These interrelated key story elements are so important I’m going to start with them even before I get into all the elements of Act One. Partly because I think understanding these elements will help a lot of people with their premises, but also - if there is just ONE thing to take out of all of these hundreds of posts, I think this is the one I would choose. Seriously.
Plan, Central Question, Central Story Action
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 antagonists’, 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. There is also someone, something, or a set of someones and somethings that is BLOCKING the desire (the Antagonist or Forces of Antagonism.) That's the SET UP of Act I in a nutshell.
The hero/ine's 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.
And the protagonist’s plan (and the corresponding plan of the antagonist’s) actually drives the entire action of the second act. Stating the plan tells the audience or reader what the CENTRAL ACTION of the story will be. Until we know that as a reader, we are floundering around trying to figure out what the story is actually going to be about. So it’s critical for you, the author (or screenwriter) to set up the plan by the end of Act One, or at the very beginning of Act Two, at the latest.
Let’s look at some examples of how plans work.
I’m going to start, improbably, with the actioner 2012, even though I thought it was a pretty terrible movie overall.
Now, I’m sure in a theater this movie delivered on its primary objective, which was a rollercoaster ride as only Hollywood special effects can provide. Whether we like it or not, there is obviously a massive worldwide audience for movies that are primarily about delivering pure sensation. Story isn’t important, nor, apparently, is basic logic. As long as people keep buying enough tickets to these movies to make them profitable, it’s the business of Hollywood to keep churning them out.
But even in this rollercoaster ride of special effects and sensations, there was a clear central PLAN for an audience to hook into, a plan that drove the story. Without that plan, 2012 really would have been nothing but a chaos of special effects.
If you’ve seen this movie (and I know some of you have…), there is a point in the first act where a truly over-the-top Woody Harrelson as an Art Bell-like conspiracy pirate radio commentator rants to protagonist John Cusack about having a map that shows the location of “spaceships” that the government is stocking to abandon planet when the prophesied end of the world commences.
Although Cusack doesn’t believe it at the time, this is the PLANT (sort of camouflaged by the fact that Woody is a nutjob), that gives the audience the idea of what the PLAN OF ACTION will be: Cusack will have to go back for the map in the midst of all the cataclysm, then somehow get his family to these “spaceships” in order for all of them to survive the end of the world.
The PLAN is reiterated, in dialogue, when Cusack gets back to his family and tells his ex-wife basically exactly what I just said above: “We’re going to go back to the nutjob with the map so that we can get to those spaceships and get off the planet before it collapses.”
And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens; it’s not only Cusack’s PLAN, but the central action of the story, that can be summed up as a CENTRAL QUESTION: Will Cusack be able to get his family to the spaceships before the world ends?
Or put another way, the CENTRAL STORY ACTION: John Cusack must get his family to the spaceships before the world ends.
(Note the ticking clock, there, as well. And as if the end of the world weren’t enough, the movie also starts a literal “Twenty-nine minutes to the end of the world!” ticking computer clock at, yes, 29 minutes before the end of the movie. I must point out here that ticking clocks are dangerous because of the huge cliché factor. We all need to study structure to know what NOT to do, as well.)
And all this happens about the end of Act I. Remember that I said that it’s essential to have laid out the CENTRAL QUESTION and CENTRAL STORY ACTION by the end of Act I? But also at this point – or possibly just after the climax of Act I, in the very beginning of Act II, we need to know what the PLAN is. PLAN and CENTRAL QUESTION are integrally related, and I keep looking for ways to talk about it because this is such an important concept to get.
A reader/audience really needs to know what the overall PLAN is, even if they only get in a subconscious way. Otherwise they are left floundering, wondering where the hell all of this is going.
In 2012, even in the midst of all the buildings crumbling and crevasses opening and fires booming and planes crashing, we understand on some level what is going on:
- What does the protagonist want? (OUTER DESIRE) To save his family.
- How is he going to do it? (PLAN) By getting the map from the nutjob and getting his family to the secret spaceships (that aren’t really spaceships).
- What’s standing in his way? (FORCES OF OPPOSITION) About a billion natural disasters as the planet caves in, an evil politician who has put a billion dollar price tag on tickets for the spaceship, a Russian Mafioso who keeps being in the same place at the same time as Cusack, and sometimes ends up helping, and sometimes ends up hurting. (Was I the only one queased out by the way all the Russian characters were killed off, leaving only the most obnoxious kids on the planet?)
Here’s another example, from a much better movie:
At the end of the first sequence of Raiders Of The Lost Ark (which is arguably two sequences in itself, first the action sequence in the cave in South America, then the university sequence back in the US), Indy has just taught his archeology class when his mentor, Marcus, comes to meet him with a couple of government agents who have a job for him (CALL TO ADVENTURE). The agents explain that Hitler has become obsessed with collecting occult artifacts from all over the world, and is currently trying to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant, which is rumored to make any army in possession of it invincible in battle.
So there’s the MACGUFFIN, the object that everyone wants, and the STAKES: if Hitler’s minions (THE ANTAGONISTS) get this Ark before Indy does, the Nazi army will be invincible.
And then Indy explains his PLAN to find the Ark: his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, was an expert on the Ark and had an ancient Egyptian medallion on which was inscribed the instructions for using the medallion to find the hidden location of the Ark.
So after hearing the plan, we understand the entire OVERALL ACTION of the story: Indy is going to find Abner (his mentor) to get the medallion, then use the medallion to find the Ark before Hitler’s minions can get it.
And even though there are lots of twists along the way, that’s really it: the basic action of the story.
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.)
Generally, PLAN and CENTRAL STORY ACTION are really the same thing – the Central Action of the story is carrying out the specific Plan. And the CENTRAL QUESTION of the story is – “Will the Plan succeed?”
Again, the PLAN, CENTRAL QUESTION and CENTRAL STORY ACTION are almost always set up – and spelled out - by the end of the first act, although the specifics of the Plan may be spelled out right after the Act I Climax at the very beginning of Act II.
Can it be later? Well, anything’s possible, but the sooner a reader or audience understands the overall thrust of the story action, the sooner they can relax and let the story take them where it’s going to go. So much of storytelling is about you, the author, reassuring your reader or audience that you know what you’re doing, so they can relax and let you drive.
If you haven’t done this yet, take a favorite movie or book (or two or three) and identify the PLAN, CENTRAL STORY ACTION and CENTRAL QUESTION and them in a few sentences. Like this:
- In Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant’s PLAN is to break up Katharine Hepburn’s wedding by sending in a photographer and journalist from a tabloid, which he knows will agitate her and her whole family to the point of explosion. (So the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is using the journalists to break up the wedding, and the CENTRAL QUESTION is – Will he be able to break up the wedding?)
- In Inception the PLAN is for the team of dream burglars to go into a corporate heir’s dreams to plant the idea of breaking up his father’s corporation. (So the CENTRAL ACTION is going into the corporate heir’s dream and planting the idea, and the CENTRAL QUESTION is – Will they succeed?).
- In Sense And Sensibility the PLAN is for Marianne and Elinor to secure the family’s fortune and their own happiness by marrying well. (How are they going to do that? By the period’s equivalent of dating – which is the CENTRAL ACTION. Yes, dating is a PLAN! The CENTRAL QUESTION is, Will the sisters succeed in marrying well?)
- In The Proposal, Margaret’s PLAN is to learn enough about Andrew over the four-day weekend with his family to pass the INS marriage test so she won’t be deported. (The CENTRAL ACTION is going to Alaska to meet Andrew’s family and pretending to be married while they learn enough about each other to pass the test. The CENTRAL QUESTION is: Will they be able to successfully fake the marriage?
Now, try it with your own story!
- What does the protagonist WANT?
- How does s/he PLAN to do it?
- What and who is standing in his or her way?
For example, in my thriller, Book of Shadows, here's the Act One set up: the protagonist, homicide detective Adam Garrett, is called on to investigate the murder of a college girl - which looks like a Satanic killing. Garrett and his partner make a quick arrest of a classmate of the girl's, a troubled Goth musician. But Garrett is not convinced of the boy's guilt, and when a practicing witch from nearby Salem insists the boy is innocent and there have been other murders, he is compelled to investigate further.
So Garrett’s PLAN and the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is to use the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate the murder on his own, all the while knowing that she is using him for her own purposes and may well be involved in the killing. The CENTRAL QUESTION is: will they catch the killer before s/he kills again - and/or kills Garrett (if the witch turns out to be the killer)?
- What does the protagonist WANT? To catch the killer before s/he kills again.
- How does he PLAN to do it? By using the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate further.
- What’s standing in his way? His own department, the killer, and possibly the witch herself. And if the witch is right… possibly even a demon.
It’s important to note that the Plan and Central Action of the story are 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, the Act Two Climax, when he is abducted by the agents of the Matrix, 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 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 from the above, 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.
ASSIGNMENT QUESTIONS: Have you identified the CENTRAL ACTION of your story? At what point in your book does the reader have a clear idea of the protagonist’s PLAN? Is it stated aloud? Can you make it more clear than it is?
And you guys, you really need to understand this. This idea of a CENTRAL STORY ACTION goes back THOUSANDS of years, to the Golden Age of Greek drama. Aristotle laid it out in the POETICS (here's a reminder...)
If you think you can fight thousands of years of dramatic structure (which is by now, I would venture to say, part of our DNA strand...) well, good for you, you rebel, you! But why make things so hard on yourself? Think about it. Thousands of years, this stuff has worked. Fight it at your peril, is all I'm saying.
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