO. DO NOT WRITE THAT LAST ONE.

Most clichéd story ending EVER. Throw in the hero/ine getting stuck in a cab in Manhattan rush hour traffic and you really are risking audiences vomiting in the aisles, or readers, beside their chairs. It almost destroyed my pleasure in one of the best movies of last year, well, THE best – totally took me out of what had been up until that moment a perfect film.

But when you think about it, the first two examples are equally clichéd. Sometimes there’s a fine line between clichéd and archetypal. You have to find how to elevate – or deepen – the clichéd to something archetypal.

For example, one of the most common third act structural patterns involves infiltrating the antagonist’s hideout, or castle, or lair, and confronting the antagonist on his or her own turf. Think of THE WIZARD OF OZ, STAR WARS, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS – the witch’s castle, the Imperial Starship, Buffalo Bill’s house.

Notice that this pattern naturally divides itself into two separate and self-contained sequences:

1. Getting in

and

2. The confrontation itself.

Also putting the final showdown on the villain’s turf means the villain has home-court advantage. The hero/ine has the extra burden of being a fish out of water on unfamiliar ground (mixing a metaphor to make it painfully clear).

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a perfect example of elevating the cliché into archetype. It takes place in the basement, as in PSYCHO, and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. Therapists talk about “basement issues” – which are your worst fears and traumas from childhood – the stuff no one wants to look at, but which we have to look at, and clean out, to be whole.

But Thomas Harris, in the book, and the filmmakers, bringing it to life in the movie, create a basement that is so rich in horrific and revelatory and mythic (really fairy tale) imagery that we never feel that we’ve seen that scene before. In fact I see new resonances in the set design every time I watch that film… like Gumb having a wall of news clippings just exactly like the one in Crawford’s office. That’s a technique that Harris uses that can elevate the clichéd to the archetypal: LAYERING meaning.

NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET takes that clichéd spooky basement scene and gives it a whole new level, literally: the heroine is dreaming that she is following a sound down into the basement and then there’s a door that leads to ANOTHER basement under the basement. And if you think bad things happen in the basement, what’s going to happen in a sub-basement?

To switch genres completely for a moment, an archetypal final setting for a romantic comedy is an actual wedding. We’ve seen this scene so often you’d think there’s nothing new you can do with it. But of course a story about love and relationships is likely to end at a wedding.

So again, make your list and look at what great romantic comedies have done to elevate the cliché.



One of my favorite romantic comedies of all time, THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, uses a classic technique to keep that wedding sequence sparkling: every single one of that large ensemble of characters has her or his own wickedly delightful resolution. Everyone has their moment to shine, and insanely precocious little sister Dinah pretty nearly steals the show (even from Katharine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant!!) with her last line: “I did it. I did it ALL.”

(This is a good lesson for any ensemble story, no matter what genre – all the characters should constantly be competing for the spotlight, just in any good theater troupe. Make your characters divas and scene stealers and let them top each other.)

Now, you see a completely different kind of final battle in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. This is not the classic, “hero confronts villain on villain’s home turf” third act. In fact, Potter is nowhere around in the final confrontation, is he? There’s no showdown, even though we desperately want one.

But the point of that story is that George Bailey has been fighting Potter all along. There is no big glorious heroic showdown to be had, here – because it’s all the little grueling day to day, crazymaking battles that George has had with Potter all his life that have made the difference. And the genius of that film is that it shows in vivid and disturbing detail what would have happened if George had NOT had that whole lifetime of battles, against Potter and for the town. So in the end George makes the choice to live to fight another day, and is rewarded with the joy of seeing his town restored.

This is the best example I know of, ever, of a final battle that is thematic – and yet the impact is emotional and visceral – it’s not an intellectual treatise – you LIVE that ending along with George, but also come away with the sense of what true heroism is.

And so again – in case you haven’t gotten the message yet! – when you sit down to craft your own third act, try looking at the great third acts of movies and books that are similar to your own story, and see what those authors and filmmakers did to bring out the thematic depth AND emotional impact of their stories.

If there's anyone out there who's actually recovered from the holiday weekend - what are some of your favorite third acts? What makes it real for you - the location, the thematic elements, the battle itself?

More tomorrow.

------------------------------------------------

The Screenwriting Tricks workbook is now up in all e formats, including on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

-------------------------------------------------------------

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

More articles on story structure

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

What's Your Premise?

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

Elements of Act Three, Part 2

What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

Friday, October 23, 2009

Nanowrimo prep: The Plan

I don’t care what the plan is as long as we have one.

-- Kevin Bacon in Tremors



Before we move on to Act Three, which is a three-part discussion, I wanted to backtrack about a crucial plot element that runs through your entire story, and deserves its own post.

You always hear that “Drama is conflict”, but when you think about it – what the hell does that mean, practically?

It’s actually much more true, and specific, to say that drama is the constant clashing of a hero/ine’s PLAN and an antagonist’s, or several antagonist’s, PLANS.

In the first act of a story, the hero/ine is introduced, and that hero/ine either has or quickly develops a DESIRE. She might have a PROBLEM that needs to be solved, or someone or something she WANTS, or a bad situation that she needs to get out of, pronto.

Her reaction to that problem or situation is to formulate a PLAN, even if that plan is vague or even completely subconscious. But somewhere in there, there is a plan, and storytelling is usually easier if you have the hero/ine or someone else (maybe you, the author) state that plan clearly, so the audience or reader knows exactly what the expectation is.

When in JAWS, Sheriff Brody is confronted with the problem of a great white shark eating people in his backyard (ocean), his initial PLAN is to close the beach to swimmers. He throws together some handmade “Beaches Closed” signs and sticks them in the sand. Problem solved, right?

Yeah, right.

If that initial plan had actually worked, JAWS wouldn’t have made a hundred zillion dollars worldwide, not to mention cinematic history. The whole point of drama (including comedy) is that the hero/ine’s plan is constantly being thwarted: by the main antagonist, by any number of secondary and tertiary opponents, by the love interest, by the weather, or by the hero/ine him or herself (because you know we’re all our own worst enemies.).

So almost always, the initial plan fails. Or if it seems to succeed, it’s only to trick us for a moment before we realize how wretchedly the plan has failed. That weak initial effort is because it’s human nature to expend the least effort possible to get what we want, and only take greater and more desperate measures if we are forced to.

Now, in JAWS, the primary antagonist is the shark. The shark’s PLAN is to eat. Not just people, but whatever. (Interestingly, that plan seems to evolve…)

Brody’s initial plan of closing the beaches might actually have solved his problem with the shark, because without a steady supply of food, the beast probably would have moved on to another beach with a better food supply.

But Brody’s initial plan brings out a secondary antagonist: the town fathers, led by the mayor (and with a nice performance by co-screenwriter Carl Gottleib as the newspaper editor). They don’t want the beaches closed, because the summer months, particularly the fourth of July weekend, represent 70 percent of the town’s yearly income. So the town fathers obliquely threaten new sheriff Brody with the loss of his job if he closes the beaches, and Brody capitulates.

This proves disastrous and tragic, as the very next day (as Brody watches the water from the beach, as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack) another swimmer, a little boy, is killed by the shark, practicing its plan.

The town fathers hold a town meeting and decide on a new plan: they will close the beaches for 24 hours. Brody disagrees, but is overruled. Eccentric captain Quint offers his services to kill the shark – for 10 grand. The town fathers are unwilling to pay.

In response, Brody develops a new plan, one we see often in stories: he contacts an expert from afar, oceanographer Matt Hooper, a shark specialist, to come in and give expert advice.

Meanwhile a new antagonist, the mother of the slain little boy, announces a plan of her own: she offers a bounty for any fisherman who kills the shark who killed her son.

The bounty brings on a regatta of fishermen from up and down the eastern seaboard. One of these crews captures a tiger shark, which the mayor is quick to declare the killer shark. Case closed, problem solved, and the beaches can be reopened. Hooper is adamant that the shark is far too little to have caused the damage done to the first victim, and wants to cut the shark open. The mayor refuses, and is equally adamant that there is no more need for Hooper. We see Brody agrees with Hooper, but wants to believe that the nightmare is over. However, when the dead boy’s mother slaps Brody and accuses him of causing her son’s death (by not closing the beaches), Brody agrees to investigate further with Hooper, and they cut the shark open themselves to check for body parts. Of course, it’s the wrong shark.

Brody’s revised plan is to talk the Mayor into closing the beaches, but the Mayor refuses again, and goes on with his plan to reopen the beaches (and highly publicize the capture of the “killer” shark).

The beaches reopen for 4th of July and the town fathers’ failsafe plan is to post the Coast Guard out in the ocean to watch, just in case. While everyone is distracted by a false shark scare, the real shark glides into a supposedly secure cove where Brody’s own son is swimming, and kills a man and nearly kills Brody’s son. (And it’s so diabolical in timing that it almost seems the shark has a new plan of its own – to taunt Brody).

At that point the Mayor’s plan changes – he writes a check for Quint and gives it to Brody, to hire the captain to kill the shark. But that’s not enough for Brody, now. He needs to go out on the boat with Quint and Hooper himself, despite his fear of the water, to make sure this shark gets dead.

This happens at the story’s MIDPOINT, and it’s a radical revamp of Brody’s initial plan (which always included avoiding going in the water himself, at all cost). And it’s very often the case that at the midpoint of a story, the initial PLAN is completely shattered (a great example is in THE UNTOUCHABLES, which I’ve talked about here:

And yet, Brody is still not ultimately committed. For the next half of the second act, he allows first Quint and then Hooper to take the lead on the shark hunt. Quint’s plan is to shoot harpoons connected to floating barrels into the shark and force it to the surface, where they can harpoon it to death. But the shark proves far stronger than anyone expected, and keeps submerging, even with barrel after barrel attached to its hide.

And now a truly interesting thing happens. The shark, supposedly a dumb beast, starts to do crafty things like hide under the boat so the men think they’ve lost it. It seems to have a new, intelligent plan of its own. And when the men’s defenses are down, the shark suddenly batters into the ship and breaks a hole in the hull, causing the boat to take on alarming quantities of water, and making the men vulnerable to attack.

Brody’s plan at that point is to radio for help and get the hell off the boat. But in the midst of the chaos Quint suddenly turns into an opponent himself by smashing the radio – he intends to kill this shark.

Hooper takes over now and proposes a new plan: he wants to go down in a shark cage to fire a poison gun at the shark. But the shark attacks the cage, and then as the boat continues to sink, the shark leaps half onto the deck and eats Quint.

Brody is now on his own against the shark, and in one last, desperate Hail Mary plan (the most exciting kind in a climax), he shoves an oxygen tank into the shark’s jaws and then fires at the shark until the tank explodes, and the shark goes up in bloody bits. As almost always, it is only that last ditch plan, in which the hero/ine faces the antagonist completely on his or her own, that saves the day.

I hope this little exercise gives you an idea of how it can be really enlightening and useful to focus on and track just the plans of all the main characters in a story and how they clash and conflict. If you find your own plot sagging, especially in that long middle section, try identifying and tracking the various plans of your characters. It might be just what you need to pull your story into new and much more exciting alignment.

And of course the question is: any favorite examples of plans for me, today?

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I also wanted to post links to story breakdowns of some well-known movies in different genres, so you can see how these story elements we've been talking about function in action:

Romancing the Stone



Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Act One

Act Two, Part 1

Act Two, Part 2 and Act Three


Chinatown:

Act One


Act Two, Part 1


Act Two, Part 2 and Act Three


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The Screenwriting Tricks workbook is now up in all e formats, including on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

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Related posts:

Elements of Act I

Elements of Act II


Elements of Act II, Part 2


Elements of Act III

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

As we were talking about in our last discussion of the Elements of Act Two, the first half of the second act – that’s 30 pages in a script, or about 100 pages (p. 100 to p. 200) in a 400 page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. The Midpoint is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any book or film – a major shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line). Often the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 pages, not sixty years.)

It’s also sometimes called the “Point of No Return”, in which the hero/ine commits irrevocably to the action (this may have been the German dramaturg Freytag’s assertion – I’ll have to research it further).

Often a TICKING CLOCK is introduced at the Midpoint, as we discussed in Building Suspense. A clock is a great way to speed up the action and increase the urgency of your story.

The midpoint can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and a new plan of attack.

And the Midpoint will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home. It’s a game-changer, and it locks the hero/ine even more inevitably into the story.

The Midpoint is not necessarily just one scene – it can be a progression of scenes and revelations that include a climactic scene, a complete change of location, a major revelation, a major reversal – all or any combination of the above. For example, in JAWS, the Midpoint climax occurs in a highly suspenseful sequence in which the city officials have refused to shut the beaches, so Sheriff Brody is out there on the beach keeping watch (as if that’s going to prevent a shark attack!), the Coast Guard is patrolling the ocean – and, almost as if it’s aware of the whole plan, the shark swims into an unguarded harbor, where it attacks a man and for a horrifying moment we think that it has also killed Brody’s son (really it’s only frightened him into near paralysis). It’s a huge climax and adrenaline rush, but it’s not over yet. Because now the Mayor writes the check to hire Quint to hunt down the shark, and since Brody’s family has been threatened (“Now it’s PERSONAL”), he decides to go out with Quint and Hooper on the boat – and there’s also a huge change in location as we see that little boat headed out to the open sea.

Another interesting and tonally very different Midpoint happens in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. I’m sure some people would dispute me on this one (and people argue about the exact Midpoint of movies all the time), but I would say the midpoint is the scene that occurs exactly 60 minutes into the film, in which, having determined that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place in the archeological site, Indy goes down into that chamber with the pendant and a staff of the proper height, and uses the crystal in the pendant to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.

This scene is quiet, and involves only one person, but it’s mystically powerful – note the use of light and the religious quality of the music… and Indy is decked out in robes almost like, well, Moses - staff and all. Indy stands like God over the miniature of the temple city, and the beam of light comes through the crystal like light from heaven. It’s all a foreshadowing of the final climax, in which God intervenes much in the same way. Very effective, with lots of subliminal manipulation going on. And of course, at the end of the scene, Indy has the information he needs to retrieve the Ark. I would also point out that the midpoint is often some kind of mirror image of the final climax – it’s an interesting device to use, and you may find yourself using it without even being aware of it.

Another very different kind of midpoint occurs in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: the “Quid Pro Quo” scene between Clarice and Lecter, in which she bargains personal information to get Lecter’s insights into the case. Clarice is on a time clock, here, because Catherine Martin has been kidnapped and Clarice knows they have only three days before Buffalo Bill kills her. Clarice goes in at first to offer Lecter what she knows he desires most (because he has STATED his desire, clearly and early on) – a transfer to a Federal prison, away from Dr. Chilton and with a view. Clarice has a file with that offer from Senator Martin – she says – but in reality the offer is a total fake. We don’t know this at the time, but it has been cleverly PLANTED that it’s impossible to fool Lecter (Crawford sends Clarice in to the first interview without telling her what the real purpose is so that Lecter won’t be able to read her). But Clarice has learned and grown enough to fool Lecter – and there’s a great payoff when Lecter later acknowledges that fact.

The deal is not enough for Lecter, though – he demands that Clarice do exactly what her boss, Crawford, has warned her never to do: he wants her to swap personal information for clues – a classic deal with the devil game.

After Clarice confesses painful secrets, Lecter gives her the clue she’s been digging for – to search for Buffalo Bill through the sex reassignment clinics. And as is so often the case, there is a second climax within the midpoint – the film cuts to the killer in his basement, standing over the pit making a terrified Catherine put lotion on her skin – it’s a horrifying curtain and drives home the stakes.

It really pays to start taking note of the Midpoints of films and books. If you find that your story is sagging in the middle, the first thing you should look at is your Midpoint scene.

I know this and I still sometimes forget it. When I turned in my latest book, THE UNSEEN, I knew that I was missing something in the middle, even though there was a very clear change in location and focus at the Midpoint: it’s the point at which my characters actually move into the supposedly haunted house and begin their experiment.

But there was still something missing in the scene right before, the close of the first half, and my editor had the same feeling, without really knowing what was needed, although it had something to do with the motivation of the heroine – the reason she would put herself in that kind of danger. So I looked at the scene before the characters moved in to the house, and lo and behold – what I was missing was “Sex at Sixty”. It’s my heroine’s desire for one of the other characters that makes her commit to the investigation, and I wasn’t making that desire line clear enough. So now although they don’t actually have sex, there’s definitely sex in the air, and it’s very clear that that desire is driving her.

The Midpoint launches ESCALATING ACTION/OBSESSIVE DRIVE

In the second half of the second act the actions your hero/ine takes toward his or her goal will become larger and increasingly obsessive. Small actions have not cut it, so it’s time for desperate measures.

These escalating actions will often lead to HARD CHOICES and CROSSING THE LINE: the hero/ine very often starts doing things that are against character, self-destructive or downright immoral. When Catherine is kidnapped, Clarice is warned by her roommate that if she doesn’t study for and take her FBI exams, she’ll be kicked out of the program. Of course Clarice puts Catherine’s well-being above her own, but it’s a great way to back her into a corner and force hard choices. Often the hero/ine will lose support from key allies when s/he begins to cross the line.

Naturally the antagonist’s actions are escalating as well.

This third quarter also almost always contains a scene or sequence which since the ancient Greeks has been called THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL. In THE WIZARD OF OZ it’s when Dorothy is locked in the witch’s tower with that huge red hourglass and all looks lost. The hero/ine metaphorically dies in this scene - yet like the phoenix, rising from the ashes, the hero/ine also formulates one last desperate plan, or figures out the missing piece of the puzzle, and comes out of the long dark night even more determined to win.

This scene is usually very near the climax of the second act, because it’s such a boost of energy to go from losing everything to gaining that key piece of knowledge that will power the hero/ine through the final confrontation to the end.

Now, remember, in standard film structure, the second half of Act Two is two sequences long - two fifteen minute sequences, each with a beginning, middle and climax. A book will perhaps have three or four or five sequences in this 100 page section. But if you concentrate on escalating obsessive actions by the hero/ine and antagonist, and then an abject failure, out of which a new revelation and plan occurs, you pretty much have the whole section mapped out to the ACT TWO CLIMAX

As I’ve discussed before, the Act Two Climax (page 90 of a script, page 300 or so of a novel) often answers the Central Question set up at the end of Act One, and often the answer is “No”. No, Lecter is not going to help Clarice catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine – Clarice is going to have to do it herself. No, Quint will not kill the shark; the shark kills him instead and Sheriff Brody is going to have to face the shark alone.

The second act climax will often be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is (as in THE FUGITIVE, when Dr. Richard Kimble realizes that his friend Chuck has set him up and that leads to the final confrontation and fight/chase. THE FUGITIVE has a nice, satisfying structure because at the same time that Kimble is realizing who his real enemy is, US Marshal Gerard (the Tommy Lee Jones character), who has been chasing Kimble for the entire film, also becomes convinced of Kimble’s true nature – that he’s innocent.

It’s a very common storytelling device that the hero/ine’s main ally is revealed to be an enemy, or THE main enemy, and it also often happens that the hero/ine’s enemy is revealed to be more of a friend than we ever suspected (a classic example of this is Captain Renault in CASABLANCA, who not only covers for Rick’s murder of the Nazi Strasser, but junks his post to go fight the Nazis with Rick).

The second act climax is another place that you might start a ticking clock – such as in ALIEN, when Ripley sets the ship to blow up in ten minutes and has to evade the alien and get to the shuttle by then – as if being chased by an acid-bleeding monster weren’t stressful enough!

And the third act is basically the FINAL BATTLE and RESOLUTION. It can often be one continuous sequence – the chase and confrontation, or confrontation and chase. There may be a final preparation for battle, or it might be done on the fly.

But we’ll talk about the third act and climax in a separate post.

And I'm always interested in hearing examples of great midpoints!

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The Screenwriting Tricks workbook is now up in all e formats, including on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

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More articles on story structure

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

What's Your Premise?

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

Elements of Act Three, Part 2

What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense

Fairy Tale Structure and the List

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Elements of Act Two

All right, on to Act Two.

Act Two is summed up by the greats such as, like, you know, Aristotle - as “Rising Tension” or “Progressive Complications”. Or in the classic screenwriting formula: Act One is “Get the Hero Up a Tree”, and Act Two is “Throw Rocks at Him” (and for the impatient out there, I’ll reveal that Act Three is; “Get Him Down.”)

All true enough, but a tad vague for my taste.

So let’s get more specific.

The beginning of the second act of a book or film (30 minutes or thirty script pages into a film, 100 or so pages into a book) – can often be summed up as “Into the Special World” or “Crossing the Threshold”. Dorothy opening the door of her black and white house and stepping into Technicolor Oz is one of the most famous and graphic examples… Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole is another. The passageway to the special world might be particularly unique… like the wardrobe in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE; that between-the-numbers subway platform in the HARRY POTTER series; Alice again, going THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS; the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ; the blue pill (or was it the red pill?) in THE MATRIX; or the tesseract in A WRINKLE IN TIME.

This step might come in the first act, or somewhat later in the second act, but it’s generally the end or beginning of a sequence – think of ALIEN (the landing on the planet to investigate the alien ship), STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, going out on the ocean in that too-small boat in JAWS, flying down to Cartagena in ROMANCING THE STONE, flying to Rio in NOTORIOUS, stopping at the Bates Motel in PSYCHO. It’s often the beginning of an actual, physical journey in an action movie; in a ghost story it is entering the haunted house (or haunted anything). It’s a huge moment and deserves special weight.

There is often a character who serves the archetypal function of a “threshold guardian” or “guardian at the gate”, who gives the hero/ine trouble or a warning at this moment of entry – it’s a much-used but often powerfully effective suspense technique – always gets the pulse racing just a little faster, which is pretty much the point of suspense.

And I highly recommend Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY and John Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY for brilliant in-depth discussions on archetypal characters such as the Herald, Mentor, Shapeshifter, Threshold Guardian, and Fool.

Also very early in the second act the Hero/ine must formulate and state the PLAN. We know the hero/ine’s goal by now (or if we don’t, we need to hear it, specifically.). And now we need to know how the hero/ine intends to go about getting that goal. It needs to be spelled out in no uncertain terms. “Dorothy needs to get to the Emerald City to ask the mysterious Wizard of Oz for help getting home”. “Clarice needs to bargain with Lecter to get him to tell her Buffalo Bill’s identity.”

It’s important to note that it’s human nature to expend the least amount of energy to get what we want. So the hero/ine’s plan will change, constantly – as the hero first takes the absolute minimal steps to achieve her or his goal, and that minimal effort inevitably fails. So then, often reluctantly, the hero/ine has to escalate the plan.

Also throughout the second act, the antagonist has his or her own goal, which is in direct conflict or competition with the hero/ine’s goal. We may actually see the forces of evil plotting their plots (John Grisham does this brilliantly in THE FIRM), or we may only see the effect of the antagonist’s plot in the continual thwarting of the hero/ine’s plans. Both techniques are effective.

This continual opposition of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.

(I’m giving that its own line to make sure it sinks in.)

The hero/ine’s plans should almost always be stated (although something might be held back even from the reader/audience, as in THE MALTESE FALCON). The antagonist’s plans might be clearly stated or kept hidden – but the EFFECT of his/her/their plotting should be evident. It’s good storytelling if we, the reader or audience, are able to look back on the story at the end and understand how the hero/ine’s failures actually had to do with the antagonist’s scheming.

(This is so important to the overall structure of your story that I will post more on this concept of the clash of plans tomorrow.)

Another important storytelling and suspense technique is keeping the hero/ine and antagonist in close proximity. Think of it as a chess game – the players are in a very small, confined space, and always passing within inches of each other, whether or not they’re aware of it. They should cross paths often, even if it’s not until the end until the hero/ine and the audience understand that the antagonist has been there in the shadows all along. In movies like THE FUGITIVE, you can see Richard Kimble and U.S. Marshal Gerard passing each other by inches, sometimes. It’s a great suspense technique in itself (and oh, does Hollywood love this mano a mano stuff…)

Besides this continual clash of opposing plans, the hero/ine’s allies will be introduced in the second act, if they haven’t already been introduced in Act One.

In fact there is often an entire sequence called “Assembling the Team” which comes early in the second act. The hero has a task and needs a group of specialists to get it done. Action movies, spy movies and caper movies very often have this step and it often lasts a whole sequence. Think of ARMAGEDDON, THE STING, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (I mean the great TV series, of course), THE DIRTY DOZEN, STAR WARS – and again, THE WIZARD OF OZ. One of the delights of a sequence like this is that you see a bunch of highly skilled pros in top form – or alternately, a bunch of unlikely losers that you root for because they’re so perfectly pathetic. I had fun with this in THE HARROWING - even if you’re not writing an action or caper story, which I definitely wasn’t in that book, if you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters, the techniques of a “Gathering the Team” sequence can be hugely helpful. The inevitable clash of personalities, the constant divaness and one-upmanship, and the reluctant bonding make for some great scenes – it’s a lively and compelling storytelling technique.

There is also often a TRAINING SEQUENCE in the first half of the second act. In a mentor movie, this is a pretty obligatory sequence. Think of KARATE KID, and that priceless Meeting the Mentor/Training sequence that introduces Yoda in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

There’s often a SERIES OF TESTS designed by the mentor (look at AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).

Another inevitable element of the training sequence is PLANTS AND PAYOFFS. For example, we learn that the hero/ine (and/or other members of the team) has a certain weakness in battle. That weakness will naturally have to be tested in the final battle. Yoda continually gets angry with Luke for not trusting the Force… so in his final battle with Vader, Luke’s only chance of survival is putting his entire fate in the hands of the Force he’s not sure he believes in. Lovely moment of spiritual transcendence.

Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of this weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle in the third act. An absolutely beautiful example of this is in the film DIRTY DANCING. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Baby can never, ever keep her balance in that flashy dance lift. She and Patrick (who was, by the way, a genuinely lovely human being, and much missed) attempt the lift in an early dance performance, Baby chickens out, and they cover the flub in an endearingly comic way. But in that final performance number she nails the lift, and it’s a great moment for her as a character and for the audience, quite literally uplifting.

Of course you’ll want to weave Plants and Payoffs all through the story… you can often develop these in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do one read-through just looking for places to plant and payoff. A classic example of a plant is Indy freaking out about the snake on the plane in the first few minutes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The plant is cleverly hidden because we think it’s just a comic moment – this big, bad hero just survived a maze of lethal booby traps and an entire tribe of warriors trying to kill him – and then he wimps out about a little old snake. But the real payoff comes way later when Salla slides the stone slab off the entrance to the tomb and Indy shines the light down into the pit - to reveal a live mass of thousands of coiling snakes. It’s so much later in the film that we’ve completely forgotten that Indy has a pathological fear of snakes – but that’s what makes it all so funny.

I very strongly encourage novelists to start watching movies for Plants and Payoffs. It’s a delicious storytelling trick that filmmakers are particularly aware of and deft at… it’s all a big seductive game to play with your audience, and an audience eats it up.

Other names for this technique are Setup/Reveal or simply FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle). Woody Allen’s latest film, VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA, does this beautifully with the long buildup to the intro of Maria Lena, the Penelope Cruz character. Penelope completely delivers on her introduction and I think she’s a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for that one.

The Training Sequence can also involve a “Gathering the Tools” or “Gadget” Sequence. The wild gadgets and makeup were a huge part of the appeal of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (original) and spoofed to hysterical success in GET SMART (original), and these days, CSI uses the same technique to massive popular effect.

In a love story or romantic comedy the Training Sequence or Tools Sequence is often a Shopping Sequence or a Workout Sequence. The heroine, with the help of a mentor or ally, undergoes a transformation through acquiring the most important of tools – the right clothes and shoes and hair style. It’s worked since Cinderella – whose personal shopper/fairy godmother considerately made house calls.

And the fairy tale version of Gathering the Tools is a really useful structure to look at. Remember all those tales in which the hero or heroine was innocently kind to horrible old hags or helpless animals (or even apple trees), and those creatures and old ladies gave them gifts that turned out to be magical at just the right moment? Plant/Payoff and moral lesson at the same time.

I’d also like to point out that if you happen to have a both a Gathering the Team and a Training sequence in your second act, that can add up to a whole fourth of your story right there! Awesome! You’re halfway through already!

In an action story or a thriller or mystery – or even a fantasy like HARRY POTTER or THE WIZARD OF OZ - in Act Two there will be continual ATTACKS ON THE HERO/INE by the antagonist and/or forces of opposition. These will often start subtly and then increase in severity and danger.

In a detective story, Act Two, Part Two often consists very specifically of INTERVIEWING WITNESSES, FOLLOWING CLUES and LINING UP THE SUSPECTS, very often interspersed with ACTION SEQUENCES and ATTACKS ON THE HERO/INE. You will want to weave in RED HERRINGS and FALSE LEADS. And there’s another convention of the genre you’ll want to look at, which is THE DETECTIVE VOICING HIS/HER THEORY. Mysteries are by nature convoluted, because there are so many possible explanations for what’s going on, so don’t be afraid to have your detective just say what s/he’s thinking aloud. Your reader or audience will be grateful.

If this is the genre you’re writing in, you will definitely want to break down several classics to see how these elements and sequences are handled. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and CHINATOWN are great examples to analyze. (See my breakdown of CHINATOWN for a more specific discussion of these story elements).

Also in the second act (but maybe not until the second half of the second act) you may be setting a TIME CLOCK or TICKING CLOCK, which I’ll talk more about in an upcoming post on suspense techniques.

And you’ll also want to be continually working the dynamic of HOPE and FEAR – you want to be clear about what your audience/reader hopes for your character and fears for your character, as I talked about yesterday in Elements of Act One.

A screenwriting trick that I strongly encourage novelists to look at is the filmmakers’ habit of STATING the hope/fear/stakes, right out loud. Think of these moments from

JAWS: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” (Well, yeah, they should have, shouldn’t they?)

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: “Do NOT tell him anything personal about yourself. Believe me, you don’t want Hannibal Lecter inside your head.” (And what does Clarice proceed to do?)

ALIEN: “It’s going to eat through the hull!” (When they first cut the alien off John Hurt and its blood sizzles straight through three layers of metal flooring. How do you kill a creature that bleeds acid without annihilating yourself in the process?)

The writers just had the characters say flat out what we’re supposed to be afraid of. Spell it out. It works.

We'll continue with Act Two, Part Two, tomorrow, after I say one more thing.

All of the first half of the second act – that’s 30 pages in a script, or about 100 pages (p. 100 to p. 200) in a 400 page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. This is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any story – a dramatic shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line), or the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 pages, not sixty years.) And this will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story (more on setpieces to come), just to further drive its importance home.

So is this making sense? Can you give me any great examples of the story structure elements we’ve talked about here?

------------------------------------------------

The Screenwriting Tricks workbook is now up in all e formats, including on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

-------------------------------------------------------------

Monday, October 19, 2009

Elements of Act One

So, now that we’ve talked about the index card method of laying out your story, and basic filmic structure as it might be applied to novels, the natural next question is: what actually goes into a first act?

And if you’re just finding this post, you’ll also want to read this post: What’s Your Premise?

And this one: The Three-Act, Eight Sequence Structure and the Index Card Method

The first act of a movie (first 30 pages) or book (first 100 pages, approx.) is the SET UP. By the end of the first act you’re going to be introduced to all the major players of the story, the themes, the location, the visual image system, the conflicts, and especially the main conflict.

When you’re making up index cards, you can immediately make up several cards that will go in your first act column. You may or may not know what some of those scenes look like already, but either way, you know they’re all going to be there.

- Opening image

- Meet the hero or heroine

- Hero/ine’s inner and outer need
- Hero/ine's ghost or wound
- Hero/ine’s arc
- Inciting Incident/ Call to Adventure

- Meet the antagonist (and/or introduce a mystery, which is what you do when you’re going to keep your antagonist hidden to reveal at the end)

- State the theme/what’s the story about?

- Allies

- Mentor

- A mirror character (sometimes)
- Love interest

- Plant/Reveal (or: Set ups and Payoffs)

- Hope/Fear (and Stakes)

- Time Clock (possibly. May not have one and may be revealed later in the story)

- Central Question

- Sequence One climax

- Act One climax (or curtain, or culmination)

Yeah, it’s a lot! That’s why first acts are often the most revised and rewritten sections of the story. It’s also why it’s often the section most in need of cutting and condensing. The answer is usually combining scenes. All these things have to be done, but they all have to be done within such a limited time frame (and page frame) that you simply HAVE to make each scene work on multiple levels.

Let’s break these things down.




OPENING IMAGE:

Of course in a film you have an opening image by default, whether you plan to or not. It’s the first thing you see in the film. But good filmmakers will use that opening image to establish all kinds of things about the film – mood, tone, location, and especially theme. Think of the opening image of WITNESS – the serene and isolated calm of wind over a wheat field. It’s the world of the Amish – the non-violent, unhurried world into which city violence will soon be introduced. It’s a great contrast with the next image to come – the chaos and noise of the city. This is a great opening image because it also suggests the climax (which takes place in the grain silo – the villain is killed by the spill of grain as the townspeople keep him surrounded.

The opening image of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a man taking a piss… a sly reference to Verbal and the whole movie “taking the piss” – as the British say - on the audience.

The opening image of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is a dark, misty forest, through which Clarice is running as if in a dream.

(I talk more about this in the posts on VISUAL STORYTELLING:

Part One

Part Two



MEETING THE HERO/INE

Of course you’re going to devise an interesting, clever and evocative introduction to your main character. But there are a whole lot of structural things that you need to get across about your hero/ine from the very beginning. You have to know your character’s INNER AND OUTER DESIRES and how they conflict.

In fact, let’s just stop right there and talk about this crucial idea of INNER AND OUTER DESIRE.

The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” - n every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my mutiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want.
This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?

But even before all that, one of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist overall desire and need in the story. You also hear this called “internal” and “external” desire, and “want” and “deep need”, but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion, or to have sex with the love interest. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will KNOW that s/he wants that outer desire, but probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.



One of the great examples of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.

But every choice he actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape, and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily – he fights it every single step of the way, and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character whom we emphasize with – it’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”

It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.

But what Clarice REALLY needs is not advancement. What she needs to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.

And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.

Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.

It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish - something the protagonst comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline because it clearly shows character growth.

Closely entwined with the inner/outer desire lines is the ARC of the character (since you are devising the end of your story at the same time as you’re planning the beginning. The arc of the character is what the character learns during the course of the story, and how s/he changes because of it. It could be said that the arc of a character is almost always about the character realizing that s/he’s been obsessed with an outer goal or desire, when what she really needs to be whole, fulfilled, and lovable is (fill in the blank). On top of that a character will go from shy and repressed to a capable and respected leader, from selfish to altruistic, from pathological liar to a seeker of truth… and the bigger the change, the more impact the story will have, as long as you keep it believable.

So it’s essential to know where you want your character to end up, and then work backward to create a number of personal obstacles and external problems that are keeping that character from being everything s/he can be.

INCITING INCIDENT/CALL TO ADVENTURE

This is the event that starts the story and forces the hero/ine to react.

In JAWS, it happens on the first few pages of the book, and the first few minutes of the movie: the shark swims into the quiet bay and eats a swimmer. That’s the event that forces the hero, Sheriff Brody, to take action. (In mysteries and thrillers the first death is often the inciting incident – it’s so common that writers refer to it as “the corpse hits the floor”. In the case of JAWS, the corpse hits the ocean floor.)

In STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker finds the hologram of the captured Princess Leia pleading for help that she has hidden in the robot R2D2.

In CHINATOWN, a woman claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray walks into Jake Gittes’ office and hires him to prove her husband is cheating on her. (In a detective story, the inciting incident is often the case that lands in the detective’s lap, or again, “the corpse hits the floor”.

In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the government guys come to Professor Indiana Jones and want to hire him to recover the lost Ark of the Covenant – before Hitler gets it.

In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice is called to FBI agent Crawford’s office, where he tells her he has “an interesting errand for her.”

In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, an owl delivers Harry’s invitation to Hogwart’s School. (The Call to Adventure is very often a literal phone call, summons, knock on the door, or mailed invitation).

Each of these incidents propels the hero/ine into action. They must make a decision – to take the job, accept the task, answer the call. This is not an optional step for you, the writer – it is a crucial part of every story.

Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler detail another step here – THE REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The hero/ine is often reluctant to take that step into adventure and at first says no to the job. In CHINATOWN, for example, Jake initially tries to talk “Mrs. Mulwray” out of pursuing the case. In HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE there’s a whole sequence of Harry’s uncle trying to prevent Harry from receiving his invitation to Hogwart’s school.


THE ANTAGONIST

The antagonist, opponent, villain deserves his/her own post - see here and here. For the purposes of this post I’ll just say, either you’ll be introducing the antagonist in the first act, or you’ll be introducing a mystery or problem or crisis that has actually been set in motion by the antagonist.

ALLIES

Also in the first act, you’ll set up most of the hero/ine’s allies – the sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister.

MENTOR

Not all stories have mentors, and the mentor might not be introduced until some time in the second act.

LOVE INTEREST

This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor.

HOPE/FEAR (STAKES)

Just as good storytellers will be sure to make it perfectly clear what the main character’s inner and outer desires are, these storytellers will also be very clear about what we hope and fear for the main character. Generally what we hope for the character is the same as her or his INNER NEED. We hope George Bailey will defeat Mr. Potter. We fear Potter will drive George and his family into ruin (and George possibly to suicide). Our fear for the character should be the absolute worst case scenario: in a drama, mystery or thriller we’re talking madness, suicide, death, ruin. In a comedy or romance the stakes are more likely the loss of love.

Our awareness of the stakes may grow along with the main character’s growing awareness, but it most stories there are clues to the bigger picture right from the beginning

STATEMENT OF THEME:

A reader or audience will get restless if they don’t have a good idea of what the story is within the first five (I’d even say three) minutes of a movie, or the first twenty pages of a book. Sometimes it’s enough to have just a sense of the central conflict. But often good storytellers will make it perfectly clear what the theme of the story is, and very early on in the story. In the first act of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, George is impatient to leave pokey little Bedford Falls and go out in the world to “do big things”. George’s father tells him that in their own small way, he feels they ARE doing big things at the Building and Loan; they’re satisfying one of the most basic needs of human beings by helping them own their own homes. This is a lovely statement of the theme of the movie: that it’s the ordinary, seemingly mundane acts that we do every day that add up to a heroic life.

FIRST ACT CLIMAX/CENTRAL QUESTION:

We talked about sequence and act climaxes last week – that an act climax will have a reversal, revelation, and often a setpiece and/or change of location set piece that spins the story into the second act. What we didn’t talk about is the idea of the central question of the story.

I will be didactic here and say that by the end of the first act you MUST have given your reader or audience everything they need to know about what the story is going to be about: what kind of story it is, who the hero/ine and antagonist (or mystery) are, and what the main conflict is going to be. It’s useful to think of the story a posing a central question: Will Clarice get Lecter to give her the information she need to catch Buffalo Bill before he kills again? Will Sheriff Brody’s team be able to kill the shark before it kills again (and in time to save the tourist season?) Will the crew of the Nostromo be able to catch and kill that alien before it kills them?

(All right, those are some bloody examples, but that’s me.)

It’s the question on which the entire action of the story hinges.

Here’s an interesting structural paradigm to consider. In a lot of stories, the central question is actually answered in the second act climax, and the answer is often: No.

What’s the second act climax of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS?


(Hint: it’s the one scene/setpiece that EVERYONE remembers, and Clarice has nothing to do with it.)

Right – Lecter escapes. Well, what does that have to do with our heroine?

It means that Lecter will NOT be helping her catch Buffalo Bill. In fact, in the movie, when she gets the phone call that Lecter has escaped, she says aloud, “Catherine’s dead.”

Because Clarice thinks that she needs Lecter to save Catherine. But Lecter, like the great mentor he is, has TAUGHT Clarice enough that she can catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine herself (okay, with help from the teaching of her other mentor, Crawford).

Ingenious storytelling, there, which is why I keep returning to SILENCE OF THE LAMBS for my story structure examples.

Next post I’ll move on to the elements of the second act.

So I’m interested in all questions and comments, of course, but I’m particularly looking for good examples of inner and outer desire, especially inner and outer desire in conflict. Got any for me?

And if you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I've now broken down the first acts of several movies, identifying these steps:

CHINATOWN Act One Breakdown

HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE - Act One Breakdown

------------------------------------------------

The Screenwriting Tricks workbook is now up in all e formats, including on Smashwords, where yes, you can finally download it as a pdf file or whatever format you want. Any version - $2.99!



- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)

- Kindle

- Barnes & Noble/Nook

- Amazon UK

- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)

-------------------------------------------------------------

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More articles on story structure:

Story Structure 101 - The Index Card Method

Screenwriting - The Craft

What's Your Premise?

Elements of Act One

Elements of Act Two

Elements of Act Two, Part 2

Elements of Act Three, Part 1

Elements of Act Three, Part 2

What Makes a Great Climax?

Visual Storytelling Part 1

Visual Storytelling Part 2

Creating Suspense

Fairy Tale Structure and the List