Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I'VE CREATED A MONSTER! (The Workings of Acts 2A & 2B)

(Related article: Reconsidering the 3-Act Label)

This one falls under the "sh*t so plain to see its amazing no one else has mentioned it" category.

The second act has always seemed quite a mystery to developing writers. The purpose of the first act seems clear. It is the “Setup.” It orientates the audience to the elements of the story world and creates the events that launch the story into motion. The third act seems equally simple. It is the “Resolution.” It contains the events that resolve the main conflict and bring the story to an end. (These are the broad terms as coined by the old guard “script gurus.” There's quite a bit more to the structure of the first and third acts than this implies, but for the purposes of this article, we will keep things simple.)

The second act is not so clear. It has been labeled the “Rising Action.” What the heck does this actually mean? Whatever it is the plot is supposed to physically do in this hour-long stretch of time in order to connect the beginning and the end is unclear. Okay, the action rises. That doesn't provide much help to the writers who need to physically put events on the page. This lack of instruction is yet another reason why the second act is the weakest in most spec scripts, the place where the story starts to wander, tension sags, and the reader loses interest.

In my previous article, I demonstrated that the second act is not really one long act, but rather two acts of equal length: Act 2A & Act 2B, separated by the Mid-2nd Act Turning Point. It did not take me long after that article to discover that Acts 2A & 2B both work to carry out very simple and fundamental dramatic functions, seen the same over in every successful film. Functions as simple and straightforward as the Setup and Resolution,

In Act 2A, the protagonist unwittingly creates a monster.
In Act 2B, the protagonist must fight the monster he or she has created.

Now bear with me as this may sound strange at first. To start, let's look at a simple version of the legend of Dr. Frankenstein. In the first half of Frankenstein's story, the Doctor wishes to create life from the dead. Frankenstein does this without any malevolent intent. In his mind, he is doing good by advancing the capabilities of science and the realm of human achievement. He succeeds, only to later find that his creature is an abomination. He has unintentionally released a monster upon the world. In the second half of the story, Frankenstein must try to reverse his mistakes by destroying that monster.

The pattern seen in the Frankenstein legend repeats itself in the second acts of every successful feature film. In Act 2A, the protagonist takes a series of actions that he or she honestly believes will ameliorate the story's situation and help overcome the conflict. However, the protagonist does not know that these actions always inadvertently end up MAKING THE SITUATION MUCH WORSE. The protagonist's well-meaning actions have only wound up digging him or her into a deep hole and/or inciting the force of antagonism's wrath to a dangerous level. The protagonist has unwittingly (though not always unwillingly) created a monstrous situation for him or herself. However, it is not until the Mid-2nd Act Turning Point that the protagonist becomes fully aware of this.

Of the many examples:

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Act 2A: Indiana Jones eludes Nazis to uncover the location of the Ark of the Covenant.
Turning Point: Indy finds the Ark, but the Nazis appear and take it from him.
Monstrous Outcome: Indy has inadvertently put the Ark right into the Nazi's hands.

Die Hard
Act 2A: John McClane does all he can to get the attention of the police.
Turning Point: McClane succeeds by throwing a body onto a policeman's car.
Monstrous Outcome: McClane soon learns the police are incompetent and only make the situation worse.

Act 2A: William Wallace leads a small-scale rebellion against the English in Scotland.
Turning Point: Face to face with English forces on the battlefield, rather than negotiate as the Scottish Lords wish, Wallace leads the Scots to rout the enemy.
Monstrous Outcome: Wallace has provoked a full-scale war with the mighty English army.

The Godfather
Act 2A: Michael Corleone, the civilian of his crime family, agrees to assassinate Virgil Sollozzo.
Turning Point: Michael kills both Sollozzo and his policeman bodyguard.
Monstrous Outcome: Michael is now a wanted killer, fair game for either the police to arrest or rival mafias to kill.

Jerry Macquire
Act 2A: Jerry attempts to bounce back as a high-power sports agent after having a crisis of conscience.
Midpoint: Jerry's inability to perform as he used to ends up losing him his last all-star client the day before a giant deal.
Monstrous Outcome: Jerry is left with nothing, except a single B-level client.

Citizen Kane
Act 2A: Kane has an extramarital affair while while making his run for political office.
Midpoint: Kane's opponent exposes Kane's affair.
Monstrous Outcome: Both Kane's personal life and political future are ruined.

The Wizard of Oz
Act 2A: Dorothy and her friends travel to meet the Wizard in hopes he can send her home.
Midpoint: The Wizard refuses to help until she brings him the broom of the Wicked Witch.
Monstrous Outcome: Dorothy must go into dangerous territory to meet the witch face to face.

The purpose of the Mid-2nd Act Turning Point is to end Act 2A and launch Act 2B by providing the key transitional event between the actions that create the monstrous situation and the moment where the protagonist realizes this situation must be fought against. Keep in mind this “monster” does not always have to mean something dangerous or life-threatening. Sometimes it is simply a situation where the protagonist's struggle against the main conflict becomes extremely more complicated. 

 Depending on the type of story, the Mid-2nd Act Turning Point twists the plot in a new direction in one of three ways.

a. The Mid-2nd TP is a large physical action that either creates the monstrous situation, or provides the tipping point that sets it into motion.

Batman Begins
Act 2A: Bruce Wayne sets about transforming himself into a symbol that will combat crime and corruption.
Midpoint: Bruce takes his first actions as Batman, capturing a crime boss.
Monstrous Outcome: Bruce has put a target on his back. Not only do criminals now want him dead, but the police want him arrested.

Star Wars
Act 2A: Luke and Obi-Wan get off Tatooine in order to get to Alderaan so they may deliver secret information to the Revel commanders.
Midpoint: They are surprised when their actions lead them right to the Death Star. Their ship is captured.
Monstrous Outcome: Luke and Obi-Wan are now in the belly of the beast, surrounded by enemies.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Act 2A: Peter tries to get over his break-up, even though he is staying at the same resort as his ex.
Midpoint: Peter and a new love interest Rachel kiss for the first time.
Monstrous Outcome: Peter is now torn between opportunity for new love and his desire to reunite with his ex-girlfriend.

b. The Mid-2nd TP is a moment of revelation where the protagonist realizes his or her cumulative actions throughout Act 2A have created a monstrous situation.

Back to the Future
Act 2A: In his attempts to find a way to return to 1985, Marty accidentally alters the past.
Midpoint: Marty sees his family photo start to disappear. He realizes his actions have created a life-threatening time paradox.
Monstrous Outcome: Marty must reverse his mistakes or be wiped out of existence.

Alien (my favorite example, because it is the most literal)
Act 2A: Ripley's crew brings an alien parasite aboard the ship, choosing to study it, rather than destroy it.
Midpoint: A newborn alien monster bursts from a crew member's chest.
Monstrous Outcome: The crew's mistakes have wound up releasing a homicidal monster aboard their ship.

A Beautiful Mind
Act 2A: The brilliant John Nash engages in a dangerous and bizarre top-secret mission for the military.
Midpoint: Nash is diagnosed with schizophrenia. The mission is revealed to be all fantasy.
Monstrous Outcome: Nash is stuck in a living nightmare where he cannot tell what is real and what is not.

c. In some stories, the protagonist is already aware of the dire situation he or she is in by the end of Act 2A. In these stories, the Mid-2nd TP is an event that provides potential salvation.

Act 2A: Rocky agrees to fight Apollo Creed, but it soon becomes obvious that Rocky is going to do nothing but humiliate himself.
Midpoint: Rocky agrees to let Mick be his trainer. Rocky now has a fighting chance.

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
Act 2A: Frodo continues his dangerous mission without Gandalf, pursued by more evil than a mere Hobbit could possibly handle.
Midpoint: A band of stalwart heroes gather to assist and protect Frodo.

Cast Away
Act 2A: Chuck Noland, in trying to survive on a desert island, slowly devolves into a wretched madman.
Midpoint: Chuck discovers something washed up on shore that will allow him to escape the island.

The Mid-2nd TP, or a moment that immediately follows it, often becomes the “hero moment” of the story. After finding that their previous actions have buried them deep in a hole, the Mid-2nd TP forces the protagonist to change from being relatively passive or reactive towards the story's conflict (doing all he or she can to avoid direct encounters with the source of the conflict) to becoming the active catalyst in that conflict (the protagonist becomes willing to face the source of conflict head-on.) In Act 2A, Indiana Jones tries to avoid the Nazis and find the Ark in secret. In Die Hard, John McClane prefers to run away from the terrorists and contact the police so they can handle the situation. In Star Wars, the heroes do all they can to avoid direct contact with Imperial forces. The Mid-2nd TP then puts the heroes in a situation where they are forced to give up on such passive efforts. They must become willing to rise up and do what it takes to fight the conflict directly.

Once the Mid-2nd TP has occurred, the course of action necessary in Act 2B becomes clear. The protagonist must now take action to fight this monstrous situation so he or she will be able to continue onward to the Main Story Goal. These new, more aggressive actions inevitably lead the protagonist to the battle that ends the 2nd Act, and the End of 2nd Act Turning Point.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Reconsidering the 3-Act Label

(Related article: "I'VE CREATED A MONSTER!")
It has become pretty much axiomatic that cinematic stories are structured in three acts. It seems extreme ignorance to think otherwise. Of course, there is plenty of evidence to support this. The dramatic rule of threes has been around since the time of Aristotle. (By the way, if you're like me and have actually read Aristotle's Poetics from beginning to end, you have to wonder why this moldy remnant still gets so much attention for anything other than a historical record. Half of it is too untranslatable to make any sense, and that which can be understood is in total “no shit” territory.)

A story in three acts seems elementary. Since childhood we are taught stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Or, as the “script gurus” unhelpfully put it, “setup, rising action, and resolution.” Even I have been a staunch proponent that a cinematic story always has three acts, no more, no less. Yet still, whenever I looked at a visual representation of the three-act model, it always seemed like something was, well – a little jacked up.
Why are things so unbalanced? What is with this oblong stretched-out middle? What sense does it make that there must be one short act, then one very long act, and then another short act? It is no mystery why 2nd Acts put developing screenwriters into a cold sweat. They have a beginning. They have an ending. But how the hell are they going to fill this vast wasteland in between? How are they going to keep the story going, keeps things developing and escalating, and at the same time keep the audience's attention for nearly an hour's length of time? There is good reason why the 2nd Act is where most screenplays stumble, sag, or run out of energy. It is like trying to drive across the desert without a gas station another 100 miles.

Second act sagginess usually comes from the act's apparent lack of a major dramatic turning point for almost an hour of screen time. According to the sequence method, a properly-structured story requires a turning point every ten to fifteen minutes to provide development, escalation, and maintain story momentum. However, the 3-Act model relies on certain MAJOR dramatic turning points occurring at specific periods within the story. These moments create such a large and permanent dramatic change to the story situation that they essentially break the story into separate blocks. 3-Act structure has such success with its model because these major dramatic turning points have the effect of reigniting the audience's interest in the story's main conflict by right at the moment where the story most needs a boost. These moments give a forceful dramatic push that re-glue keeps the audience to their seats right when their attentions start to wane.

Most books on the subject teach that proper script structure contains only three major dramatic turning points, each one located at the end of each act:
Unfortunately, there is a problem when it comes to the second act. Major dramatic turning points provide only so much “push” to a feature-length narrative. After less than thirty minutes, the momentum wears off and the audience's attentions again start to wane. This is fine and dandy for the short first and third acts, since the audience does not have to wait long before its next shot in the arm. But then we have that long unwieldy second act. And not surprisingly, it is smack dab in the middle of the second act where most beginner scripts start... to slow... down....

But then, why are the films we see in theaters so successful with their second acts? How do they manage to maintain our attention and excitement from beginning to end with no lag through their middle? What do they do right that most spec script get wrong? The reality is that most “script gurus” overlook a piece of the puzzle absolutely fundamental to the 3-Act structure they wholeheartedly preach. Analyze any handful of well-written, well-structured feature films and you will quickly find there is an overlooked FOURTH major dramatic turning point occurring smack-dab in the middle of the second act.

Alien – the monster alien explodes from Kane's chest, turning the story from a mystery to a fight for survival.
Good Will Hunting – Will finally starts to open up to his therapist, permanently changing the main character relationship and how Will approaches the story conflict.
Rocky – Rocky allows Mick to become his manager, changing the main character relationship between the hero and his mentor and given him his first real chance to succeed.
Iron Man – Tony Stark for the first time uses his invention to fight evil, forever turning him from selfish playboy to world hero.
Schindler's List – Likewise, Oskar Schindler commits his first truly unselfish act by using his watch to save an old couple, beginning his transformation from profiteer to hero.
Die Hard – John McClane finally gets the attention of the police, permanently changing the landscape of the story conflict.
Star Wars – The heroes become trapped on the Death Star, creating the first direct one-on-one conflict between the heroes and the force of antagonism.
The Shining – The characters have their first meaningful physical contact with the evil that resides in the hotel, changing the conflict from abstract to tangible.

Now, many books mention something about a “Midpoint scene.” But like much in these books, the information provided on what this midpoint does and how it should be used tends to be vague and unhelpful. The “midpoint” is actually a quite simple concept. It is nothing more than a mid-second act turning point of higher than usual dramatic significance. Its event creates a “hinge” in the narrative that essentially splits the story in two: the story situation as it existed before the mid-second act turning point, and the drastically altered situation that exists after the turning point occurs, as pointed out by the examples above. The mid-second act turning point does not only create a major moment of development and escalation, but provides a powerful boost that reignites the audience's interest and launches the narrative forcefully into the second half of the second act.

The mid-second act turning point sounds just like and end-of-act turning point, doesn't it? That's because it is one! The mid-second act turning point DOES end an act! Here is where all the confusion over 3-Act structure originates. 3-Act structure does not in fact have three acts. It has four. Cinematic stories are not told with one short act, one very long act, and then another short act, but rather FOUR ACTS OF EQUAL LENGTH.

Successful cinematic stories become elegantly simple once one considers them in four equal parts instead of three:

Act 1 – Heroes investigate a distress signal. (TP: A creature attaches itself to Kane and is brought onboard the ship.
Act 2A – Heroes try to figure out what this creature attached to Kane is. (TP: Monster bursts from Kane's and is now loose on the ship)
Act 2B – Heroes try to capture or kill the monster. (TP: Heroes realize monster is unkillable and must destroy the ship.)
Act 3 – Destroying the ship and escaping the monster for good.

Act 1 – Hero struggles with life as a worthless bum. (TP: Rocky is offered a match with the world champion.)
Act 2A – Hero hopeless tries to prepare for the match on his own. (TP: Rocky reconciles with his mentor and agrees to let him become his manager.)
Act 2B – Hero develops from bum to contender with the help of his mentor. (TP: Rocky realizes he still has no chance, but sets a new goal for himself to “go the distance” with the champion.)
Act 3 – Rocky succeeds at his new goal, proving his self-worth.

Star Wars
Act 1 – Hero finds a message that will help defeat the evil empire, but is unwilling to take the risk. (TP: Hero's home is destroyed by members of the evil empire, giving him no choice but to leave to deliver the message.)
Act 2A – Hero journeys away from home to deliver the message. (TP: The hero becomes trapped in the Death Star, the heart of the evil empire.)
Act 2B – Escape from the Death Star. (TP: Hero succeeds, allowing him to deliver the message.)
Act 3 – Hero joins the rebels to use the message's information to defeat the evil empire.

Here now is a new visual model for 3-Act structure:
Isn't this simpler? Isn't this easier to manage? Doesn't this make more sense? With nothing but the simple recognition of an additional end-of-act turning point, the classic 3-Act model goes from wonky and difficult, to balanced, simple, and easy enough for any beginner to manage in his or her own script. Second acts need no longer strike fear in the hearts of developing writers. Or any act for that matter.
(Note that to avoid confusion, I have not relabeled the acts as Acts 1, 2, 3, & 4. To remain in line with established terminology, “3rd Act” shall always refer to a story's final act, and “4th Act” as something nonexistent muttered only by amateurs who don't know the difference between a movie script and a stage play. It is best to keep everyone using the same language.)

scribble on.