Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Analyzing "Speed"

(Spoilers: “Speed”)

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.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Writer Beware Part II

Last time I started discussing questionable deals writers often get involved with in Hollywood. Please note, I am not an attorney and this should not be considered legal advice. I strongly recommend you consult an experience entertainment attorney to negotiate any contract you are considering entering into.

Here are some of the things writers need to watch out for when considering deals in Hollywood. Your attorney should be able to steer you clear of most of these.


If the movie is made or distributed by a WGA signatory company, the WGA has sole right to determine writing credits. This means that no producer can guarantee you screenplay by, written by or story by credit unless it is certain the movie will be made and distributed through independent, non-union companies. Many less experienced producers don’t even know this.

Moreover, just because you wrote an original script doesn’t mean that you’ll be eligible to get credit in a WGA arbitration if you didn’t work under a WGA contract. In fact, if your contract isn’t worded properly, you could be EXCLUDED from credit. That’s because your screenplay could be considered “underlying material” instead of a draft of a script. The surest way to combat that is to only work for WGA signatory companies under a union contract. But if you’re just starting out that may not be possible. Make sure your attorney puts language in your contract to make your deal retroactively union should any union writer be hired or should a signatory company get involved.

Credits Part Two

The other place I often see deals go south is when another writer, producer or director says they love your script and want to take it somewhere they know will buy it, but they want to do a little polish themselves first. Beware! I would always recommend against this, but if you really want to accept this sort of deal make sure you spell out everything in writing. Invariably when they finish their draft they’ll become convinced they deserve a bigger share of the money or credit than they thought they did when they started. I’ve even seen a producer claim he deserved writing credit because of the “brilliant notes” he gave. Worst, you could find yourself in an argument over who even owns the script at that point.

How Much Will You Do

Watch out for open ended commitments. Free rewrites is a problem even for established writers. If you don’t spell out how many rewrites you’ll do, you’re begging for someone to abuse you. Also, if you’re optioning your script, make sure the option expires at some reasonable point in the future. The reality is if they can’t do something with your script in three years they probably never will.

Professional Means You Get Paid

I realize you may have to option material for little or no money to get a break. I’ve done it. But be sure if the movie becomes a huge hit you get your share. They may tell you that it’s just going to be a little, independent, low budget film. But what if they turn around and sell the script to Warner Brothers and it becomes next summer’s smash hit starring Will Smith? Will you still be happy with the pittance they’re offering?

The key is often to tie your compensation to the budget of the movie. That allows the producers to pay a reasonable amount if they indeed work low budget, but protects you if the project takes off.

And just so you know, residuals are tied to credit (see above). There have been writers who made less than $50,000 for writing a movie that grossed over $100 million. Don’t be one of them.

Be aware that the producer may moan and cry that they can’t afford what you want. They’ll suggest “just keeping the attorneys out of it for now” so things don’t get bogged down. They’ll tell you your attorney is jeopardizing your deal and thus your entire writing career.

Don’t fall for it.

If they are willing to be fair, these deals do not have to take long to negotiate. Anybody who tries to convince you to ignore your attorney’s advice is your enemy. You will be much happier in the long run if you get the details worked out in advance even if it slows things down a little.

And as I think I’ve mentioned, get an attorney.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Writer Beware Part 1

It’s a sad reality of Hollywood that aspiring writers often seem to find themselves caught up in questionable deals, often with heartbreaking results. Years of time can be wasted on a passion project that is destroyed in the process. So I want to offer some advice on avoiding some pitfalls based on my years navigating this business.

There are two kinds of people you have to watch out for: scam artists and sincere people who are woefully naïve. Strangely it often seems like the latter category is more dangerous.

There’s an old joke in Hollywood that the only requirement to be a producer is the ability to buy business cards. There are thousands of aspiring producers out there operating out of their apartment or a coffee shop, with some borrowed money from mom and dad and a pocket full of credit cards. They may have some small achievements on their resume – an internship with a known producer or a few years as a script reader.

Five years from now most will be living in their parents’ basement and working a menial job to pay off their debts. I’m not knocking them…sadly many aspiring writers will share their fate. It’s the tough reality of the business that there are way more talented and hard working people than there are jobs. And big time producers had to start somewhere, so you ought to give these people some benefit of the doubt. But you do need to protect yourself.

Rule Number One: Get an Entertainment Attorney

If you can’t afford to have an attorney look over a deal, you can’t afford the deal. Entertainment industry contracts are complex and full of land mines designed to rob you of credit, money, time or all of the above. Before you agree to anything, get an attorney. Really, get an attorney. And whatever you do, do NOT negotiate the deal yourself.

Make sure you get an entertainment attorney – someone who has experience with film industry contracts. You may find another kind of attorney willing to look over your deal for a lower rate, but it will take them longer and you probably won’t save the money you thought you would. And they could miss something that will cost you dearly in the long run.

As to cost, entertainment attorneys who work for established writers typically work on a 5% commission. If you’re just starting out and all you have on the table is a one dollar option, the attorney will probably ask you to pay hourly rates – and who can blame them. Top level entertainment attorneys charge well over $500 an hour but you should be able to find someone suitable for $200 an hour or even less.

(Another tip: usually attorneys’ standard contracts specify that they break down work into quarter hour increments. So if he makes a one minute phone call, you pay for fifteen minutes of his time. But many will agree to sixths (10 minute increments) if you ask.)

It may be tough to write a check for $500 for an attorney to negotiate a one dollar option, but consider how much time you spent writing your script. Are you willing to throw all that away to save $499? If you can’t afford the attorney, you can’t afford the deal.

How do you find an attorney? Usually by asking another writer for a recommendation. You can also ask your agent assuming you have an agent. If you don’t know anybody who can refer you, you can try California Lawyers for the Arts. They will provide a referral to someone appropriate.

Rule Number Two: Get it in Writing

Before you do any work, get your agreement in writing. Even if you’re working with a friend. Especially if you’re working with a friend. I’ve seen too many friendships end over differing opinions about what had been agreed to in a business deal.

And don’t be so naïve as to do the work before reaching an agreement. I know of a case where a writer did a rewrite of another writer’s script for a producer and never bothered to even discuss how much they’d get paid. That’s not a recipe for a happy ending.

Also, be careful not to inadvertently agree to something. If someone sends you a letter or email that says you agreed to something you didn’t, and you don’t correct them, you could be in for a court battle. And whenever you send something to someone make a written record of it. Keep copies of cover letters and fax cover sheets and use the “return receipt” function on your email. Create a paper trail.

I keep a writing journal where I write down everything I worked on each day (mostly to guilt myself for not getting more done). I also log every conversation and meeting and what was discussed. That journal has saved me more times than you might imagine.

Next time I’ll tell you some of the things to watch out for when considering a non-union deal.

(Please Note: I am not an attorney and none of this should be considered legal advice. My advice, as I think I’ve made clear, is consult an attorney before agreeing to anything)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Are Movie Stars Overrated?

In his Tuesday column for the Los Angeles Times, Patrick Goldstein discussed the failure of Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio to bring an audience to Body of Lies (the generic title might actually have something to do with it). Goldstein then went on to postulate that audiences today are immune to the charms of big movie stars and that stars are no longer worth their astronomical salaries and gross points.

The truth is every study of the issue for quite a while has found that movie stars are overpaid. And anecdotally, nearly every top star in the last few decades has had a major flop at the height of their career. Jack Nicholson followed up his monster star turn as the Joker in 1989’s Batman with the bomb The Two Jakes. Arnold Schwarzenegger followed up Total Recall, Kindergarten Cop and Terminator 2 with the disastrous Last Action Hero. Which didn’t stop his next movie, True Lies, from becoming a hit. After Risky Business, Top Gun and The Color of Money, Tom Cruise did Cocktail. And then of course there’s Russell Crowe who followed up Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind with disappointments Master and Commander and Cinderella Man.

I was once in a meeting where someone mentioned I had done Sweet Home Alabama. A development exec, rather rudely, said, “oh, that movie only made money because of Reese Witherspoon.” I then pointed out that the same summer my movie came out, Reese did The Importance of Being Earnest. And Sweet Home Alabama made more its opening day than the other movie made its entire run. Now I think Reese is a terrific actress and Sweet Home Alabama just wouldn’t be the same without her. But the point is, even though audiences love her, they won’t go see her in just anything.

Lately it’s been trendy to say Will Smith is the only star right now who guarantees a movie’s opening (someone is quoted in Goldstein’s article saying just that). But I think maybe Will Smith opens movies because he’s good at picking movies that open. Whether it’s I Am Legend or Pursuit of Happyness, his movies all have a strong, easy to articulate hook – unlike Body of Lies which is the inspiration for Goldstein’s column. (I think Tom Hanks owes much of his success to a similar talent for picking hit movies.)

So if stars don’t actually get butts in seats, why do studios insist on having them? Because they’re insurance for nervous executives. If a studio head greenlights a movie full of unknowns and it fails, he opens himself to criticism. “Why didn’t you get a star?” If he greenlights a movie with Russell Crowe and it fails, he can shrug and say, “Hey, I made a Russell Crowe movie. Who wouldn’t do that?”

Movie stars are not completely worthless, of course. They do draw attention to a movie and are nice to have for promotion. They do well on talk shows and can get interviews in magazines prior to an opening. And many of them are stars because they're talented, charismatic actors who make the movies they're in better. But anybody could probably rattle off a list of movies that were made with unknowns and did huge boxoffice. Movie stars are not a requirement for box office success.

There’s a lot of buzz now that the era of movie stars is over, that studios are belt tightening and rather than simply take it out on the craft unions, they’re finally going after star salaries. Frankly, I’ll believe it when I see it. Studio heads will still be drawn to the movie star security blanket even if logically they know it’s false security. But maybe there's some hope that the question of "who's going to star" will no longer be the main criteria for making a movie.

Monday, October 13, 2008

There Can Be Only One…Main Character, That Is

(SPOILERS: X-Men, Usual Suspects, Babel, Thelma and Louise)

All structural theories pretty much dictate that there can be only one main character. One character’s goal drives the story forward and provides the structure for your script.

“But wait,” you might be saying, “what about ensemble movies? What about movies with multiple story lines?”

One main character.

Even in a movie about a group, there will be one character whose goal is driving the story forward. And even in a movie with multiple story lines, there will be one character whose story provides structure to the whole affair. Let’s look at some examples.

X-Men: The X-men is a classic ensemble movie. It’s about a group of good mutants led by Professor X battling a group of bad mutants led by Magneto. But there is one character whose goal provides the structure for the story: Wolverine.

The main tension of the story is, “Can Wolverine protect Rogue?” That question is asked when Wolverine encounters Rogue in Canada and they are attacked by Sabertooth who was sent to kidnap Rogue (the Catalyst). The act one break is when Wolverine makes his deal to team up with the X-men to try to discover Magneto’s plans. The midpoint is Wolverine promising to watch out for Rogue if she stays with the X-men. The act two break is when Professor X is incapacitated, eliminating Wolverine's main hope of finding the kidnapped Rogue. And the resolution is when Wolverine (along with the other X-men) rescue Rogue at the Statue of Liberty.

The entire group participates in much of the story, but it is Wolverine who has assumed the roll of mentor to Rogue and it is Wolverine who is most deeply committed to the goal of saving her. That’s what drives the story. If you are going to write an ensemble story, pick one member of the ensemble to be the most committed to the goal and structure your script around that character.

Babel: Babel contains four main story lines – Brad Pitt as an American husband and father in Afghanistan trying to get aid for his wife who has been shot; the kids who pulled the trigger while fooling around with a gun; the nanny in California who takes her charges to Mexico; and the story of the teenage girl in Japan. The four stories are tied together thematically and by a few plot connections, but each is distinct.

Each of those story lines has its own main character. But Brad Pitt’s character is the main character of the entire movie. The movie is structured around his character’s journey. It is his character who has the problem at the catalyst (when his wife gets shot). The main tension is “Can he get help for his wife.” And the movie is dramatically finished when that tension is resolved. When you’re telling a story with multiple story lines, you should pick one to be the primary story that structures the movie. The main character of that story is the main character of the movie. (Note: you could create a viable movie structured around any one of those four storylines. But the filmmakers of Babel picked Pitt’s character.)

Now let’s get more complex!

The Usual Suspects: This is an ensemble film. So who is the main character? At first glance you might think it’s Verbal since he’s narrating the story. But just because a character is the viewpoint character, it does not mean he’s the main character. Verbal is not driving the story. We eventually learn that he is the instigator of the whole thing, but he is not the character with the problem that creates the structure of the film.

Next we might go to Agent Kujan since he’s the one trying to solve the murders. But he isn’t the primary driver of the story, either. The main story is in the flashback. Kujan is simply a framing device.

The actual main character is Dean Keaton. He’s the one who has the problem at the catalyst and he’s the one who provides the main tension.

And that main tension is, “Can Dean Keaton extricate himself from a life of crime?” Interestingly, we know the answer from the beginning of the movie. We see Dean Keaton get shot. Usual Suspects is a mystery and mysteries function differently than most narrative movies. They work more like Soduku puzzles. What we want to know is who killed Dean Keaton, which we eventually come to phrase as who is Keyser Soze. Unraveling the puzzle is what holds our interest. But the emotional and structural driver of the movie is Keaton’s desire to get out of his life of crime.

So, there can only be one main character. Except for the exceptions. You just knew there had to be exceptions, didn’t you? Well, they are extremely rare. In fact, I only know of one. And many people will argue that I’m wrong even about that one. The exception is:

Thelma and Louise: I think Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon) are two pieces of a single main character. Let’s look at how the movie breaks down structurally:

Catalyst: Thelma gets drunk and draws attention of a rapist.

Act One Break: Louise shoots the rapist and decides to run.

Midpoint: Thelma robs the liquor store, committing their first real crime.

Act Two Break: Louise stays on the phone too long, allowing the FBI to locate them.

Resolution: Thelma says “Let’s go” when they are facing the rim of the Grand Canyon, and Louise hits the gas.

See what happens there? The major beats alternate between the two characters. Louise gets the bigger beats, but then Thelma gets the character arc.

I don’t know if writer Callie Khouri did this consciously or not, but it makes sense if you imagine telling the story with just a single character. You could do it but you’d have a lot of scenes of a woman driving down a road not talking. You’d probably have to resort to voice over which would feel weak and lazy. By splitting the main character in two, the audience is able to enjoy hearing the women discuss their thoughts and feelings about the adventure they’re on. Usually when faced with this problem, writers give the main character a sidekick to talk to. Why Khouri instead chose to split the main character duties between two characters I don’t know, but it worked.

So unlike many writers and academics, I don’t believe that it is impossible to have two main characters. But it is very, very, very, very rare and I really wouldn’t advise trying it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sweet Home Alabama and the Love Triangle Problem

(SPOILERS: Sweet Home Alabama, Wedding Crashers)

One of the tools we use as screenwriters is "Hope and Fear." As in, what is the audience hoping will happen? What are they fearing will happen? This is a powerful tool.

One of the common devices in a romantic comedy is a love triangle. Love triangles are an example of "mutually exclusive goals." There is inherent conflict in a love triangle because you have two characters who each one something (the third character) and they can't both have it.

When we combine these two ideas, as we often do in romantic comedies, we run into a problem. Let's assume our love triangle involves Man 1 and Man 2 who are both after Woman. In order to create hope and fear, we have to make the audience hope Woman ends up with Man 1 and fear she'll end up with Man 2. Usually this is done by making Man 2 out to be a real cad.

However, we risk making Woman unsympathetic for not immediately being able to see that Man 2 is a cad. Wedding Crashers had this problem. Owen Wilson's character is after Rachel McAdams, but she has a boyfriend. A boyfriend who's such a jerk we quickly wonder what she could possibly see in him.

Sweet Home Alabama is a love triangle story but we tried to make both guys good guys. The real question is which one is right for Melanie, and the dramatic tension comes from her figuring out who she is at heart. We hope she'll figure it out in time. And fear that she won't.

But it was risky. From time to time, people still tell me Melanie chose the wrong guy. I suspect it's because Andrew would be the right choice for them. I think the movie makes clear Melanie really belongs with Jake. But I suppose I could be wrong.

It was interesting that the audience is so conditioned to the good guy/bad guy approach, they look for it even when it wasn't intended. One of the ways writers deal with the love triangle challenge is to have the bad guy cheating on the woman. We don't blame her because she doesn't know.

When we did the test screening for Sweet Home Alabama, we discovered the audience thought Andrew was sleeping with Melanie's assistant! Nowhere in the movie do we see this, nor do we see him hit on her, sneak off with her, etc. But the audience was trying to figure out "what was wrong with him" and when we didn't give them anything, they imagined something. So the director had to cut out all the scenes with Andrew and the assistant to avoid the confusion.

Ultimately I think the movie is more sophisticated for making the choice internal rather than external. It turns out romantic comedies are harder than they look!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Structure of Sweet Home Alabama

(SPOILERS: Sweet Home Alabama)

Okay, time to put my money where my mouth is. I will now analyze the three act structure of Sweet Home Alabama. I will also tell you the big structural flaw I think the movie has and why it seems to survive it.

There is a brief prologue with the young Melanie and Jake on the beach. It serves to set up the “lightning striking twice” theme, establish the romantic tone of the story and give a little foreshadow of the Alabama environment to come.

Domino and Catalyst: A little tricky. Is the catalyst the moment where Andrew proposes to Melanie in Tiffany & Co.? That’s the point where the character has the problem. However the audience does not yet know what the problem is. To solve this, my original draft had Melanie tell her best friend she’s already married immediately after the proposal. Not as dramatic a reveal, I will admit, as the scene where Melanie appears on Jake’s doorstep and demands a divorce. So one might argue that the proposal is the domino and the doorstep scene is the catalyst. I do not agree, however. I think the catalyst is the proposal because we have character and dilemma. It’s risky not letting the audience in on the dilemma, but we did drop lots of hints that something’s amiss even if it’s not clear what that something is for a few more minutes.

The important thing, though, is that in the period between 12 minutes and 15 minutes into the movie, we establish the Main Tension: Will Melanie marry Andrew? We do an unusual thing with the tension. At first, the audience is hoping that the answer to the question will be yes. But as the movie goes along, they discover that she should actually be with Jake instead, so by the end they are rooting for the answer to be “no.”

Act One Break: Act one ends and act two begins when Melanie learns she still has access to the joint checking account with Jake. This gives her the idea to try to get the divorce by becoming the most annoying version of a wife he can imagine. Until now, she was simply making a quick swing down to Alabama to get a paper signed. But that has proven impossible, so she now embarks on a mission to achieve her goal.

Midpoint: Jake and Melanie kiss in the pet cemetery. This is the up moment when Jake and Melanie are closest together, a reflection of the resolution and the opposite of the Act Two Break. We’ve also twisted the tension. From this point forward, it should be clear Melanie belongs with Jake.

Act Two Break: After Andrew breaks up with Melanie over her lies, Act Two ends when he forgives her and the marriage is back on. Melanie now has what she wants – Andrew. But, in one of the common romantic comedy forms, she’s not sure she wants him anymore. She just can’t admit that fact to herself.

Twist: As she walks up the aisle, Melanie learns she forgot to sign the divorce papers herself. This is the wake-up call that makes her realize she’s marrying the wrong guy. It’s the thing she needs to solve her dilemma happily – by calling off the wedding with Andrew and going after Jake.

And the resolution, of course, is that she and Jake get back together.

So where do I think the movie went wrong? Look back at the Act One Break. Melanie sets about trying to get Jake to sign the divorce papers. In my draft, Jake doesn’t actually sign until the end of act two, when Andrew’s come to town and Jake realizes how miserable he’s been making Melanie. But in the finished movie he signs before the midpoint. This causes the story to lose some of its momentum and begin to meander. In fact, if you watch it and work out the timeline, there’s a bit of a logic flaw. Melanie gets what she wants – Jake’s signature on the divorce papers – and then hangs out in Alabama for at least 24 hours for no apparent reason.

So how does the movie survive this? Mainly by introducing several other tensions. By the time Jake signs the divorce papers, the audience is beginning to think maybe Melanie’s making a mistake going for Andrew instead of Jake. That new emotional tension carries us forward. We also have a subplot about Andrew’s mother trying to dig up the truth about Melanie, and then the moment where Andrew comes down to Alabama, discovers Melanie’s lies, and calls off the wedding. These conflicts all have crucial forward motion which pulls the audience along. Plus, there are a few secrets about Melanie’s past which we reveal to keep things interesting. And don’t underestimate how much charming actors can do for a film.

However, I still think the movie would have been better if Jake didn’t sign those papers until the end of Act Two.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Elements of Three Act Structure

Today I want to discuss the main elements of three act structure. There are several thousand places you can learn the basics of three act structure so I will try not to simply repeat here what you can easily find elsewhere. A note on naming conventions – there are lots of terms for some of these elements. I think everyone who writes a book creates their own so it seems more original. I will use my favorite terms.

Prologue – a prologue is an opening scene or sequence which serves no significant plot purpose. That does not mean, however, that it serves no purpose at all. Prologues are used to set tone, introduce character and/or pull the audience into the story. They can also introduce elements like the supernatural which will come into play later but must be shown early so the audience isn’t pulled out of the story. Note: if you’re paying attention to expected page count for the acts, the prologue should not be credited against act one. It is a separate entity.

A classic example of a prologue is the great opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Arc where Indy recovers the idol from the cave. A first time viewer could start the movie with Indy in the classroom and not even realize anything was missing. But imagine how boring it would be to sit through those university scenes if we weren’t shown the excitement and adventure we could expect to come later.

Act One – Act one is usually about the first quarter of the movie. It sets up the story by introducing the character, his dilemma and the stakes.

Domino – This is my one original addition to the three act structure theory! I came up with it because students in my class were sometimes getting confused about the Catalyst. The domino is an event which sets the story in motion but does not rise to the level of catalyst. I call it the domino because it’s like the first domino in a series that falls, knocking down the next one and so on.

Catalyst (also called inciting incident, precipitating incident or point of attack) – This is the moment when the character has their dilemma. It’s the scene where the audience gets a sense of the arc of the story (see main conflict later). Note that neither the character nor the audience needs to fully understand the scope of the dilemma yet; they simply must realize that it exists.

In Star Wars, the catalyst is when Luke sees the hologram of Princess Leia and decides he must help her. Even though Luke doesn’t know how big a problem he has, we the audience know Leia has been captured by Darth Vader and anticipate big trouble. The domino in Star Wars is when Leia puts the plans into R2D2 and sends him off to Tatooine. That sets the story in motion but does not qualify as the catalyst because our hero is still working on the farm, not involved in the story at all yet.

Act One Break (also called first turning point or break into two) – This is the moment when our hero embarks on his journey to solve his dilemma. Between the catalyst and this moment, he may have been trying to find a way to avoid the problem or making preparations for the challenge. This is the place where he actually sets out to solve the problem. In Star Wars, Luke agrees to go with Obi Wan.

Act Two – Act two is roughly the middle half of the movie. It is where writers often have the most difficulty, usually when their obstacles aren’t complex enough to sustain this long act.

Midpoint – Somewhere near the middle of act two there is usually a big event that twists the tension of the movie in some way. We don’t want our story to be too linear. The character needs to have ups as well as downs, to get closer and farther away and closer again to his goal. The midpoint usually introduces some new element or sub-goal to keep things moving. It’s also usually the opposite of the Act Two Break in terms of the character’s success or failure.

Act Two Break (also called second turning point or break into three) – This is often called the character’s lowest moment. I think this is a misnomer, however. Immediately after the break, things usually get worse, not better. Rather, the act two break is the place where things go most wrong for the character, often the point of the character’s biggest failure. The next sequence of the movie shows the aftermath of that failure and leads to the real lowest moment just before the Twist (see below).

Act Three – Usually the last quarter of the movie, though if any act should come in short, it should be Act Three. This is the race to the end. The pace picks up and we really shouldn't be introducing any major new elements or exposition.

Twist – This is a confusing element. I do not mean a twist like in the end of Sixth Sense, though those can be powerful. The twist from a structural standpoint is the moment when the character figures out how to resolve his dilemma (in a movie with a happy ending).

Resolution – Simply, how the character’s dilemma is resolved. Most importantly, this is the end of the tension of your story. From here on out the audience’s involvement will quickly dissipate. You have a little time to wrap things up and supply an emotionally satisfying denouement, but you better be pretty near the end when you resolve the dilemma.

Main Tension – This is the central idea of your story, what drives it forward. I find it best to phrase it as a question. Star Wars: “Will Luke Skywalker save Princess Leia?” Matrix: “Will Neo defeat Agent Smith?” Amelie: “Will Amelie find love before it’s too late?” It should be simple and primal.

The Main Tension is asked at the Catalyst and answered in the Resolution. It’s what defines the story for the audience.

There are other, smaller tensions in the movie. Each subplot has a tension that could be mapped out in its own three act formula, though the beats would fall in different places. Act Two should also have its own tension, and individual sequences and scenes have tensions. Identifying the tensions that are pulling the audience through the film is very useful to the writer.

There are some common ways in which three act structure works. If the story has a happy ending, the midpoint is often an up moment, act two break is a down moment and the ending, naturally, is up. However if the story has an unhappy ending these beats are reversed. Think of the classic American gangster movie showing the rise and fall of a criminal. The midpoint is usually a down moment, but at the end of act two he’s seized control of his criminal empire…before it all collapses in the resolution.

Another common form is where the character gets what they want at the end of act two, but they no longer want it. Or, in trip-with-a-destination movies, the character arrives at the destination but things aren’t what they expect. I’ll give some examples of these forms in future posts.