(SPOILERS: Inception, Aliens)
Last post I promised to take a closer look at the Act One Turning Point in Inception (written by Christopher Nolan). You’ll recall that I identified two candidates for the Act One Turning Point: the scene about a quarter of the way in when Cobb has assembled his team and they start planning the mission, or the scene about an hour in where he gets on the plane – the “point of no return.”
The first thing we might want to keep in mind that there are no real act breaks in feature films (unlike plays where the curtain comes down and the audience goes out to the lobby for drinks and snacks; or TV where commercials interrupt the proceedings.) Feature films are continuous experiences. The idea of acts in features is simply a literary analysis device, a way to talk about concepts of story structure. So in a sense there is no “right” answer to this question.
But what are the possibilities? Well, I’ve already suggested two. The first is that the act break is when the team is assembled and they start planning the mission. This is definitely a turning point in the story. The hero has “taken on the problem” as we like to see at the end of Act One.
But, Cobb pretty much already took on the problem when he accepted the job earlier (that moment is actually another candidate for the end of Act One, I suppose). So now he’s simply focusing his energies on the main problem – trying to incept the idea in Fischer’s subconscious – after spending time gathering his resources.
The other issue is that Cobb is not yet trapped in the story. He could still walk away with no real consequence other than perhaps a lost opportunity. So if we say this is the Act One Turning Point, does that mean it’s a flawed turning point?
Perhaps, but here’s where understanding the purpose of these beats is more important than simply locating the page on which they tend to appear. Cobb IS trapped in the story eventually. And he does take on the problem. All the things we need to happen are happening even if they don’t fall neatly into a moment that resembles a prototypical Act One Turning Point.
So what happens if we say the Act One Turning Point is when Cobb is finally trapped in the story (the scene where he gets on the plane). From here on out, if he fails he will suffer grave consequences. All requirements of the turning point have been fulfilled. But this doesn’t come until an hour into the film. An hour long Act One should feel lethargic and dull. Get to the story already! But this isn’t the case in Inception.
Maybe it’s because there is so much interesting stuff going on. Nolan cleverly inserts an action scene while Cobb is trying to recruit his forger – a previous employer Cobb failed sends thugs after him. This chase doesn’t really have anything to do with the main story, but it juices things up when they might start to drag. We also get some visually stunning imagery as Cobb teaches Ariadne about creating dream worlds. And we’re meeting unusual characters and building the mystery.
As my mentor Frank Daniel used to say, “In screenwriting there is only one rule: Don’t be boring.” Regardless of where you want to identify the Act One Turning Point, Inception works because it keeps the action moving, keeps showing us interesting stuff, and eventually satisfies the requirements of the Act One Turning Point.
There’s another intriguing possibility: what if Inception has more than three acts? Whether you allow for this possibility depends how you interpret three act structure. You can look at acts as sections of the film with individual arcs. When one arc ends, there’s a turning point that leads to another arc (TV writers think this way).
I have actually previously considered that Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) has a four act structure. In Act One, contact is lost with the colonists and Ripley decides to go back to the planet – it ends when she steps off the drop ship. Act Two would be them looking for the colonists, ending when they find them all dead and the drop ship crashes. Act Three is trying to get off the planet, ending when they retrieve the second drop ship but Newt has been taken by the aliens. Act Four is rescuing Newt.
Following this idea, you could look at Inception as a five act film: Act One is getting the job. Act Two is recruiting the team. Act three is planning the mission. Act four is going through the levels of Fischer’s brain. And act five is going into limbo to save Fischer from Mal.
I think this approach to structure can work as long as you keep the Catalyst, Dramatic Question and Resolution intact. We have to have some overall arc to the story, something that pulls us forward and delivers satisfaction at the end. Otherwise, using more than three acts could create an episodic feeling and prevent a satisfying, conclusive ending.
Remember when I said this is all just theoretical? We could argue these possibilities, but to what end? I analyze films to try to learn to be a better writer. If a multi-act approach helps you write better screenplays, then go for it!