Here's the second post I promised the New Orleans workshop people - an in-depth discussion of Act Climaxes. (Here's the first part:)
For those new to the idea of the Three-Act, Eight Sequence structure, I always suggest this incredibly useful exercise:
Watch a few movies just identifying the eight sequences (every fifteen minutes or so), and act breaks, paying particular attention to the ACT CLIMAXES.
Breaking down a movie into its three (or four) acts and identifying the Act Climaxes (plot points, turning points, act breaks, curtain scenes, whatever you want to call them!) is a short-cut method of analysis that will get you used to recognizing that basic storytelling rhythm. I swear, taking this exercise seriously will improve your writing to no end, and it’s worth starting from the very beginning with this exercise to lock that structure into your mind for the rest of time.
So let’s take several movies in a row and identify the Act Climaxes of each, so we can look at what all happens at those crucial junctures.
This act/climax structure happens exactly the same way in books, with a bit more flexibility in where the climaxes take place because books vary more in length and proportion. But because movies are such a compressed form of storytelling, it's often easier to see the structure of the story in a movie than it is in a book. And it's a lot faster!
To review: a two-hour movie has three acts: Act One is roughly 30 minutes (or 30 script pages) long, Act Two is 60 minutes long (but broken into two very different sections of 30 minutes each, separated by the MIDPOINT CLIMAX of the movie) and Act Three is a bit shorter than 30 minutes, because you almost always want to speed up the action in the end.
The proportion is exactly the same in a book. In a book of 400 pages, Act One will be roughly 100 pages, Act Two will be 200 pages, divided in two by a Midpoint Climax at p. 200, and Act Three will probably be a little less than 100 pages.
In a 90-minute movie or short book, you’ll probably have just three acts of approximately equal length.
These are very rough guidelines, not rules, and will change proportionately with the numbers of pages in your book. But essentially, you can look at any book or movie as being divided into four roughly equal quarters of story, with four crucial act climaxes:
- Act I Climax
- Midpoint Climax
- Act II Climax
- Act III Climax (the whole story climax)
Now, the easiest way to identify an Act Climax in a movie is just to use your watch, or the timer on the DVR. When something big starts to happen about thirty minutes into a movie, either psychologically, sexually, visually, or action-y, you can pretty much count on that being an act climax. Same at 60 minutes, 90 minutes, and of course, the scenes before the end.
Remember, in general, the climax of an act is very, very, very often a SETPIECE SCENE — there’s a dazzling, thematic location, an action or suspense sequence, an intricate set, a crowd scene, even a musical number. Act climaxes also tend to be GENRE-SPECIFIC: meaning if it’s a romantic comedy, the climax should be both funny and sexy, if it’s romantic suspense, it should be both suspenseful and sexy, if it’s an action thriller, there’s probably going to be a car chase or a murder, and so on.
Also an act climax is often more a climactic sequence than a single scene, which is why it sometimes feels hard to pinpoint the exact climax. And sometimes it’s just subjective! These are guidelines, not laws. When you look at and do these analyses, the important thing for your own writing is to identify what you feel the climaxes are and why you think those are pivotal scenes.
ACT ONE CLIMAX
• 30 minutes into a 2-hour movie, 100 pages into a 400-page book. Adjust proportions according to length of book.
• We have all the information and have met all the characters we need to know what the story is going to be about.
• The Central Question is set up, and often is set up by the action of the act climax itself. We know the hero/ine’s Plan to get what s/he wants (but sometimes the Plan is stated early in Act II).
• Often propels the hero/ine Across the Threshold and Into The Special World. (Look for a location change, a journey begun).
• May start a TICKING CLOCK (this is early, but it can happen here).
• 60 minutes into a 2-hour movie, 200 pages into a 400-page book.
• Is 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.
• Can also be a huge defeat, which requires a recalculation and a new plan of attack.
• Completely changes the game.
• Locks the hero/ine into a situation or action.
• Is a point of no return.
• Can be a “Now it’s personal” loss.
• Can be sex at 60: the lovers finally get together, only to open up a whole new world of problems.
• May start a TICKING CLOCK.
• 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.
ACT TWO CLIMAX
• 90 minutes into a 2-hour film, 300 pages into a 400-page book.
• Often can be a final revelation before the end game: the knowledge of who the opponent really is.
• Often comes immediately after the “All is Lost” or “Long Dark Night of the Soul” scene — or may itself be the "All is Lost" scene. Very, very often the Act Two Climax is a double-punch of a devastating All is Lost scene followed almost immediately by a revelation that leads to a new plan to take the hero/ine into the final battle.
• Answers the Central Question (often in the negative).
• Propels us into the final battle.
• May start a TICKING CLOCK.
ACT THREE CLIMAX
• Near the very end of the story.
• Is the final battle.
• Hero/ine is often forced to confront his or her greatest nightmare.
• Takes place in a thematic Location — often a visual and literal representation of the Hero/ine’s Greatest Nightmare (even if it’s a wedding gone bad!).
• We see the protagonist’s character change.
• We may see the antagonist’s character change (if any).
• We may see ally/allies’ character changes and/or gaining of desire.
• There is possibly a huge final reversal or reveal (twist), or even a whole series of payoffs that you’ve been saving (as in Back to the Future and It’s a Wonderful Life).
• In a romance, is often a Declaration of Love and/or a Proposal.
Below I’ve identified the Act Climaxes (plot points, turning points, act breaks, curtain scenes) of several classic movies with scenes you probably remember:
All times are approximate — I'm a Pisces.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, written by Lawrence Kasdan
ACT ONE CLIMAX:
(30 min.) The great Nepalese bar scene. A total setpiece scene: the visuals of that snowy mountain and the tiny bar, the drinking contest that Marion wins, the fight between Indy and Marion with its emotional back story and sexual chemistry, the entrance of Toht and his heavies, who are ready to torture Marion for the medallion, the re-entrance of Indy and the huge, fiery fight, which ends in the escape of Indy and Marion with the medallion and Marion’s capper line: “I’m your goddamn partner!”
Everything you could ever want in a setpiece sequence, visuals, action, sex, emotion: and all we need to know to understand what the story is going to be has been laid out.
(60 min.) Having determined that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place in the archeological site, Indy goes down into the Well of Souls with the medallion and a staff of the proper height, and in a mystically powerful scene, uses the crystal in the pendant to pinpoint the exact location of the Ark.
ACT TWO CLIMAX:
(1 hr. 15 min.) After the big setpiece/action scene of crashing through the wall in the Well of Souls to escape the snakes, Indy and Marion run for a plane on the airfield to escape, and Indy has to fight that gigantic mechanic, and simultaneously race to stop the plane, with Marion on it, from blowing up from the spilled gas (reliving his nightmare — losing her again). He saves Marion just before the plane blows up. And the capper: Indy learns the Nazis have put the Ark on a truck to take to Cairo. Cut to Indy on a horse, charging after them.
Of course, the climax is the opening of the Ark and the brutal deaths of all the Nazis who look at it. This is a unique climax in that the protagonist does virtually nothing but save his own and Marion’s lives; there’s no battle involved; they’re tied up all the way through the action. It’s a classic deus ex machina as God steps in (metaphorically) to take the Ark back.
But there are such pyrotechnics going on, and such emotional satisfaction in seeing the Nazis dispatched, that I never hear anyone complaining that Indy doesn’t participate.
Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottleib, from the book by Peter Benchley
ACT ONE CLIMAX:
Jaws is a 2 hour, 4 minute movie and I would say the first act climax is that big crowd scene 30 minutes in when every greedy fisherman on the East Coast is out there on the water trying to hunt the shark down for the bounty. One team catches a tiger shark and everyone celebrates in relief. Hooper says it’s too little to be the killer shark and wants to cut it open to see if there are body parts inside, but the Mayor refuses. We know that this isn’t the right shark, and we see that Sheriff Brody feels that way as well, but he’s torn – he wants it to be the right shark so this nightmare will be over. But the real, emotional climax of the act is at the very end of the sequence when Mrs. Kitner strides up to Brody and slaps him, saying that if he’d closed the beaches her son would still be alive. This is the accusation – and truth – that compels Brody to take action in the second act. (34 minutes)
It’s a devastating scene – just as devastating as a shark attack, and a crucial turning point in the story, which is why I’d call it the act climax. Brody is going to have to take action himself instead of rely on the city fathers (in fact, the city fathers have just turned into his opponents).
The midpoint climax occurs in a highly suspenseful sequence in which the city officials have refused to shut down 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. (This is about 60 minutes and 30 seconds in). Brody’s family has been threatened (“Now it’s personal.” ) And as he looks out to sea, we and he realize that no one’s going to do this for him – he’s going to have to go out there on the water, his greatest fear, and hunt this shark down himself.
ACT TWO CLIMAX:
As in the first act climax, here Spielberg goes for a CHARACTER sequence, an EMOTIONAL climax rather than an action one. About 83 minutes into the movie, the three men, Brody, Quint and Hooper, who have been at each other’s throats since they got onto the boat, sit inside the boat's cabin and drink, and Quint and Hooper start comparing scars – classic male bonding, funny, touching, cathartic. In this midst of this the tone changes completely as Quint reveals his back story, which accounts for his shark obsession: he was on a submarine that got hit during WW II, and most of the men were killed by sharks before they could be rescued. It’s a horrific moment, a complete dramatization of what our FEAR is for these men. And then, improbably, the three guys start to sing, “Show me the way to go home.” (I told you – a musical number!) It’s a wonderful, comic, endearing uplifting, exhilarating moment – and in the middle of it we hear pounding – the shark attacking, hammering the boat. And the men scramble into action, to face the long final confrontation of ACT THREE. (92 minutes in).
ACT THREE CLIMAX:
The whole third act of Jaws is the final battle, and it’s relentless, with Quint wrecking the radio to prevent help coming, the shark battering a hole in the ship so it begins to sink under them, the horrific death of Quint. The climax of course is water-phobic Brody finding his greatest nightmare coming alive around him: he must face the shark on his own on a sinking ship – he’s barely clinging on to the mast - and blowing it up with the oxygen tank. The survival of Hooper is another emotional climax. (2 hrs. 4 minutes).
The interesting thing to note about Jaws is that despite the fact that it’s an action movie (or arguably, action/horror), every climax is really an emotional one, involving deep character. I’d say that has a lot to do with why this film is such an enduring classic. . It’s also interesting to consider that in an action movie an emotional moment might always stand out more than yet another action scene, simply by virtue of contrast.
Silence of the Lambs
Written by Ted Tally, from the book by Thomas Harris
ACT ONE CLIMAX:
I’d say it’s a two-parter (remember that Act Climaxes are often double-punch scenes). The lead-in is the climax of Clarice’s second scene in the prison with Lecter. She’s followed his first clue and discovered the head of Lecter’s former patient, Raspail, in the storage unit. Lecter says he believes Raspail was Buffalo Bill’s first victim. Clarice realizes, “You know who he is, don’t you?” Lecter says he’ll help her catch Bill, but for a price: He wants a view. And he says she’d better hurry – Bill is hunting right now.
And on that line we cut to Catherine Martin, and we see her knocked out and kidnapped by Bill (Hence the double-punch: first we have a climax to the psychological storyline, then a second scene which climaxes the horror storyline).
So here we have an excruciating SUSPENSE SCENE (Catherine’s kidnapping); a huge REVELATION: Lecter knows Bill’s identity and is willing to help Clarice get him; we have a massive escalation in STAKES: a new victim is kidnapped; there is a TICKING CLOCK that starts: we know Bill holds his victim for three days before he kills them, and the CENTRAL QUESTION has been set up: Will Clarice be able to get Buffalo Bill’s identity out of Lecter before Bill kills Catherine Martin? (34 minutes in).
The midpoint is the famous “Quid Pro Quo” scene between Clarice and Lecter, in which she bargains personal information to get Lecter’s insights into the case. This is a stunning, psychological game of cat-and-mouse between the two: there’s no action involved; it’s all in the writing and the acting. Clarice is on a time clock, here, because Catherine Martin has been kidnapped and Clarice knows they have less than three days now 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 – he tells her 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… and as she pleads with him, she sees bloody handprints on the walls of the pit and begins to scream… and just as you think things can’t get any worse, Bill pulls out his T–shirt to make breasts and starts to scream with her. It’s a horrifying curtain and drives home the stakes. (about 55 minutes in). Again, a double-punch: a psychological climax followed by a horror climax.
ACT TWO CLIMAX :
The act two climax here is an entire, excruciating action/suspense/horror sequence: Lecter’s escape from the Tennessee prison, which really needs no description! It’s a stunning TWIST in the action. But it’s worth noting that the heroine is completely absent from this climax. The effect on her is profound, though: She was counting on Lecter to help her catch Buffalo Bill. Now that is not going to happen (the Central Question of the story is thus answered: No.) – it’s a complete REVERSAL and huge DEFEAT (All is Lost). Clarice is going to have to rise from the ashes of that defeat to find Bill on her own and save Catherine.
The sequence begins about 1 hour and 12 minutes in and ends 10 minutes later, at 1 hr. 22 minutes.
ACT THREE CLIMAX :
… of course is the long and again, excruciating horror/suspense sequence of Clarice in Buffalo Bill’s basement, on her own stalking and being stalked by a psychotic killer while Catherine, the lamb, is screaming in the pit. This is one of the best examples I know of the heroine’s greatest nightmare coming alive around her in the final battle, and it is immensely cathartic that she wins.
Note that the climaxes in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS are very true to the genre, with elements of suspense, action, thriller and horror. Every single climax delivers on the particular promise of the genre – the scares and adrenaline thrills, but also the psychological game playing.
And here are a few examples for the romance writers.’
New in Town
Written by Ken Rance, C. Jay Cox
ACT I CLIMAX:
(37 min.) After being humiliated by the workers at the factory she is trying to turn around, protagonist Lucy tries to leave town on the next plane, but a big blizzard cancels the flights. As she tries to drive back into town, she runs off the road into a snowbank, and is rescued by the hero/antagonist, Ted.
(57 min.) After Lucy helps Ted’s daughter dress up for a school dance, Lucy and Ted open up to each other about old wounds, then make out on the couch (and of course are caught in the act by his daughter).
ACT TWO CLIMAX:
(1 hr. 11 min.) A series of ALL IS LOST moments: Lucy’s bosses close the factory, Lucy is excoriated by her main ally Blanche, and then by her love interest, Ted. At home, Lucy tries to drown her sorrows by scarfing down Blanche’s tapioca pudding … then gets a big idea. REVELATION THAT LEADS TO FINAL BATTLE.
(1 hr. 26 min.) Lucy comes back to the factor to announce that she’s put together a team of investors who will back the workers in buying the factory themselves, with Lucy serving as CEO.
Sea of Love
Written by Richard Price
ACT I CLIMAX:
(30 min.) At his new partner’s daughter’s wedding, Frank comes up with a PLAN to catch the killer: they will place a personal ad and draw her out.
(58 min.) The first sex scene between Frank and Helen, and it’s a great example of how you can make sex a setpiece scene. First both Frank and Helen nearly scare each other to death with the gun Frank thinks he sees in Helen’s purse, his reaction to it, and her reaction to his reaction. Then Helen is dominant, forcing Frank against the wall in a role reversal that is both erotic and unnerving, because it puts him in the same position as we’ve seen the murder victims in. Then after sex, she calls someone while Frank sleeps, putting us in the position of knowing more than he does and making us afraid for him.
ACT II CLIMAX:
(1 hr. 31 min.) Frank is at Helen’s apartment, begging her to come home with him after a fight … and then he finds the personals ads with all three ads placed by the murder victims circled, making him sure she’s the killer. He leaves in a hurry and she watches him from the window.
(1 hr. 38 min.) In his apartment, Frank accuses Helen of being the killer and she flees, terrified by his rage. Then Frank is attacked by the real killer, Helen’s ex-husband, but is able to kill him with a trophy he has hidden under his bed.
Written by Peter Chiarelli
ACT I CLIMAX:
(27 min. ) … is a proposal: Margaret’s assistant Andrew makes her get down on her knees on a crowded sidewalk to propose to him.
(57 min.) The GETTING TO KNOW YOU scene. In the bedroom they are being forced to share, Margaret and Andrew bond over an obscure song.
ACT TWO CLIMAX:
(1 hr. 30 min.) Margaret stops her own wedding to say she can’t go through with it — Andrew deserves better than a false marriage. And she walks out to surrender herself to the INS agent.
(1 hr. 42 min.) Andrew catches Margaret in the office as she’s packing to leave and proposes to her, overcoming her fears.
Sense and Sensibility
Written by Emma Thompson, from the novel by Jane Austen
ACT I CLIMAX:
(45 min. into a 2 hr. 15 min. movie) Marianne is dramatically rescued on a rainy moor by dashing Willoughby. But Elinor has doubts …
(1 hr. 11 min.) Lucy Steele reveals to Elinor that she is secretly engaged to Edward. Elinor — and we — are devastated.
ACT II CLIMAX:
(1 hr. 49 min.) Elinor tells Edward about Col. Brandon’s offer of a parish. Edward and Elinor are both clearly torn up that Edward will marry Lucy, but neither does anything to change that (ALL IS LOST).
(2 hr. 12 min.) Edward returns to the cottage to say he has not married Lucy, his brother has. He proposes to Elinor, and we immediately CUT TO the joyful wedding of Brandon and Marianne — Edward and Elinor are in the procession, already married.
And here’s a bit more expanded Sequence breakdown.
You’ve Got Mail
Written by Nora Ephron and Delia Ephron, based on the play Parfumerie, by Miklos Laszlo
You’ve Got Mail is a good romantic comedy to look at structurally if you are writing a love story in which the hero and heroine are completely equal characters; it’s almost a toss-up as to who is the actual protagonist, here.
For me it’s Tom Hanks, simply because he has a bigger character arc to experience, but he also drives the love story and he clearly takes control of the movie in the last thirty minutes. But the point of view, I think, is more Meg Ryan’s, and the Ephrons give her some crucial scenes that usually belong to the protagonist.
(For the record, their character names are Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly, but somehow I just keep calling them Tom and Meg.)
I think it’s interesting that the Inciting Event or Call To Adventure of YGM actually happens before the movie starts: Meg and Tom have already met online, in a chat room, and are well into their emotional infidelity, I mean, internet romance, when the movie opens.
Another fairly unique thing about the movie is that the opening image and the Into The Special World, or Crossing the Threshold scene, are combined. This is the earliest I’ve ever seen an “Into the Special World” scene, although now that I think about it, the opening image often is our first glimpse at a Special World (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Witness, Bladerunner, Star Trek, Arachnophobia). What we see as the opening image is — of course — a computer screen, and the animation of an unseen user clicking through icons to sign on to the internet, which turns into animated graphics of the skyline of Manhattan, zeroing in on one graphic of a specific building on the West Side (which this movie really is a love poem to), which dissolves into the real building, which is Meg’s home.
We meet both characters on opposite sides of this computer connection, and see the premise in action right away: while Tom and Meg are completely infatuated with each other online, in real life Tom is the corporate suit who is threatening Meg’s charming independent children’s bookstore (called The Shop Around The Corner, a nice nod to the Ernst Lubitsch-directed/Samson Raphaelson-written film which was the first adaptation of the play on which this film is based).
It’s easy to see Tom’s problem and NEED/INNER DESIRE right away: while he is a terrific guy online, in his real life he is a corporate asshole (as much as Tom Hanks is ever really an asshole), who doesn’t care that his mega-volume bookstore is putting all the independent bookstores in the neighborhood out of business (even before the store opens!). Meg has an immediate external problem: the mega-volume bookstore is going to be her bookstore’s direct competition, but she doesn’t really have an internal character flaw that needs to change — except, of course, for that online infidelity thing, which isn’t taken seriously as a problem by this movie. (But really, doesn’t anyone else see that as a little problematic?)
The CLIMAX OF SEQUENCE 1 is the office scene with Tom and his father and grandfather, where the men revel in the fact that they’re putting indie bookstores out of business. (15 min. 22 seconds.)
In Sequence Two, Tom and Meg continue to exchange emails while Meg’s bookstore staff worries about the impending opening of Fox Books. Meg writes her online “Friend” about having doubts about her work (which sets up somewhat of a character arc).
The ACT ONE CLIMAX takes place at the end of a montage in which Tom spends a day with his four-year old brother and nine-year old aunt (Tom’s father and grandfather both have penchants for younger women). In this montage we clearly see Tom’s INNER DESIRE: he wants children and a real family, and obviously has a heart full of love to lavish on — someone.
And lo and behold, his young — relatives — drag him into Meg’s shop to hear “the storybook lady” (this I believe would count as the Hero Entering the Special World), and we see Tom fall for Meg (CALL TO ADVENTURE) as she reads to a group of children (they are right for each other; they want the same things: books and family). This is a love story, so the climax of the act is “boy meets girl” (in real life this time) — but at the same time, he realizes, as we do, that the huge obstacle to their relationship is that she will hate him when she finds out that he is her megastore competition. (However, he still has no idea that Meg is his online infatuation.)
So of course, he CONCEALS HIS IDENTITY (one of the most classic elements of romantic comedy), in a scene in which he is ALMOST DISCOVERED several times, as his young brother almost spills the beans, repeatedly.
Also, this Act I Climax escalates the romance in a very concrete way: the online romance becomes real-life — on Tom’s side, anyway. (Act I ends at about 29 minutes.)
In Sequence Three, the megastore opens and immediately cuts into Meg’s bookstore’s business. Meg and her significant other, Frank, attend a party, and Tom and his significant other, Patricia, are also there. Meg learns that Tom is the owner of Fox Books and confronts him over the canapés. They have an extended fight which ends with them both dragging their significant others out of the party. Later that night, they both sneak out of bed to go online to write about the incident to each other. Off-line they keep seeing each other around the neighborhood, and try to avoid each other, but then Tom rescues Meg when she has no cash in a grocery store line.
The CLIMAX OF SEQUENCE 3 — you could say is the dueling Thanksgiving party scenes (the hero and heroine singing with their extended families; they’re on parallel tracks that show they are right for each other). But I’d say it’s the scene after, in which we and Meg realize that her shop really is failing. This is a good example of the dual climax pattern you often see in a romantic comedy, in which you’ll have a scene that shows the hero and heroine are meant to be, and then undercut it with a scene of what is keeping them apart.
Now there’s another escalation to the online romance: Meg emails Tom that she needs help, she needs advice, and Tom IMs her for the first time. And he gives her the advice to “go to the mattresses.” This is another classic romantic comedy trope that goes with FALSE IDENTITY: one lover playing the CONFIDANT to the loved one while the loved one obliviously babbles on about the lover to himself — and in this case counseling her on how to destroy him. Subsequently the negative media attention Meg brings to Tom and his store makes Tom resent and dislike her. But even with all the publicity, the shop’s revenue continues to go down.
The MIDPOINT CLIMAX comes when a despondent Meg asks her anonymous online “Friend” to meet her. In the big reveal, Tom (through his ALLY, an extremely underdeveloped character, here) looks through the café window and realizes the woman he has fallen in love with online is Meg, his enemy. (58 minutes.) Tom tells his ally he’s just going home, not meeting her, but then in a twist turns around and goes back into the shop and pretends that he’s just run into her by accident — as himself. (FALSE IDENTITY again.)
…is first the very long scene of Tom and Meg getting to know each other — and fighting again — in the “chance” meeting in the café, then a scene of Meg’s staff speculating why her online friend stood her up, and then an email exchange in which Meg writes to her online friend expressing her disappointment that he didn’t show up to their date, and then Tom’s response, which climaxes as he finds himself unable to lie to her, and promises that although he can’t tell her what happened right then, he will tell her eventually. (1 hour 17 minutes.)
Meg resigns herself to closing the shop and makes preparations to do so. A lot of tearjerking going on in this sequence, but remember, one of the promises of the premise of a story like this is that it will make you cry.
There is a double climax at the end of Act Two: first, Tom gets stuck in the elevator of his apartment with his girlfriend, and as other people in the elevator get serious about how they are going to change their lives if they ever get out of the elevator alive, Tom has an epiphany about how shallow his girlfriend is. He moves out on her that night, as soon as they are freed.
And then, ALL IS LOST: Meg has to close the shop. In voice-over, she writes to her “friend” telling him her heart is breaking, while in the empty shop she visualizes her mother playing with her, as she closes the door for the last time. (Her DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL.) (ACT TWO CLIMAX — 1 hour 30 minutes.)
Here is where I think structurally the movie wobbles a little. The filmmakers give Meg the moment of defeat, and it’s a very powerful one. But really Tom is the protagonist, and he needs to be the one affected in this way — at least in that when Meg emails her “friend” about closing the shop, Tom should think he has lost her for good, because he’s caused her such pain. Boy Loses Girl.
At least, that’s what is missing for me, emotionally and structurally.
Somehow that doesn’t come across, even when Tom sees Meg visiting the children’s section of his own store and she cries as she directs a customer to a book that the hapless superstore clerk has never heard of. I get Meg’s pain, there, but there’s not enough effect on Tom.
But now Tom has another revelation when his father separates from his current girlfriend and comes to stay with Tom on his boat. Tom clearly doesn’t want to be like his father, and when his father says. “Come on, has anyone ever ‘filled your heart with joy’?” Tom has the realization that Meg has. So he starts his FINAL PLAN to win her: he is going to court her as himself, and make her fall in love with him.
SEQUENCE 7 CLIMAX
Tom visits Meg when she’s sick; they have chemistry and we see her think of him romantically for the first time (well, since their initial meeting). (1 hour 45 minutes)
….is the battle — a love battle — because Tom really is fighting to win her: by being charming, and by being her friend, while he disparages her online relationship and tries to get her to detach herself from that fantasy. He has that great speech just before she goes off to meet his online persona: “Ever wonder what it would have been like if I’d just met you and I hadn’t been your competition, and just asked you to a movie, or to coffee … for as long as we both shall live?” (I’m paraphrasing, but something like that — it’s very well-written and played.)
And in the final, final scene, the ACT THREE CLIMAX, he arranges for her to meet his online persona in the 121st Street Garden — and shows up as himself. Meg starts to cry and tells him, “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly,” before they finally kiss (1 hour 55 minutes).
Which for me redeems the whole movie, although I could have done without the swelling “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but I’ve heard from others that they find it a weak ending. And some people really hate it. The sticking point seems to be that Tom never really atones for putting Meg out of business, much less has any kind of character revelation that would make him help her stay in business; it’s just “business as usual” for him. While I think Tom Hanks as an actor has the decency and charisma to make the character likeable, the character as written is a turn-off for a lot of people I’ve heard from.
So you get this film as a short sequence breakdown instead of one of the long ones!
Want more? Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II are available in multiple formats, $3.99 and $2.99, with fully story breakdowns in each.
- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)