Monday, December 20, 2010

How to Use Structure as a Writer

I’ve spent the last several weeks discussing screenplay structure in great depth.  Now I want to spend a moment to revisit how I think knowing this stuff is useful to you as a writer.

Most screenwriting books, workshops and classes focus heavily or even exclusively on either three act or mythology structure.  As a result, most aspiring screenwriters learn at least some basic structural concept early on.  And as a result, there are now thousands of perfectly structured really bad screenplays on the market.  Good structure does not make your screenplay good.  But it can keep it from being bad.

I’m also very leery of any kind of “paint by number” approach.  Sometimes “gurus” will imply that following their structural approach will result in a high quality, marketable screenplay.  It’s easy!  Just buy my book/class/dvd and you, too, can be a rich and famous screenwriter.

It’s not easy.  If it were everybody would be doing it.

Obviously people wrote great screenplays before anyone ever conceived of three-act structure.  We get bombarded with stories from infanthood and internalize a lot of this stuff.  However, sometimes things go awry and even the most talented of intuitive storytellers hits a structural problem.  If you understand how structure works you have a toolkit for solving that problem.  If you don’t, you’re likely to end up tossing your half-finished script in the trash.

The other side of that coin is that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  If your screenplay is fun and exciting and emotionally moving but violates some structural “rule” then I say ignore the rule.  However in my experience most effective screenplays end up hewing pretty closely to the ideas I’ve laid out in the last few weeks, whether intentionally or not.

Think of it like shooting free throws in basketball.  Even if you’ve never seen anyone shoot a basket, if you go out and toss the ball toward the rim a hundred times a few of your shots are likely to go in.  But if you want to be a pro, you learn about technique and your shooting percentage will go up.  You probably won’t reach 100% but you might get close.

So here’s how I approach the development process of a screenplay.  First, I have to figure out what my story is.  I keep ideas in notebooks.  A few of those ideas will keep popping into my head repeatedly over time.  So those are the ones I start to develop more fully.  I’ll make notes in the notebook of scenes and twists and character ideas until I start to have some sense of the complete story.

Next I’ll write out that story on a page or two, just to try to get down what’s in my head.  Only after that will I look at structure.  The most important things to figure out at this point is who the main character is and what the dramatic question of the movie is. 

Then I’ll start to lay out the main three act beats – catalyst, act one break, midpoint, act two break, epiphany and resolution. Simultaneously I’ll be thinking about the character – who they are, what their want and need is, how this story is going to affect them, what’s at stake.  Most likely I’ll be able to identify these elements in the summary I wrote from intuition and imagination. Laying it out helps me to get it all balanced and see where I need more development work.

Then over a period of time ranging from a few days to a year (depending on if I’m working for someone or writing on spec and what else is going on in my life) I’ll slowly fill in the rest of the story.  I’ll develop a 12-16 page outline delineating all the major scenes.  I’ll keep the structural ideas in mind for when I’m having trouble with a section of the story.

If you’re like me, once you learn this stuff it’ll be nearly impossible to put it completely out of mind.  I’ll think of a plot twist and immediately think, “oh, that’ll be the end of act two.”  But the more structural concepts become ingrained, the more you’ll be able to focus on the emotional, visceral, and thematic elements of your story.  And the more you’ll free your imagination to create something fresh and original.

Then you’ll have a well-structured script that’s actually about something.  That’s the real goal!


I'm pleased to announce that I have a chapter about character development in the upcoming book NOW WRITE! Screenwriting available January 6th.  You'll also find chapters from my friends Beth Serlin, Valerie Alexander and Paul Guay, as well as numerous other talented writers and writing teachers.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Fargo - Act Three

(SPOILERS:  Fargo)

Time to wrap up my analysis of Fargo (written by Ethan and Joel Cohen) by examining Act Three.  Remember, I’m working from the screenplay available here.

The first thing we look for in Act Three is the aftermath of the Act Two Break.  In this case we see Jerry trying to clean up the crime scene.  He doesn’t really have a plan anymore, but he’s trying desperately to get out of the hole he’s dug.  He goes home where his son alerts him that his father-in-law’s lawyer is trying to reach him.  This serves two purposes:  a reminder of the human toll of Jerry’s actions and an emphasis of the danger Jerry’s in.  How does Jerry react?  He goes to bed.

We then see aftermath in the form of minor characters’ reactions to recent events – the ever-tightening noose of the investigation and Carl burying the money.

Next we get the epiphany.  It’s a bit unusual here in that the realization comes to the antagonist.  Marge learns the old school chum she met was lying to her.  This prompts her to go back to the dealership and talk to Jerry.  His story doesn’t quite add up, after all – maybe he's lying, too.  This is the moment that will lead to Jerry’s undoing.  He can’t answer her questions and flees.

Now Marge begins to figure out what’s really going on.  This leads to the resolution when she finds the missing car and arrests the surviving kidnapper.  Carl and Jerry’s wife are dead.  And the final bit of the conclusion is Jerry being pulled over and arrested.  The dramatic question of “Will Jerry succeed in his kidnapping plan” set up in Act One has been answered definitively in the negative.

Lastly there’s a little denouement where we see Marge and her husband living their nice little domestic life.  This gives us a positive note to end on, that life is good for those who value family over money and have strong ethics.

The things that are most interesting to me about Fargo are the “wrong” Act Two Break that I discussed in the post on the movie’s Act Two and the hope and fear of the film.  This is an example where we are rooting for the antagonist.  We have ambivalent feelings for Jerry, though.  We don’t really want him to get away with his plot, but neither do we want to see his wife or father-in-law killed.  So the outcome of the crime is somewhat bittersweet for us.  Which makes the denouement important in mitigating the unpleasantness of the story.  It’s always important to think of the feeling you want the audience to have when they leave the theater.

Ultimately what makes Fargo work is the quirky characters and the unusual setting.  It has a certain verisimilitude derived from its specificity.  And though it is an indie film, it still mostly follows traditional three-act structural principals.  Most importantly, it has a very strong dramatic question, set up in the catalyst and answered in the resolution, that defines the scope of the film and pulls the audience through.

Perhaps not the clearest example of structural principles, but evidence that strong structure is important even in more “artsy” films.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Act Three

(SPOILERS:  Star Wars, Some Like It Hot, Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland)

We’ve now reached Act Three in my in-depth look at story structure.  Act Three is of course the ending of your movie.  You want to make sure you end with a bang.  There’s a saying: the first ten pages are the most important part of a screenplay and the last ten minutes are the most important part of a movie.  That’s because you need to grab the reader up front to sell a screenplay, but a movie audience will largely judge a film on how it ends.

Or so the theory goes.  To be safe, I’d make sure your screenplay has both a strong beginning and ending.  Grab ‘em early and leave ‘em with a “wow.”   This means, just like in the opening of your movie, you don’t want to bog down Act Three with a lot of exposition or subplot.  The whole movie has been building to this point – everything should already be set up.  Act Three is the time to pay it off.


The first thing that usually happens in Act Three is we get a sequence that shows the aftermath of the Act Two Break.  This is why I don’t like to call the Act Two Break the “lowest moment.”  More often things go downhill from the failure of Act Two for a while.  The actual lowest moment usually comes just before the Epiphany.

For example, in Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) we see Joe packing up to go on the run with Jerry yet again.  Joe will have to discard his disguises and leave Sugar behind.  We see him mourn this lost love as they’re throwing clothes into their suitcases. 

In a movie where the Dramatic Question is going to be answered in the negative, this is reversed.  The character celebrates their victory from the end of Act Two.  So in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) after the family successfully gets Olive to the pageant, Olive gets to meet Miss California and learns Miss California eats ice cream, which makes Olive very happy.

The aftermath sequence gives the audience an emotional payoff to the failure or success of the Act Two Break and emphasizes the consequences.

The Epiphany

When the character has really hit rock bottom (or the height of their success), that’s when the Epiphany comes.  This is the twist that shows us how the character is going to succeed (or fail) after all.  For example, in Star Wars (written by George Lucas) the Epiphany is the briefing scene when the general explains the weakness in the Death Star.  Luke now knows how he can beat Darth Vader.  Most often the character themselves has the realization, but sometimes the character has already figured it out and it’s the audience who’s let in on the secret.

It’s important here that you avoid the Deus Ex Machina ending.  This is an ending where some outside force saves the day for the character.  The term comes from Aristotle and means literally “god in the machine” referring to those ancient plays where an actor playing Zeus would be lowered in a basket to sort everything out for the characters.  A more modern equivalent would be the cavalry to the rescue in a western.  Endings where the character succeeds by pure luck also fall into this category.

To avoid this, the Epiphany must be set up.  Whatever realization the character has must be planted, usually around the midpoint.  We know Princess Leia has put something into R2D2.  Luke has rescued Leia and brought her and the ‘droid back to the rebels.  When it is revealed that the robot contains the Death Star plans and that these reveal a weakness, it feels organic because the elements have been planted and Luke was critical to bringing them together.  But the audience was kept in the dark just enough so that they didn’t know how this twist would come about.

In Some Like It Hot, the epiphany is when Joe exposes himself to confess his love to Sugar and kiss her on stage.  He realizes he’s no longer the carefree playboy; that he’s actually fallen for her.  He can’t leave her behind.  In Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) Columbus decides to go after Wichita despite the fact that she’s rejected him.  

In Little Miss Sunshine the epiphany is when Richard realizes he loves Olive more than he cares about winning.  He wants to stop her from competing in the pageant for fear she’ll be humiliated.  He hasn’t quite figured out how he’s going to succeed (Olive does compete) but he’s had the key realization he needs for the Resolution.

The Resolution

The Resolution is the climax of the movie.  It should be big and exciting and emotional.  It is also the moment when the Dramatic Question is answered either positively or negatively.  Thus it is what we’ve been waiting for since the Catalyst.

In addition to making this a big moment, it is crucial that you make it a final moment.  The Dramatic Question must be answered definitively.  If our hero can just go out and try again, then we don’t feel like the question is resolved.  The Resolution must be the last chance for success or failure.  If Luke can’t destroy the Death Star then the rebellion will be crushed.  It’s not just another battle; it’s the climactic battle.

The resolution is usually pretty obvious.  Luke destroys the Death Star.  Joe, Jerry and Sugar escape the mob. Columbus rescues Wichita from the zombies.  In Little Miss Sunshine Richard gets up onstage with Olive and dances with her in support, and in defiance of the pageant people who want Olive off the stage.  Olive may lose the pageant, answering the Dramatic Question in the negative, but the family has come together.

The Resolution in the mythology structure spelled out by Joseph Cambell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces (and applied to screenwriting by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey) is called the Final Conflict and operates the same way.  But this is also the point where the hero becomes Master of Both Worlds – the normal world and the special world.  Luke is a successful space adventurer and he’s found a new family among the rebels.


Once you’ve answered the Dramatic Question, your story is over.  However, you may want to wrap up a few loose ends or give the audience a little emotional closure with a final scene or two. This is the Denouement.  In Star Wars we see a medal ceremony where the heroes bask in their victory and smile lovingly at each other. 

This is fine as long as it doesn’t go on too long.  If your script continues more than a few pages after the Dramatic Question has been resolved, then your reader will start to wonder why they’re still reading.  They’ll feel the script is anti-climactic or has multiple endings.  Once you’re story is done, get to FADE OUT as soon as you can!

And with that, I’ll wrap up this post before you accuse me of going on too long.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Fargo – Act Two

(SPOILERS:  Fargo)

Now that I’ve spent the last few posts going through the various elements often found in Act Two, it’s time for me to catch up with my analysis of Fargo (written by Ethan and Joel Cohen).  Let’s look at what happens in Fargo’s second act.

Special World

The special world for our hero, Jerry, is the world of crime.  So we see him discovering what it means to live in this world – he negotiates with his father-in-law to get the ransom money and deals with the impact of the crime on his son.

Fun and Games

Since this is a crime story the fun and games section pays off those elements.  First we see the kidnappers get pulled over and shoot a cop.  Then we see Marge investigating the crime scene.  I think the important thing to note is how rich these scenes are.  The Cohen brothers make sure to give us fully realized set-piece scenes full of twists and witty dialogue and good crime stuff. 

And they use their location – the wintry North Dakota – to full effect.  This is part of the premise of the movie as well.  We see how the snow and bitter cold affect things – tracks in the snow that tell a story, Marge’s car needing a jump, etc.  We’re also treated to some of the cultural quirks of Fargo (the location) such as ice fishing and the stamp contest.

Allies and Enemies

The main enemy introduced early in Act Two is the antagonist:  Marge.  Most of the other players have already made appearances in the film at this point.  This is kind of unusual.  More often we meet the antagonist in Act One and their henchmen somewhere near the beginning of Act Two.


The midpoint in Fargo is when the kidnappers call Jerry and demand the entire amount of the ransom (they were supposed to split it with him).  In the very same scene, a representative from the auto company calls and threatens to turn the matter of the missing cars over to the legal department if they don’t receive the info they want by the following afternoon.  This scene adds a slight twist with the changing plans and a ticking clock with the threat from the rep.  It also reinforces what’s at stake for Jerry.

Subplot Wrap-Up

Following the Midpoint we spend a lot of time focusing on two subplots.  The bigger one is Marge reconnecting with a school friend who turns out to be a little unhinged. The other is Carl the kidnapper leaving the house where they’ve holed because he's sick of his partner.  Both of these sequences allow us a deeper understanding of the characters.  Meanwhile, Marge’s investigation is slowly closing in, building toward the Act Two Break.

Act Two Break

The Act Two Break is when the payoff goes awry.  Jerry’s father-in-law is killed and Carl is wounded.  The whole plan has collapsed.

This is troubling to me.  This would be a good Act Two break if in the end Jerry was going to get away with his plan.  But in the end Jerry is going to fail.  According to traditional three-act structure, the Act Two break for this story should be a point where it looks like Jerry might succeed.  But in Fargo, the Midpoint, Act Two Break and Resolution are all moments of Jerry’s failure.

So is it possible I'm wrong and this isn't really the Act Two break?  Well, anything is possible...  But this sure looks like an act break to me.  The tension of the story changes.  Jerry's plan is in tatters - there's no apparent way for him to get the money he needs.  It moves from a story about trying to execute a crime to a story about avoiding arrest.

The problem with the Act Two Break being the same as the Resolution (in terms of success/failure) is that it should result is a predictable story with no twists and turns.  And if you think about it, Fargo is pretty predictable as far as the crime plot is concerned.  There is never a moment in the film where Jerry’s plan seems like it’s going well.  He does nothing but fail from beginning to end.  There’s never really a surprising plot twist – we could certainly anticipate the events of the Act Two Break well in advance.  At the Break I thought, "boy, I don't see how Jerry's going to get away with this."  And then, sure enough, he doesn't.  Yet the movie was a critical and commercial hit.  And perhaps more importantly to me, I liked it.  What does this mean?

I think it means the movie succeeds in spite of its predictability.  I always tell my students, "people go to movies for a lot of reasons but it's never to see a good act break."  What makes the Cohen’s such great filmmakers is their original, quirky characters and dialogue.  Fargo is one of the best examples of that. Would it have been better if there were a moment where Jerry seems to triumph over his adversaries – a scene where it looks like he might get away with it and where Marge looks like she’ll lose the trail?  Yeah, maybe it would have.

But I go back to that saying that I heard from the late, great Frank Daniel:  “The only rule in screenwriting is don’t be boring.” 

Fargo definitely isn’t boring.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Act Two Break

(SPOILERS: Zombieland, Some Like It Hot, The Visitor, Star Wars, Aliens, Little Miss Sunshine, While You Were Sleeping)

Continuing my in-depth look at story structure with the Act Two Break…

The Act Two Break is one of the most critical beats of your story.  It’s often referred to as the “lowest moment,” though I don’t like that because I think it’s misleading.  Seldom do I see a successful story where things start getting better right after the Act Two Break.  I think “moment of greatest failure” is a better description.  It’s also sometimes called the “all is lost” moment, which is pretty good.  The point is that this is when it looks like your character is doomed to fail.

That assumes, of course, that ultimately your character will succeed.  Some stories end with the character failing and in this case you have to reverse the Act Two Break.  It becomes the moment of greatest success.  Gangster movies often work this way – the gangster seizes control of the gang at the end of Act Two and looks like he’ll be unstoppable.  But by the end he’ll be lying dead in the street, riddled with bullets.

Why is this so important?  Because the ending won’t be satisfying unless it’s hard to achieve.  And you don’t want your movie to feel completely predictable.  This is the point where the audience needs to think, “boy, I know the hero must be going to beat the bad guy and get the girl (this is a movie, after all), but I sure don’t know how he’s going to do it.  It seems hopeless.”

Hope and fear come into play here.  What is the audience rooting for?  Do they want the character to succeed or fail?  (Both are possibilities depending on your premise.)  This is the moment where you make them think the opposite might actually happen.  Or in a tragedy you make them think they might get the ending they want only to snatch it away from them.  Romeo and Juliet hatch a plan to run away together… maybe it will all work out after all…

For example, the end of Act Two in Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) is when Columbus wakes up in the mansion to discover that Wichita and her sister have ditched them in the middle of the night.  So much for finding love!  In Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), the gangsters that Joe and Jerry were fleeing show up in Florida and nearly recognize them on the elevator.  It looks like the jig is up.  Our heroes have failed in their goal of escape.

The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) demonstrates the tragic take.  At the end of Act Two Walter and Mouna go on a date.  It’s looking like Walter’s life might actually be getting better.  The chapter title on the DVD is even called “A Moment of Happiness.”  But it’s just temporary – at the resolution Walter and Mouna will be separated forever.

Beyond this fundamental idea of greatest failure/success opposite the resolution, there are several common ways the Act Two Break works.

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

Sometimes the character will actually achieve a major goal at the end of Act Two, only to discover they’ve set in motion a bigger – but related – problem.  This is what happens in Star Wars (written by George Lucas).  Luke Skywalker escapes the Death Star with Princess Leia.  He’s achieved the goal he set out to achieve.  But we quickly learn Darth Vadar had placed a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon.  Now Vadar knows the location of the rebel base.  By achieving his goal Luke has potentially doomed everything!

Hero Gets What They Want But Doesn’t Want It Anymore

Sometimes the hero will achieve their want but find their priorities have changed.  For example in Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron), Bishop gets the back-up shuttle from the space ship down to the planet.  They can escape!  This is what Ripley wanted all through Act Two – to get off the planet.  But Newt has just fallen down a shaft and been captured by the aliens.  Ripley finds she wants something more than escape – she wants to rescue Newt.

Trip-with-a-destination movies frequently operate on a variation of this.  The hero generally arrives at their destination at the end of Act Two only to discover things are not what they expected.  For example, in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) the family arrives at the talent show only to discover that it’s populated by shallow, creepy, distasteful characters.  Richard, the guy who was all about winning, is no longer so sure he wants Olive to win this contest.

Romantic comedies that use love triangles also typically follow this pattern.  The heroine finally gets the guy she’s been pursuing but it’s the wrong guy.  This is what we did in Sweet Home Alabama.  While You Were Sleeping (written by Daniel G. Sullivan & Fredric LeBow) did something similar – Peter wakes up from his coma and, though Lucy has invented their whole relationship, he decides to marry her.  The trouble is Lucy has since fallen for Jack.

As a screenwriter your primary job at the Act Two Break is to make sure that you put your character in an extreme situation regarding their goal.  You need to make things look bleak (or hopeful) enough that we’re on the edge of our seats throughout Act Three.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Act Two Part Two – The Midpoint

(SPOILERS: Aliens, Little Miss Sunshine, Some Like It Hot, The Visitor, Zombieland, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial)

Today I continue my in-depth discussion of structure by examining the middle of Act Two, which is obviously also the middle of the movie.  In three act structure this is where we find the…


The concept of the Midpoint is fairly straightforward, though its use and purpose can vary a lot.  I know several successful screenwriters who don’t give any thought to the midpoint at all and I’ve seen movies that don’t have a traditional midpoint.  It doesn’t really seem to be a required beat.  But I think it’s a valuable milestone to help us keep Act Two interesting.  And if used well it can be the tent pole that supports Act Two.

Traditionally the Midpoint mirrors the Resolution and is opposite to the Act Two Break.  If your character is going to succeed at their goal in the Resolution, then the Midpoint should be a moment of success (and, as we’ll see in the next post, the Act Two Break will be a moment of failure).  If the character will fail in the Resolution then the Midpoint will be a moment of failure (and the Act Two Break a moment of success).  In this way we’ll have a story that has dramatic peaks and valleys.

For example, in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) Olive actually fails to win the pageant at the Resolution (Richard is the main character – his goal is to help his daughter win).  The Act Two Break is when they finally arrive at the pageant and manage to get registered – a moment of success.  The Midpoint is when Grandpa dies, a big setback that mirrors the resolution.

Twisting the Tension

The Midpoint often twists the story in a new direction or adds a new element.  This helps keep things fresh.  In Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) the Midpoint is when Joe poses as a millionaire on the beach to seduce Sugar.  This adds a new dimension to the story.  Now he has a second disguise to maintain, one that throws new obstacles into the original mission.  And in The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) the Midpoint is when Mouna arrives.  She throws a new element into the story by adding a romantic possibility for Walter.

Sometimes this twist can be so big it actually seems like an additional act break.  In Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) the Midpoint comes just after the marines have discovered that the colonists they’re looking for are all dead.  They try to leave but an alien attacks the pilot of their shuttle and it crashes.  The goal changes from rescuing the colonists to getting off the planet.  Thus Act Two is divided into two very distinct arcs.

You may be thinking to yourself that the Midpoint in Aliens doesn’t sound like a moment of success since in the end Ripley beats the Aliens.  But remember, Ripley is our main character in the movie and this is the point she takes charge of the mission.  However I think this does reinforce my point that the Midpoint is a less rigid part of three act structure.

Raising the Stakes

Another good thing to do at the Midpoint is raise the stakes.  This happens in Aliens – when the drop ship crashes they are no longer just on a dangerous mission, they have lost their only way out of the mission.  In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) the Midpoint is when E.T. figures out his plan to “phone home” but it’s also the point when they first realize E.T. and Eliot are getting sick.  If the midpoint itself doesn’t raise the stakes, then often this will happen immediately afterwards.


Note that the hero’s journey story structure spelled out 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) looks at the middle of the movie in a whole different way.  This is the point where the hero enters the innermost cave – the most special part of the special world – and faces a big challenge.  As a result of defeating the challenge, he seizes the elixir – a metaphor for finding the thing he needs to ultimately succeed in his quest.

After the Midpoint

The sequence following the Midpoint often gives writers trouble.  The things that often occur at this point are a bit unexpected and unappreciated.  It tends to be a surprisingly quiet sequence.  It’s a place to recuperate a bit from the big action of the Midpoint and wrap up some loose ends before we ramp up for the Act Two Break and Act Three.  Some of the things we often see here:

Fireside Scenes

Fireside scenes are scenes where the characters gather together (around a metaphorical fire) and reflect on their adventures so far.  They are a type of preparation and aftermath scene that give us a chance to check in and see how everybody’s feeling.  In Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) we see our four heroes gather to play a game in the celebrity house where they've holed up.  During this scene, Tallahassee breaks down remembering the son he's lost.  These scenes are important so that the audience doesn’t stop caring about the characters.

Emotional Revelation

I’ve noticed there is often a scene at this point where the hero finally reveals their true feelings, sometimes in a fireside type scene or sometimes in another form.  This first came to my attention in Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza).  John McClane is a strong, silent type not given to talking about his feelings… until the scene where he’s in the bathroom picking glass out of his feet and tells Al how much he loves his wife and admits his regrets about his marriage.

Now I notice these scenes after the Midpoint all the time.  And it’s no accident that they occur in this section of the movie.  If your character has any kind of arc, then this would be about the time they’re starting to realize the error of their old ways.  They should have been pushed to the emotional brink by the Midpoint.  They’re defenses are starting to break down.  And that’s when they finally tell us how they actually feel.

Chalkboard Scenes

The purpose of chalkboard scenes is to recap the plot for the audience in case they’re feeling lost.  They’re expository scenes which makes them a challenge to pull off, but in a complex plot the audience will welcome them.  In Aliens the marines have a planning session where they take stock of their resources and challenges.  Again, these are a type of preparation scene.

Wrapping Up Subplots

Usually we’ll start to see some of the subplots get wrapped up or at least moved close to their conclusions in the sequence after the Midpoint.  Why?  To get them out of the way so we can focus on the main plot with greater intensity as we move into Act Three.

One of the common subplots that gets dealt with is the romance.  Often this is the point in the movie where the hero and love interest will first kiss or have sex (depending on your movie's rating).  In Spider-Man (screenplay by Devid Koepp) this is where we get the upside-down alley kiss.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark we have the scene where Indy and Marion start kissing…until Indy falls asleep.  And in Zombieland there is a near-kiss between Columbus and Wichita that Tallahassee interrupts.

After we get this (very important) stuff out of the way it’s time to turn our attention to the big moment – the Act Two Break.  And that will be the subject of my next post.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Act Two Part One - Fun and Games

(SPOILERS:  Pretty Woman, Lars and the Real GirlThe Visitor, Bruce Almighty, Star Wars, Some Like It Hot, Avatar)

I’m going to break Act Two down into three parts for my ongoing analysis of story structure.  Today I’ll discuss the period that comes right after the Act One Break.  Next I’ll discuss the middle including the structural beat of The Midpoint, and then the end including the Act Two Break.  So, what commonly happens in the early stages of Act Two?

Fun and Games

Screenwriters sometimes refer to this section of the script as the “fun and games” section.  This is the time to explore all the interesting possibilities of your premise.  One question that good writers ask themselves is, “given this set up what would I like to see in the movie?”  The answer will be those “obligatory scenes” that you need to have so the audience isn’t left unsatisfied.  Many of these scenes go here.

For example, in Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton) we see Vivian the prostitute from Hollywood Blvd. get to live the glamorous high society life, enjoying a Rodeo Drive shopping spree and fancy dinner.  Or in Lars and the Real Girl (written by Nancy Oliver) this section of the movie is filled with comedic scenes of the townsfolk trying to adapt to a delusional young man who believes a life size sex doll is a real person.  In The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) Walter learns to play the drums and learns about a different culture as he bonds with his new friends.

In movies where the character gets some kind of super power this is where they explore what they can do with it.  For example, in Spider-Man (screenplay by Devid Koepp), Spider-Man swings around New York in his new costume stopping crime and becoming famous.  And in Bruce Almighty (story by Steve Koren & Mark O’Keefe, screenplay by Steve Koren & Mark O’Keefe and Steve Oedekerk) Bruce plays with his newfound powers of God by parting the traffic like the red sea and pulling the moon closer for a romantic moment with his girlfriend.  It’s playtime – the downside of the powers hasn’t revealed itself yet.

Exploring the Special World

In the Hero’s Journey story structure spelled out 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) the end of Act One usually coincides with the character entering the Special World.  This could literally be a different and unfamiliar place or it could be a metaphorical world – the character has left their comfort zone and is trying something new.  The fun and games period at the beginning of Act Two is when they explore this special world.

So Neo learns how to manipulate the matrix in The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) and Jake explores Pandora and learns about Navi culture in Avatar (written by James Cameron).  In Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) Joe and Jerry discover the world of women.  They engage in girl talk and a late night party in Jerry’s train bunk.  At first they try to be prim and proper to fit in, but they soon discover to their surprise that the women in the band are not like that at all.

Allies & Enemies

Another stage from the Hero’s Journey structure is Allies and Enemies.  Frequently in the early part of Act Two the character meets the people that will help them on their journey and those that will stand in their way.  So Luke Skywalker teams up with Han Solo and Chewbacca and encounters Storm Troopers in Star Wars (written by George Lucas).  And Dorothy meets the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (screenplay by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson & Edgar Allan Woolf).

After about twenty minutes or so of screen time the special world and initial premise will start to feel a little tired.  It’s time to shake things up.  That’s what the Midpoint is for.  And that will be the topic of my next post.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Act Two - The Vast Wasteland

(SPOILERS:  Some Like It Hot, Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland, The Visitor, Up in the Air, Ocean's Eleven)

Now we get to Act Two in my in-depth analysis of story structure.  Unlike acts one and three that have a lot of specific jobs to do structurally, Act Two is pretty wide open.  In fact, in traditional three-act structure, there are only two beats in Act Two:  the Midpoint and the Act Two Break (and the midpoint is even sort of optional).

Yet Act Two is supposed to take up roughly half of your screen time.  This vast stretch of story without a lot of landmarks frequently undoes writers.  It’s a cliché that many unfinished drafts sitting forgotten in desk drawers petered out a bit after the half way point.  The writer got lost in Act Two.  So I think it’s quite useful for us to look at things that commonly occur in Act Two of successful movies.  This gives us ideas to fall back on when we start to lose our way.


Today I want to look at what needs to happen overall in Act Two.  In our basic story foundation this is where the character faces obstacles in pursuit of their goal.  So obviously one thing you need to do is figure out what obstacles your character should face.  There ought to be more than one and they should escalate as the story progresses.

For example, in Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) Joe and Jerry are disguised as women to escape gangsters who want them dead throughout Act Two.  The first obstacle is convincingly behaving like women under the eye of suspicious Sweet Sue.  Next we have the lovely Sugar tempting our heroes to reveal their true nature.  Then there is the millionaire who falls for Jerry and won’t take no for an answer.  Situations arise that threaten their disguise as well – for example the unintended party that starts in Jerry’s train car that could get them kicked out of the band.  As the guys’ lies grow more elaborate the effort required to maintain their disguises increases.

In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) Act Two is the family’s journey to California.  Their goal is to get Olive to the pageant on time.  Some of the obstacles include the van breaking down, Richard losing his pending business deal, Dwayne freaking out when he discovers he’s color blind, getting pulled over by a cop and grandpa dying.  Each one must be overcome in turn.

Ups and Downs

You do not, however, want the character’s progression through the obstacles to be too linear.  We like our movies to be like a rollercoaster – with lots of peaks and dips and twists.  A rollercoaster with only one big drop isn’t much fun.  You need to mix moments of success in with moments of failure for your characters.  In one scene they’re getting closer to their goal, the next farther away.

So in Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) immediately after Columbus meets Wichita, she betrays him and steals the car and guns.  He finds her again and they start travelling together but she doesn’t trust him.  Slowly he wins her over until in the celebrity mansion she dances with him.  But just as they’re about to kiss, Tallahassee interrupts them.  The relationship develops in fits and starts – they take two steps forward and one step back.

In The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) Walter’s friendship with Tarek and Khalil is regularly disrupted by cultural misunderstandings and then by Tarek’s arrest and threatened deportation.  But even when things have gotten bad we see Walter’s character growing as a result of this friendship.  The arrival of Mouna even offers him an opportunity for romance.

Mysteries and caper movies particularly need to develop in stages like this.  In a mystery there can’t be one clue that solves the whole mystery.  Clues should accumulate and build and red herrings should lead the investigator awry.  In a caper movie there should be multiple sub-tasks involved in pulling off the overall plan.  So in the remake of Ocean's Eleven (screenplay by Ted Griffin) they have to gather the gang, stake out the casinos, practice cracking the vault and so on.

Plot and Subplot

Most feature length movies have several subplots.  In fact, four plotlines – one main and three subplots – seems to be about right.  Any more and the movie gets cluttered.  Any less and it’s underdeveloped.  Often one of the subplots is used to dramatize the character’s arc (this is frequently a romantic subplot in stories that do not have romances as their main plot).  Developing these subplots will occupy some of your time in Act Two.

In Up in the Air the main plot is about Ryan’s relationship with Alex.  The three subplots are his mentorship of Natalie, the impending wedding of his sister (and his task of getting pictures with the cutout), and the brutality of the layoffs that are his business.  All three subplots provide perspective on the theme and character arc.  And they help flesh out Act Two.

Over the next three posts I’ll go through the beginning, middle and end of Act Two and what usually happens in each section, as well as addressing the Midpoint and Act Two Break.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fargo Act One

(SPOILERS:  Fargo)

(Note from Act I Part 2 post – I should have mentioned that the end of Act One in Zombieland is when Columbus meets Wichita.  This is when he enters the special world of romance.)

As I go through my in-depth look at structure, I’m going to concurrently analyze Fargo (written by Ethan and Joel Cohen).  So today let’s examine Act One.  I’m looking at the script itself (which can be found here) instead of the film.

The first thing we need to discuss is the main character.  It’s Marge Gunderson, right?  But wait… she doesn’t appear until more than a quarter of the way into the movie.  How can this be?  It can be because Marge is actually not the main character.  The main character is Jerry.  Marge is the antagonist.

One of the unusual about Fargo is that the antagonist is the likable character and the protagonist isn’t.  We’re rooting against the protagonist.  This isn’t unprecedented – gangster and crime movies work this way sometimes, and this is a crime movie.  Usually though the antagonist would be introduced earlier.  So now that we know Jerry’s the main character, let’s analyze!


Fargo opens with an image of a car towing another car through a snowstorm.  This is a nice image to set up the North Dakota winter environment that is such a big part of the appeal of the movie.

Character Introduction

Immediately following that we are introduced to our main character, Jerry, as he checks into a motel under a false name.  But he screws up and writes his real name in the register before realizing and crossing it out, then filling in the fake name.  Our first impression is that he must be up to something but that he’s not very good at being deceitful.  Over the next few scenes we see that he’s awkward and unassertive and easily intimidated.

Prologue and Domino

There is no real prologue or domino in Fargo.  You could say Jerry’s money troubles are the domino, but they’ve happened before the start of the story.


Here it gets kind of interesting.  The catalyst comes really early – when Jerry goes to meet the men he’s hired to kidnap his wife so he can get ransom from his father-in-law.  Here we have our main character and his dilemma – Jerry’s concocted a dangerous plan to get money he needs.  We learn that he can’t let his family know about his debts.  And we’ve established that the…

Dramatic Question

…of the movie is “Will Jerry succeed in his kidnapping plan?”  The story will be over when we’ve learned the answer to that question.

Status Quo

We get a tiny sense of what Jerry’s life is like before the catalyst, but Fargo takes the unusual step of putting most of the status quo section after the catalyst.  We follow up Jerry hiring the kidnappers by seeing Jerry at home.  We meet his family.  See that his father-in-law really doesn’t respect him.  Just a bit later we see him at work trying a half-hearted and obvious scam on a customer.  He’s a pathetic, unscrupulous guy.

This is not such a bad variation on the typical structural order.  Jerry is not a guy we’re going to be that interested in normally.  By showing the catalyst up front we get the audience hooked into the crime story.  Then we’re able to follow Jerry back to his “normal world” and see what that’s like.  Generally the earlier you can get the catalyst into the story the better.  Usually that’s not until about page ten, but if you can do it on page three, why not?

The important thing is to find a way to show the character’s normal life so that we understand how the story affects him.  And Fargo manages to pull that off despite the early catalyst.

Character Want and Need

It’s clear what Jerry wants:  money.  It’s also pretty clear that his need is to get some moral backbone.  He’s in trouble and unhappy both because he’s done unethical things and he won’t stand up for himself.  Jerry’s not going to arc much in this story – another unusual choice.  But we still need a powerful want to pull us through and the contrasting need gives us character depth.

Build to Act One

Okay, so the catalyst is early in Fargo and then we get some status quo time to set up who Jerry is and what his life is like.  After that we start to build toward the act one break.  There’s a scene where Jerry gets a call from a loan officer who says he needs serial numbers of cars Jerry’s used to guarantee the loan.  We realize the cars don’t exist.  That gives us the stakes and a ticking clock.  We’re focusing Jerry’s problem.

We also have a surprising moment where Jerry’s father-in-law indicates he might be willing to give Jerry the money he needs for his parking lot project.  Jerry tries to call off the kidnapping plan.  But he can’t get through to the kidnappers and early in act two we’ll learn there was a misunderstanding and Jerry’s father-in-law isn’t going to save him after all.  This serves to both eliminate alternate possible solutions and show Jerry resist his “call to adventure.”  We know that the kidnapping plan is a last resort.  And he’s going to need that last resort.

Act One Break

The end of act one is when Jerry’s wife, Jean, is actually kidnapped.  This is a point of no return.  Jerry can’t call off the plan anymore.  He’s going to have to see this through to the end.

We also have a special world here.  Though he’s done some underhanded and even illegal things, Jerry really isn’t a hardcore criminal.  Once his wife is kidnapped he’s entering a new world of violent crime, a big departure from his tawdry used car salesman lifestyle.

Fargo obviously does some unusual structural things.  It was an independent film, after all.  But it still has the core story elements of a character who has a dilemma that creates a dramatic question that defines the movie.  And it introduces this character and dilemma early on, then clarifies what’s at stake.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"The Dilemma" Dilemma

I know I promised to cover Act I of Fargo in the next post, but I want to take a quick break from my ongoing structural essay to discuss a timely controversy going on in the film business.  I’ll post about Fargo very soon.

The controversy in question is about the insensitive gay joke in the upcoming movie The Dilemma (written by Allan Loeb).  If you’re unfamiliar, there’s a scene in the trailer where Vince Vaughan says during a business presentation, “Electric cars are gay.  I mean, not homosexual gay, but my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay.”  This has generated enough controversy that the studio pulled the trailer and is considering whether to remove the scene from the movie.  There are talks of protests and maybe even boycotts.

Now personally I’m a big supporter of gay rights, but I don’t want to discuss this situation from a socio-political standpoint. Instead, let's look at the practical screenwriting issue here.  Because this kind of controversy is generally not good for the movie or the screenwriter’s career (though Allan Loeb probably won't suffer much... he has a pretty good filmography).

Some people have suggested that the issue has blown up because of unfortunate timing.  The trailer hit theaters in the wake of a highly publicized spate of suicides by gay teens in the U.S. who were the victims of bullying.  It has been pointed out that The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) had far more offensive gay jokes and didn’t cause such a fuss (though the jokes weren’t in the trailer).  And as gay jokes go the one in The Dilemma is pretty mild.

I suspect timing is indeed a big part of why this issue has blown up.  But that’s cold comfort to the studio and filmmakers who made the movie.  And though The Hangover didn’t generate much controversy on release, it is telling that it has been dragged into this argument.

Which brings me to my main point.  The risk of including potentially offensive humor in a movie is that it doesn’t age well.  Song of the South (story by Dalton S. Reymond, Bill Peet, Ralph Wright & Vernon Stallings, written by Dalton S. Reymond & Morton Grant & Maurice Rapf) is the one animated movie that has been buried by Disney due to racist portrayals of Blacks.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s (screenplay by George Axelrod) and Sixteen Candles (written by John Hughes) induce cringes today with their racist Asian jokes.

We might cut these movies a little slack because they were made in another time with different standards.  That doesn't change how dated they feel, though.  And the filmmakers behind The Dilemma can’t really claim ignorance.  Anybody paying attention can see that gay rights are the next big social justice issue and that there is no such thing as a “throwaway” gay joke anymore.

So what should a comedy writer do?  On the one hand cultural and social conflicts are good sources of humor – and can even elevate a comedy if done well.  And of course good comedy is often risky.  When you do something risky there is, well, risk of upsetting people.  Playing it safe isn't a good approach.

On the other hand I think most filmmakers are at least a little motivated by the idea of leaving a legacy.  They want their films to outlive them.  If you go for borderline offensive cultural humor today your film may not hold up even a few years from now.

My advice is to be very careful when treading on potentially culturally offensive ground.  That ground moves constantly.

Okay, back to structure and Fargo very soon!