(SPOILERS: Star Wars, The Matrix, Some Like It Hot, The Visitor, Zombieland, Avatar, Silence of the Lambs)
Last post I talked about the first part of Act One, essentially everything leading up to the catalyst (or almost everything – more on that in a minute.) As I’ve said, the Catalyst is one of the most crucial parts of the story, not to mention Act One. So that’s where I’ll start today.
The Catalyst is the point at which the main character and their dilemma are made clear to the audience. It’s when the Dramatic Question gets asked. You don’t have to spell out every aspect of the impending plot here, but the audience needs to understand what the story is about. It is in essence the real beginning of the story.
In Star Wars (written by George Lucas), the catalyst is when Luke Skywalker sees R2D2 project the hologram of Princess Leia and decides he wants to help her. The audience knows that Leia is being held by Darth Vadar and that Vadar is looking for R2D2. So the Dramatic Question becomes “Will Luke beat Darth Vadar?” Note that Luke doesn’t even know about Vadar yet and that the audience doesn’t know the Death Star will eventually come to threaten the rebel base. We don’t need all these details, we simply need to understand what the core of the story is going to be about.
In The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy), the catalyst is when Walter finds some immigrants living in his New York apartment. Someone scammed them by illegally renting them the normally unoccupied apartment. This creates a dilemma for Walter – he feels bad for them but it is, after all, his apartment. We know the story is going to be about how he deals with these two very different people.
Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) has an interesting catalyst. The movie starts with our hero, Columbus, in a post-zombie apocalypse. The catalyst comes when he flashes back to his first encounter with a zombie. But more importantly this zombie was an attractive woman that he had started to fall for. Because the Dramatic Question of the movie is not whether Columbus will defeat the zombies but whether he will find love. The zombies are just the backdrop. So the catalyst is Columbus realizing he wants love – but then being faced with a world where the chance of finding a living woman is slim.
Conventional wisdom says you want the catalyst to come about ten minutes into the movie. If there’s a prologue, that might push the catalyst back further – prologues are outside of the main structure of the story. So in The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski), the catalyst is when the agents arrest Neo – that’s the point at which he has a problem and establishes the dramatic question of, “Will Neo defeat Agent Smith?” That doesn’t come until about sixteen minutes into the film because the prologue with Trinity takes about six minutes.
Generally it’s good to establish the dramatic question quickly so that the audience doesn’t start to wonder what the movie’s about or if it’s about anything at all. There are exceptions. The catalyst in Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) – when Joe and Jerry witness the St. Valentine’s Day massacre – comes almost twenty-five minutes into the movie. How do they get away with that? Because what comes before is highly entertaining. Remember, the only real rule in screenwriting is “don’t be boring.”
The Domino is a term of my own creation to help distinguish the events that set the action in motion but don’t rise to the level of catalyst. For example, in Star Wars the Domino is when Leia puts the Death Star plans in R2D2 and sends the ‘droid down to Tatooine. That’s the action that sets the whole story in motion, but it’s not the catalyst because it doesn’t involve our main character, Luke Skywalker. The Domino in The Visitor is when Walter is sent to New York to deliver a paper.
Note that the Domino by definition comes before the catalyst – I’m addressing it out of order because I define it in relation to the catalyst. I use the term Domino because you can think of a story like a line of dominos. The first one falls and hits the next one, causing a chain reaction. The Domino story beat is like that first domino in a chain. Sometimes the Domino is the same thing as the Catalyst. I actually don’t think it’s that important to figure out what the Domino is in your story – but it is important to correctly identify the Catalyst.
Build to Act One Break
So if the catalyst traditionally comes about ten minutes into the movie, and Act One is supposed to be twenty-five to thirty minutes long, what occupies the rest of the time?
There are a couple common things that happen. First, I like the beats described in the Hero’s Journey story structure spelled about by Joseph Cambell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces (and excellently applied to screenwriting by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey). In the Hero’s Journey the character gets a call to action at this point but resists that call. Then something changes and he accepts the call.
So in Star Wars when Ben asks Luke to come with him, Luke’s first response is he can’t – he’s got to stay and help out on the farm. But then the storm troopers kill his aunt and uncle. Now there’s no reason for him to stay. And the stakes just got personal.
In The Visitor, Walter at first kicks the immigrants out of his apartment. But then seeing them on the street with nowhere to stay, he invites them back in until they can find a place.
The hero doesn’t resist the call in every story, but it’s a useful beat because it shows that the character is a little hesitant to go on the journey. It’s risky. It’s going to challenge them. The stakes are high. Their reluctance to jump in headfirst demonstrates how significant this challenge is to them and how important this story is to their life.
Another thing that often happens here is the elimination of alternate solutions. Sometimes the hero will try to find an easy way out of their dilemma. For example, in The Fugitive (story by David Twohy, screenplay by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy), Dr. Kimble first tries to convince the cops that the one-armed man killed his wife, then tries to convince a jury in court that he is innocent of the murder. It’s only after that fails and he’s convicted that he goes on the run.
This is important in stories where there is an obvious solution that would end your movie before it gets started. You have to explain why the hero doesn’t take that course of action. This happens a lot in mysteries where the investigator is not a professional cop or detective. Most people don’t run their own investigation when a loved one is killed; they call the police. You have to explain why your character behaves differently. Dr. Kimble has to find the one-armed man himself because the police don’t believe he exists.
Act One Break
The Act One Break is the point at which the character actually embarks on the journey of the story. It’s sometimes known as the “point of no return.” I think that’s a good way to look at it – from here on out the character has no choice but to see this through to the end. If the character can walk away from the story without losing anything there isn’t much tension. At the Act One Break you have to trap them in the story.
The Act One Break in The Matrix is when Neo takes the red pill. In fact, Morpheus literally tells him that if he chooses the blue pill the story ends and if he takes the red pill there will be no going back. That’s a pretty good description of the Act One break!
In Star Wars the Act One Break is when Luke goes with Obi Wan to Mos Eisley to find a pilot to take them into space. In Some Like It Hot it’s when Joe and Jerry join Sweet Sue’s band dressed like women. In Avatar (written by James Cameron) it’s when Jake is welcomed into the Navi. In Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) it’s when Buffalo Bill kidnaps Catherine Martin adding stakes and a ticking clock to Clarice’s questioning of Hannibal Lecter.
In all these cases if the character walks away from the story after this point they will fail in their goal and suffer for it. They are locked in.
The Hero’s Journey structure describes this moment as “Entering the Special World.” In other words, the hero has entered a new realm, whether literally or figuratively. So in Some Like It Hot Joe and Jerry have entered the world of women while in Avatar Jake has entered the world of the Navi. And in Zombieland Columbus has entered the world of love – a metaphorical world that he has not previously experienced.
Next post I’m going to look at Act I of Fargo in detail. I’ll break down Fargo step by step as I go through this process of in depth analysis of story structure. After that, it’s on to Act Two!