One of the things I want to do with this blog is to analyze movies from a writer’s point of view. I want to start with “Speed,” written by Graham Yost, for two reasons: it is a fairly straightforward example of three act structure and it has a rather interesting problem. Let’s start with the basics:
Catalyst: Howard Payne (Dennis Hopper) escapes from Jack (Keanu Reeves) after the elevator sequence.
Act I Break: Jack receives a phone call from Payne informing him that there is a bomb on a bus that will blow up if the bus slows below 50 mph.
Midpoint: Jack gets the bus to the airport where they can circle on the tarmac without worrying about traffic and other obstacles – a high point (though they’ll soon discover the gas tank is leaking adding new tension).
Act II Break: Jack gets everyone off the bus but Annie (Sandra Bullock), with whom Jack has fallen in love, is captured by Payne who straps explosives to her.
Twist: Jack catches up to Payne and Annie on the subway. (Not the greatest twist, but functional for an action movie.)
Resolution: Jack defeats Payne and saves Annie.
Main Conflict: Can Jack defeat Payne? This is asked in the Catalyst and answered in the Resolution, just as it should be.
I have two problems with the movie’s structure. The first is small but significant and comes at the Act II Break. Jack manages to get all the passengers, including Annie, off the bus. Immediately much of the tension dissipates. It is several minutes before Payne captures Annie and ratchets up the suspense again. The movie loses many in the audience during those several minutes.
It would have been better to figure out a way to have Payne capture Annie just before or simultaneously with Jack saving the other bus passengers. Then we would have no time to relax after the second act tension resolves – we’d immediately be caught up in the third act tension. It’s a little difficult to imagine how one would do that. But then, screenwriting is difficult!
But there’s a bigger problem in “Speed” and it isn’t technically an “error” according to three act theory.
The problem is, the second act tension of “can Jack save Annie and the passengers on the bus,” is much more interesting and dramatic than, “can Jack defeat Payne.” Think about it. The bomb on the bus is the selling point of the whole movie. When I watch Speed now, I always want to turn it off after they get off the bus. Who cares about that subway business? The cool part of the movie is over.
So I’d like to propose another structural guideline: make sure your main conflict is the most interesting tension in your movie.
How would I fix “Speed”? I’d make the bomb on the bus the main conflict and hold off on saving the passengers on the bus until the resolution. Then I’d find a way to combine that with capturing Payne. Again, not an easy task, but a better movie I think.