BTW, I know commenting is out and retweeting is in (thanks to those who do!) but when you don’t comment, I don’t know if you’re actually getting what I’m trying to get across, and I really do think that this notion of PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION can be lifesaving when you’re plotting out – or struggling with – a story. So here are some more examples today JUST TO MAKE SURE.
Previous discussion here:
Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)
What's the PLAN?
In the first act of Silence of the Lambs, Clarice gets an assignment, an “interesting errand” from her teacher at the FBI academy: she is to interview Hannibal Lecter, an imprisoned psychopath, for a new database of serial killers. But when she walks into the basement dungeon where Lecter is kept, he assumes that she is here to ask him about a new serial killer, Buffalo Bill. Lecter tosses her a clue to follow and Clarice follows up, and when she finds the severed, preserved head of an old patient of Lecter’s hidden in a storage unit, she realizes that Lecter knows Buffalo Bill. Lecter is pleased with her investigative skills and promises, “I’ll help you catch him, Clarice.”
At the same time, Bill kidnaps another victim, Catherine Martin. And from there, Clarice has a PLAN of her own: she is going to somehow get Lecter to divulge the identity of Buffalo Bill and save Catherine’s life. Her PLAN (and the CENTRAL ACTION of the story) is to persuade Lecter to give up Bill’s identity and location, even if it means doing what her FBI mentor has warned her not to do at any cost: divulge deeply personal information to this psychopathic genius. (Note how genre-specific that central action is: it’s going to require psychological manipulation and gamesmanship, and this is a keenly, excruciatingly psychological thriller.)
Another favorite PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION of mine is in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables.
Young FBI agent Eliot Ness is assigned to bring down mobster Al Capone. So far no one in law enforcement or government has been able to pin Capone to any of his heinous crimes; he keeps too much distance between himself and the actual killings, hijackings, extortions, etc. One of Ness’ Untouchable team, a FBI accountant, proposes that the team gather evidence and nail Capone on federal tax evasion. It’s not sexy, but the penalty is up to 25 years in prison. (As you might know, this PLAN is historically accurate: Al Capone was actually finally charged and imprisoned on the charge of tax evasion.)
So the PLAN and CENTRAL ACTION of the story becomes to locate one of Capone’s bookkeepers, take him into custody and force him to testify against Capone.
But of course, in a crime thriller, this has to be done with plenty of action sequences and shootouts, so Capone gets wind of the plan and moves the accountant to a secret location high in the mountains, so Ness and his team have to storm the hideout – much gunfire and chases on horseback ensue (and some clever persuasion by Sean Connery to get the bookkeeper to testify).
So as we approach the MIDPOINT, Ness’s team has the bookkeeper in custody, the trial is set, and Ness’s men are escorting the bookkeeper to court.
But the movie is only half over. So of course, as very often happens at the midpoint, the plan fails. In a suspenseful and emotional wrenching MIDPOINT CLIMAX, Ness’s accountant teammate, whom we have come to love, escorts the bookkeeper into the courthouse elevator to take him up to the courtroom. As the doors close, we see the police guard is actually one of Capone’s men.
Ness and his other teammate (a criminally hot Andy Garcia), realize that something’s wrong and race up (down?) the stairs to catch the elevator, but arrive to find a bloodbath – both accountants brutally murdered, and the word TOUCHABLE painted on the elevator in blood.
So the plan is totally foiled – they have no witness and no more case. It’s a great midpoint reversal, because we – and Ness himself – have no idea what the team is going to be able to do next (and also Ness is so emotionally devastated by the loss of his teammate that he begins to do reckless things.).
(In case you’re wondering, the new plan becomes for the Sean Connery character to find another Capone accountant, and it’s when Capone’s men are trying to hustle that second accountant out of town that the big chase/baby carriage scene in the train station goes down.)
It’s important to note that the central action of the story is not always driven by the protagonist. Usually, yes. But in The Matrix, it’s Neo’s mentor Morpheus who has the overall PLAN, which drives the central action, right up until the end of the second act. The plan is to recruit and train Neo, whom Morpheus believes is “The One” prophesied to destroy the Matrix. So that’s the action we see unfolding: Morpheus recruiting, deprogramming and training Neo, who is admittedly very cute, but essentially just following Morpheus’s orders for two thirds of the movie.
Does this weaken the structure of that film? Not at all. Morpheus drives the action until that crucial point when he is abducted by the agents, at which point Neo steps into his greatness and BECOMES “The One” by taking over the action and making a new plan, to rescue Morpheus by sacrificing himself.
It is a terrific way to show a huge character arc, Neo stepping into his destiny. And I would add that this is a common structural pattern for mythic journey stories - in Lord of the Rings, it's Gandalf who has the PLAN and drives the reluctant Frodo in the central story action.
Here’s another example. In the recent (and very funny) romantic comedy It’s Complicated, Meryl Streep’s character Jane is the protagonist, but she doesn’t drive the action or have any particular plan of her own. It’s her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), who seduces her and at the end of the first act, proposes, in a very persuasive speech, that they continue this affair as a perfect solution to both their love troubles – it will fulfill their sexual and intimacy needs without disrupting the rest of their lives.
Jane decides at that point to go along with Jake’s plan (saying, “I forgot what a good lawyer you are.”) In terms of action, she is essentially passive, letting the two men in her life court her (which results in bigger and bigger comic entanglements), but that makes for a more pronounced and satisfying character arc when she finally takes a stand and breaks off the affair with Jake for good, so she can finally move on with her life.
I would venture to guess that most of us know what it’s like to be swept up in a ripping good love entanglement, and can sympathize with Jane’s desire just to go with the passion of it without having to make any pesky practical decisions. It’s a perfectly fine – and natural – structure for a romantic comedy, as long as at that key juncture, the protagonist has the realization and balls – or ovaries – to take control of their own life again and make a stand for what they truly want.
I give you these last two examples – hopefully - to show how helpful it can be to study the specific structure of stories that are similar to your own. As you can see, the general writing rule that the protagonist drives the action may not apply to what you’re writing – and you might want to make a different choice that will better serve your own story. And that goes for ANY general writing rule.
So is this all making sense?
All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks. Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.
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If you're a romance writer, or have a strong love plot or subplot in your novel or script, then Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks II is an expanded version of the first workbook with a special emphasis on love stories.
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