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!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Act One - Part Two

(SPOILERS:  Star Wars, The Matrix, Some Like It Hot, The Visitor, Zombieland, Avatar, Silence of the Lambs)

Last post I talked about the first part of Act One, essentially everything leading up to the catalyst (or almost everything – more on that in a minute.)  As I’ve said, the Catalyst is one of the most crucial parts of the story, not to mention Act One.  So that’s where I’ll start today.

The Catalyst

The Catalyst is the point at which the main character and their dilemma are made clear to the audience.  It’s when the Dramatic Question gets asked.  You don’t have to spell out every aspect of the impending plot here, but the audience needs to understand what the story is about.  It is in essence the real beginning of the story.

In Star Wars (written by George Lucas), the catalyst is when Luke Skywalker sees R2D2 project the hologram of Princess Leia and decides he wants to help her.  The audience knows that Leia is being held by Darth Vadar and that Vadar is looking for R2D2.  So the Dramatic Question becomes “Will Luke beat Darth Vadar?”  Note that Luke doesn’t even know about Vadar yet and that the audience doesn’t know the Death Star will eventually come to threaten the rebel base.  We don’t need all these details, we simply need to understand what the core of the story is going to be about.

In The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy), the catalyst is when Walter finds some immigrants living in his New York apartment.  Someone scammed them by illegally renting them the normally unoccupied apartment.  This creates a dilemma for Walter – he feels bad for them but it is, after all, his apartment.  We know the story is going to be about how he deals with these two very different people.

Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) has an interesting catalyst.  The movie starts with our hero, Columbus, in a post-zombie apocalypse.  The catalyst comes when he flashes back to his first encounter with a zombie.  But more importantly this zombie was an attractive woman that he had started to fall for.  Because the Dramatic Question of the movie is not whether Columbus will defeat the zombies but whether he will find love.  The zombies are just the backdrop.  So the catalyst is Columbus realizing he wants love – but then being faced with a world where the chance of finding a living woman is slim.

Conventional wisdom says you want the catalyst to come about ten minutes into the movie.  If there’s a prologue, that might push the catalyst back further – prologues are outside of the main structure of the story.  So in The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski), the catalyst is when the agents arrest Neo – that’s the point at which he has a problem and establishes the dramatic question of, “Will Neo defeat Agent Smith?”  That doesn’t come until about sixteen minutes into the film because the prologue with Trinity takes about six minutes.

Generally it’s good to establish the dramatic question quickly so that the audience doesn’t start to wonder what the movie’s about or if it’s about anything at all.  There are exceptions.  The catalyst in Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) – when Joe and Jerry witness the St. Valentine’s Day massacre – comes almost twenty-five minutes into the movie.  How do they get away with that?  Because what comes before is highly entertaining.  Remember, the only real rule in screenwriting is “don’t be boring.”


The Domino is a term of my own creation to help distinguish the events that set the action in motion but don’t rise to the level of catalyst.  For example, in Star Wars the Domino is when Leia puts the Death Star plans in R2D2 and sends the ‘droid down to Tatooine.  That’s the action that sets the whole story in motion, but it’s not the catalyst because it doesn’t involve our main character, Luke Skywalker.  The Domino in The Visitor is when Walter is sent to New York to deliver a paper.

Note that the Domino by definition comes before the catalyst – I’m addressing it out of order because I define it in relation to the catalyst.  I use the term Domino because you can think of a story like a line of dominos.  The first one falls and hits the next one, causing a chain reaction.  The Domino story beat is like that first domino in a chain.  Sometimes the Domino is the same thing as the Catalyst.  I actually don’t think it’s that important to figure out what the Domino is in your story – but it is important to correctly identify the Catalyst.

Build to Act One Break

So if the catalyst traditionally comes about ten minutes into the movie, and Act One is supposed to be twenty-five to thirty minutes long, what occupies the rest of the time?

There are a couple common things that happen.  First, I like the beats described in the Hero’s Journey story structure spelled about by Joseph Cambell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces (and excellently applied to screenwriting by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey).  In the Hero’s Journey the character gets a call to action at this point but resists that call.  Then something changes and he accepts the call.

So in Star Wars when Ben asks Luke to come with him, Luke’s first response is he can’t – he’s got to stay and help out on the farm.  But then the storm troopers kill his aunt and uncle.  Now there’s no reason for him to stay.  And the stakes just got personal. 

In The Visitor, Walter at first kicks the immigrants out of his apartment.  But then seeing them on the street with nowhere to stay, he invites them back in until they can find a place.

The hero doesn’t resist the call in every story, but it’s a useful beat because it shows that the character is a little hesitant to go on the journey.  It’s risky.  It’s going to challenge them.  The stakes are high.  Their reluctance to jump in headfirst demonstrates how significant this challenge is to them and how important this story is to their life.

Another thing that often happens here is the elimination of alternate solutions.  Sometimes the hero will try to find an easy way out of their dilemma.  For example, in The Fugitive (story by David Twohy, screenplay by Jeb Stuart and David Twohy), Dr. Kimble first tries to convince the cops that the one-armed man killed his wife, then tries to convince a jury in court that he is innocent of the murder.  It’s only after that fails and he’s convicted that he goes on the run.

This is important in stories where there is an obvious solution that would end your movie before it gets started.  You have to explain why the hero doesn’t take that course of action.  This happens a lot in mysteries where the investigator is not a professional cop or detective.  Most people don’t run their own investigation when a loved one is killed; they call the police.  You have to explain why your character behaves differently.  Dr. Kimble has to find the one-armed man himself because the police don’t believe he exists.

Act One Break

The Act One Break is the point at which the character actually embarks on the journey of the story.  It’s sometimes known as the “point of no return.”  I think that’s a good way to look at it – from here on out the character has no choice but to see this through to the end.  If the character can walk away from the story without losing anything there isn’t much tension.  At the Act One Break you have to trap them in the story.

The Act One Break in The Matrix is when Neo takes the red pill.  In fact, Morpheus literally tells him that if he chooses the blue pill the story ends and if he takes the red pill there will be no going back.  That’s a pretty good description of the Act One break!

In Star Wars the Act One Break is when Luke goes with Obi Wan to Mos Eisley to find a pilot to take them into space.  In Some Like It Hot it’s when Joe and Jerry join Sweet Sue’s band dressed like women.  In Avatar (written by James Cameron) it’s when Jake is welcomed into the Navi.  In Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) it’s when Buffalo Bill kidnaps Catherine Martin adding stakes and a ticking clock to Clarice’s questioning of Hannibal Lecter.

In all these cases if the character walks away from the story after this point they will fail in their goal and suffer for it.  They are locked in.

The Hero’s Journey structure describes this moment as “Entering the Special World.”  In other words, the hero has entered a new realm, whether literally or figuratively.  So in Some Like It Hot Joe and Jerry have entered the world of women while in Avatar Jake has entered the world of the Navi.  And in Zombieland Columbus has entered the world of love – a metaphorical world that he has not previously experienced.

Next post I’m going to look at Act I of Fargo in detail.  I’ll break down Fargo step by step as I go through this process of in depth analysis of story structure.  After that, it’s on to Act Two!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Act One - Part One

(SPOILERS:  Some Like It Hot, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix, Lars and the Real Girl, The Visitor)

Today I want to take an in-depth look into the first part of Act One of the screenplay.  As my regular readers know, I don’t like to set up “rules” to follow or any kind of paint-by-numbers approach to screenwriting.  However Act One has quite a few things that it must accomplish and several optional things that it’s useful to understand.


It’s important to spend some thought on how you want to open your movie.  As the saying goes, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.”  In a theater, the audience might give you some leeway - after all, they drove all the way to the theater and paid for tickets.  But if you’re trying to sell a script it's a little tougher.  Most buyers are looking for a reason to put your script down and if the first page is dull they might not get to the second.  Every page is building an impression in the reader’s mind.  You want to make your first ten pages great so you get some cushion and can afford a few missteps or slow spots. 


One way to juice up your opening is with a prologue.  In this context (the structure of your film) a prologue is an opening sequence that is not critical to the plot.  The majority of movies don’t have a prologue, but it’s not uncommon either.  You use a prologue to grab the audience and/or to establish the tone and world of your story.  This is necessary if the story would otherwise start in a way that would seem dull or mislead the audience as to what kind of film this is.

For example, Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) opens with a prologue about Indiana Jones recovering an idol from a trapped jungle cave.  This has nothing to do with the plot of recovering the Ark of the Covenant.  But if we didn’t have the prologue we’d open with Indie as the college teacher.  It would be a while before we got to the good, swashbuckling action.  The prologue here grabs the audience and establishes the adventurous tone.

Similarly, the Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) opens with a cool action prologue of Trinity running from the agents.  This not only grabs us with kung fu, sci-fi action to help carry through the next relatively action free half hour of the movie, but it lets the audience know that there is something strange about this world. We are open to almost anything in the first minutes of the movie but as we start to grasp the rules of the story world, anything that breaks those rules feels implausible.

In the prologue in the Matrix Trinity and the agents have superhuman abilities and somehow Trinity magically escapes the phone booth at the end of the sequence.  If we didn’t have this, the first hint that the world is not the one we’re familiar with would come when the agents erase Neo’s mouth.  This would probably be too late in the movie and the audience would find it laughable or confusing.  But with the prologue we accept it.

Character Introduction

One of the important things that happens in Act One is the introduction of the main character.  How you introduce your character deserves some attention.  Once again, first impressions matter.  Indiana Jones is introduced as a man of action.  Imagine how the movie would have played if he’d been introduced first as the college professor. 

In Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), Joe and Jerry are introduced playing in a packed speakeasy.  Joe, the main character, is ogling the chorus girls.  This firmly establishes that he is a virile party guy.  We need that to get maximum comedic impact when he dresses up as a woman.

You also usually want to give your major characters a dramatic entrance so the audience will focus their attention on them.  Remember how Jack Sparrow is introduced in Pirates of the Caribbean (story by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert, screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio), riding into port atop the mast of a sinking ship?  That’s an entrance!  The exception is if you want to unsettle the audience by misleading them as to the main character as was done in the first Alien movie (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon).

For more on effectively introducing your main character, see this post.

Status Quo

Generally you want to spend a little time showing the character in their status quo before introducing the catalyst of the story.  We need to get to know who the character is so we can understand how the story changes them. 

In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder suggests showing several problems in the character’s life that will then be resolved at the end of the movie.  It’s a good idea!  I would focus most, though, on establishing what the character’s Need is.  Ideally the various other problems are related to that need. 

For example in Some Like it Hot, we see that Joe is a womanizer and a playboy when the secretary gets angry at him for standing her up and he lies about where he was.  His need in the movie is to find true love.  His successful achievement of this need is illustrated at the end when he risks being seen by the gangsters to tell Sugar that he loves her.  If the movie didn’t set up what kind of guy he was we wouldn’t understand what a big change that is for him.

It’s usually best if you show the most interesting part of your character’s status quo, not the most boring.  We meet Indiana Jones escaping traps, traitorous assistants and angry tribesmen – not doing his laundry!  This is why it’s usually not a good idea to open your movie with your character waking up in the morning – that’s seldom the most interesting part of someone’s day.

Let’s look at a couple of more realistic dramatic movies – ones with characters whose status quo is not obviously interesting.

First we have the wonderful Lars and the Real Girl (written by Nancy Oliver).  It opens with Lars looking out the window.  He sees his sister-in-law come out of the house next door and approach his house (a converted garage).  And he hides!  That’s unexpected and interesting.  His sister-in-law invites him to breakfast.  He finally agrees to come after church, but later we’ll see he doesn’t follow through.

Next we see Lars at church.  An older lady expresses concern that he doesn’t have a girlfriend and gives him a flower to give to someone.  But when the cute girl from the choir says hi, Lars quickly tosses the flower in the bushes. 

Soon we see Lars at work where his coworker looks at porn on the computer and listens to loud music, making Lars uncomfortable.  The cute girl is there again, but when she suggests to Lars that they carpool he doesn’t respond.

Finally Lars comes home and his sister-in-law literally has to tackle him to get him to come to dinner.  Lars’ brother tells him that she is concerned that he spends so much time alone, but Lars insists he’s okay.

This opening sequence clearly establishes Lars' need:  to connect with other people. And it provides a baseline from which to evaluate how Lars’ character arc is progressing.  Most importantly, it does so with a series of interesting scenes that use conflict to dramatize that need.  Conflict is dramatic.  We don’t just see that Lars goes to church, we see him in an awkward situation with the flower and the choirgirl.  We don’t just learn what Lars’ job is, we see him in conflict with his coworker.

Now take The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy).  It’s about Professor Walter Vale who is coasting through his life without purpose.  Not the easiest character to engage our interest.  But the movie opens with Walter waiting anxiously for a piano teacher.  When she arrives, the lesson does not go well and he fires her…though we learn that she’s the fourth teacher he’s tried so the fault probably lies with him.

This opening scene tells us a lot about Walter but in an interesting way.  As the status quo sequence goes on we learn more about Walter’s need – to find purpose – but always in scenes of conflict.  First a student comes to his office to turn in a late paper, but Walter refuses it.  The student then points out Walter still hasn’t given them the syllabus.

Next Walter is asked to go to New York to deliver an academic paper he’s co-authoring with a woman who just had a baby.  Walter doesn’t want to go and admits he hasn’t really done much of the work on the paper.  But that doesn’t get him out of the trip.  The next scene is Walter arriving at his apartment in New York and is the catalyst of the movie. 

We learn that Walter has no purpose or direction, but also that he’s lonely, getting nothing done, and vainly trying to add some music to his life.  All of these things are related to his central need and all get resolved by the end of the movie as Walter finds his purpose.

Once we’ve established the character and their need we introduce the catalyst.  I’ll discuss that and what you do with the rest of Act One in my next post.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Breaking Your Story into Three Acts

I’m going to continue my discussion of screenplay structure with the Three Act concept.  This was initially popularized in the book Screenplay by Syd Field and has now become the language of Hollywood.  

It might be useful if I first point out that there are no actual act breaks in a movie.  Think about it.  A movie is a continuous experience.  In a play there often are act breaks – the curtain comes down, the lights come up and the audience goes out to the lobby for a drink.  In TV there are act breaks that are filled by commercials.  But in feature films there are no actual breaks in the narrative.

Instead, when we say “act break” we’re talking about a literary concept.  We use act breaks to discuss critical turning points in the story.  Since this is a literary concept it can be subjective.  You and I might disagree on the act breaks in a given story.  There’s no way to tell who’s right and who’s wrong.  As a writer you identify the act breaks in the way that is most useful to you in telling your story.

So, we have our Dramatic Question that is introduced in the Catalyst and answered in the Resolution.  Typically, the Catalyst comes around page ten of your screenplay.  The Resolution should probably come in the last six to eight pages.  That leaves a lot of pages in between.  We could use some structural landmarks to help us out.

As I said earlier, the First Act is the section of your story where you introduce your character, their dilemma, and what’s at stake.  This typically takes up the first fourth of your screenplay.  Sometime around page twenty-five or thirty there will be an act break – The First Act Break.  This is the point at which your character embarks on the journey of the movie, sometimes known as the “point of no return.”

The Second Act takes up roughly the middle half of your screenplay.  This is where the character tries to solve their problem but faces escalating obstacles and ideally escalating stakes.  It ends at the Second Act Break, which I discussed last time as the point of apparent success or failure.

The Third Act, then, takes up roughly the last quarter of your screenplay.  It provides the climactic resolution to your story.  In the next three posts I’m going to discuss each act in turn and focus in depth on what story beats you will find there.

But Three Act Structure isn’t just about plotting.  It’s also about character.  Your character and plot need to be interrelated to have a good story.  This is where character Want and Need come in.  The character Want is what drives them consciously through the story.  It’s their motivation.  The character Need is what they unconsciously need to be happy and successful in their lives.  Often these two things are in conflict.

I’ll repeat for emphasis – character Want and Need are critical parts of your plot.  Even if the dilemma comes from outside the character the Want and Need are driving the story forward.  They are determining what decisions the character makes at each critical juncture.

You may be wondering how this works in an ensemble story, or a buddy picture or a story with multiple interweaving storylines.  It works this way:  You pick one main character.  There can be other major characters, but only one character drives the structure of the script.  You, the screenwriter, get to pick which one.  (For more on that, read this post.)

So, next post:  Act One