Thursday, September 15, 2011

ALL IS NOT LOST

(Related article: How to Save $19.99)

The other day read on a message board some wannabe screenwriter refer to the end of the 2nd Act turning point as the “all is lost point.” If you knew me personally, you would know how much I had to restrain myself. I knew right away where she got this term. From that damn Save the Cat book. (Be forewarned that if I ever catch anyone using one of Blake Synder's cutsie-poo phrases in my presence as if they were actual screenwriting parlance, they should expect to receive a smack upside the head.) This incident illustrates the exact reason why I have a problem with Synder's books. They not only encourage formulaic, cook-book style writing, but mislead young writers into thinking that there is only one way to do things. Even though on average the Dark Moment (as it is more commonly called by professional screenwriters) is the most common way second acts are ended in recent Hollywood films, it is not by even the smallest margin the only way to end the 2nd Act. There are in fact multiple well-established methods that will work to bring the act to a dramatic close, all depending on the needs of the particular story.

  1. The Dark Moment

    a. Variety #1: Dark Moment/Spark of Hope

A Dark Moment alone is not enough to bring a 2nd Act to an end and launch the action of the 3rd. Acts end with a two-part structure. There is first the end-of-act climax (the outcome of the conflict that ends the act). This is then followed by an end-of-act turning point (an event that allows (or forces) a new path for the protagonist to take to reach the main Story Goal). Sometimes the turning point is created by the outcome of the climax, meaning that the events are one in the same, but more often they occur as two separate events, occurring one after the other.

If a story resolves in an up-ending, that is, a “happy” ending where the hero succeeds in the end, the Dark Moment that ends the 2nd Act must be immediately followed by a Spark of Hope. If “all if lost” and that's all there is to it, there is nothing to provide the motivation that launches the protagonist into the 3rd Act. After all, all is still lost. The conflict seems to be resolved in the hero's disfavor, and the hero has nothing to do but mope around and feel sorry for him/herself. The Spark of Hope is an event where the character and audience learns that the hero still has a chance. Something happens that gives the hero has one last shot of overcoming the conflict and reaching a happy end. 


The Matrix ends its 2nd Act with the protagonist Neo in the worst situation possible. He and his allies have been betrayed and his mentor Morpheus captured by the Agents. Neo knows that the antagonist will torture Morpheus until he gives up the information that will spell the quick end of all they have fought for. He is left with only the worst possible option- to pull the plug on his mentor and kill him before this can happen.

However, this gloom is quickly reversed with the Spark of Hope. Rather than give up, Neo decides to take on the impossible odds to rescue Morpheus. He chooses hope over failure. This is the moment that launches the story into its final act.

The Spark of Hope should create a quick reversal of emotion in the audience. The situation was extremely negative, then suddenly positive. Such quick ups and downs creates the famous “roller-coaster” experience. All sequence-ending turning points should get some power from a reversal of emotions (a change from positive to negative, or vice versa), but this reversal is especially important at the end of the 2nd Act. As the story heads into the 3rd Act, the act that is supposed to contain the exciting resolution of the Story Spine, the story needs MOMENTUM. The story needs the sharpest drop possible in the emotional roller-coaster. The bigger the emotional reversal, the more momentum that begins the third act.

This is by far the most popular way to end a 2nd Act, and can be found in countless films, from Braveheart to Slingblade to Knocked Up. In fact, it has become so common, it has taken on the label of a cliché. Go to the theater and watch 10 movies. I guarantee that at least half of them have chosen to go with the Dark Moment/Spark of Hope.

b. Variety #2: The Nail in the Coffin

(Note that these are self-invented terms. Like all those Synder-isms, you shouldn't go around using them as if they were official because people will not know what you're talking about.)

The Dark Moment/Spark of Hope is found mostly in movie with up-endings as a way to give the audience some optimism as they root for the hero to eventually come out on top. In contrast, the Nail in the Coffin is found exclusively in stories with down-endings, usually stories with self-destructive protagonists who bring their own ruin. Examples include Raging Bull, Citizen Kane, and There Will Be Blood. These stories feature anti-heroes who fail in the end due to their inability to overcome their character flaws. Their second acts end with the protagonist committing an unforgivable action that seals their eventual doom and eliminates any possibility for redemption. In all three of these examples, this occurs by the protagonist willfully severing the last connection he has to a sympathetic human being. There is no spark of hope for these characters because they do not deserve any. But no Spark of Hope means no reversal of audience emotions. Typically, this creates a 3rd Act dramatically weaker than the previous variety as the audience watches the protagonist's now dreary life circle the drain.

  1. The False Victory

A False Victory is very similar to the Dark Moment/Spark of Hope, excepts its two events have the opposite emotional charge. With a False Victory, the protagonist wins the conflict that ends the second act. The 2nd Act of Raiders of the Lost Ark ends with Indiana Jones stealing the Ark back from the Nazis. Hooray! The audience receives a brief emotional high. It seems like things will turn out okay. But not so fast. The end-of-act climax is followed by a turning point that renders the victory meaningless. The antagonist, or whatever the source of the story conflict, has taken a NEW action that throws a huge new roadblock in the hero's way. Indiana Jone's journey home is intercepted by a Nazi submarine, and the Ark is stolen back. The protagonist's once certain victory is once again in doubt. The hero must ready him/herself for a new fight, the battle that will climax at the story's end.

The False Victory is also a good choice for stories with sympathetic heroes that meet a tragic end. These 2nd Acts end with the story at its highest emotional point. But this victory is followed by a turning point that abruptly puts the situation in reverse. The 2nd Act of Brazil ends with the hero on the top of the world. He was won over his dream girl and seemingly escaped the nightmare of his existence. But, not so fast. Just as the hero finds his happiness, the authorities invade his home and take him to prison.

  1. The Key Piece of the Puzzle

This type of end-of-act turning point is often found in stories containing a high element of mystery. Up until this moment, a key piece of information has been kept hidden from the protagonist (and usually the audience as well). Once this key piece is finally revealed, it changes EVERYTHING. It changes our perception of the story we have already seen, and more importantly, it changes the hero's actions from that points onward and dramatically alters the conflict that will decide the story's end.

Alien's 2nd Act closes when the crew discovers that their employer intentionally sent them on a mission to bring the monster aboard the ship. In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne finally discovers who is trying to kill him and why. In Memento, the audience learns that Natalie has been setting up Leonard the whole time. In Casablanca, Ilsa reveals that she is still in love with Rick.

Chinatown provides the best example. Throughout the 2nd Act, Detective Jake Gittes has come to suspect Mrs. Mulwray of killing her own husband, and has now kidnapped husband's mistress to kill her too. However, when Gittes confronts her, the battle that ensues reveals that he couldn't be more wrong. The girl is Mrs. Mulwray's secret daughter, the product of incestuous rape from the antagonist. Her husband was murdered trying to protect the daughter. Everything changes for Gittes after this moment.

  1. The Launch of the Final Plan

Back to the Future's 2nd Act ends this manner, as does the 2nd Act of Star Wars. The heroes have overcome their end-of-act battle, for better or worse, and now devise an ultimate plan, one huge final effort to that will hopefully overcome the conflict and seize their story goal. The 3rd Act begins with this plan setting into motion. Out of the four types, this type the generally launches the 3rd Act with the least dramatic momentum due to its general lack of an emotional reversal. However, a tense, exciting third act can be achieved as long as conflict continues to escalate and the master plan never goes exactly the way the heroes wish it to. After all, nothing is less interesting than when everything goes according to the plan.

Despite its lack of reversal, the use of a Launch of Final Plan does not denote an inferior film. Some of the most critically acclaimed films of all time use this type of turning point, such as The Godfather (the death of Michael Corleone's father gives him the opportunity to finally destroy the threat to his family), Lawrence of Arabia (the march to Damascus) and Schindler's List (the creation of the list). All that matters is how well the turning point is executed and how appropriate this type of turning point is to the course of the particular story.


These are the top four most commonly used methods, but they are by far not the only ways to bring a 2nd Act to a dramatic end. Though they are hard to find, there are plenty of movies that contain very effective 2nd Act turning points that do not fit into any of these categories. No Country For Old Men ends its 2nd Act with the antagonist offering an ultimatum to the hero and the hero rejecting it. Though it may seem abnormal, this event is just as effective in launching the action of its story's 3rd Act as any of the more popular methods.

The point is that a writer must choose a way to end the 2nd Act that best serves the needs of the unique story he or she is creating. Blindly forcing an “all if lost” point onto your story can end up damaging it in the end, because your story may not be the type that would benefit from such a moment. The rules of screencraft must not be followed rigidly and applied blindly to any and every story. Instead, screencraft must remain flexible to the needs of the particular story. Every story has its own unique needs. Adapt the rules to the story and not the story to the rules. Unless you're the type of writer who wants your story to be generic, predictable, and read like something out of a cookbook, that is. If that's the case, then by all means continue saving cats.