Getting your acts together…
Welcome back to my (very brief!) guide to development… I hope you got into your characters last week…
OK – so this week – the acts!
The acts are the big turning points in the story – and there would be more of them if they were not so damn hard to not only create, but extricate yourself from!
You might spend a great great deal of time on this phase of the story. It will only get harder to change anything after you get past this phase of development. Staying out at this magnification allows you keep a sense of overview – and to balance the big driving forces powering your story.
There are many good books on story structure – my favourite, because it is so intentionally accessible, is Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, but at heart they all refer to the principles established by Aristotle – which I will attempt to summarise here!
Crudely speaking, in my view, three act story is actually 4 acts, and each of them take up about 25% of the entire story.
So if you were writing 100 page screenplay act two would begin at page 25, the mid point would be at page 50, and the second act ends at page 75. If you were writing a 10 page script the same proportions would apply.
The most basic description I have heard of a three act story is that you get your hero up a tree, throw bigger and bugger rocks at them, then you get them out of the tree. Deceptively simple in fact – because in this image are ideas of a central character as focus, of narrative unity and of dramatic escalation… of which more below.
The other definition I heard is from Joseph Campbell – and it too has a great simplicity: The hero lives in a village, the crops stop growing (life is no longer providing the hero with the sustenance emotional or physical to survive) , he/she has to travel beyond the village to save the village (comfort zone), along the way he/she encounters allies and threats until they approach “the innermost cave” where their deepest fear resides, they confront that fear at which point the healing elixir is revealed to them and they return to the village to restore fertility to the land. Or they do not confront the fear, slip down into failure and rage – and that is a tragedy.
Finally – perhaps the very simplest of all definitions is thesis, antithesis, synthesis – but enough…
…here is a very basic overview of what each act is for and what you need to be looking to include/achieve. None of this stuff will help you be a good writer – but in my experience they will help you to understand why things are not quite working – and that is very valuable at 2 in the morning after a day of going round in circles!
The thesis – the world before the change, the status quo, the person the hero has been, which will no longer suffice.
The most important thing to remember about At One is that at the end of it the audience must understand “the problem which must be solved before the story can be said to be told”. EG a meteorite is heading towards earth, the Federation are building The Death Star, there is on only one set of papers which can get you out of Casablanca – and so on.
All the setup has to be in the first act – you can smuggle a great deal in here – and absolutely nothing anywhere else for some slightly mysterious reason. As a slight aside – the best tip I ever heard (with thanks to Robert McKee) for this is that if you have exposition to deliver – deliver it within a conflict – two people with two different views about what is going on can be very useful for unpacking where things stand without the audience hating you!
This is also where the audience need to understand what is “wrong” with the protagonist – they are selfish and childlike, they are terrified and passive, they are obsessive and inward looking – whatever it is the hero needs to fix inside themselves will be in plain sight here, (with thanks to Blake Snyder for this).
During this act – you are watching your hero try (and fail) to do what they always do in a tight spot. As in life- we all want to do what we know – and as long as what we know works – there is no need to change. It is only when our strategies fail that we are forced out into uncharted waters – where the promise of personal transformation resides.
The upside-down world – the antithesis to the thesis of the first act, the leaving of the village, the quest outside what is known.
As I say above – Act two is in fact two acts.
The first half of the act is all about (again with thanks to Blake Snyder) “where buddies clash most”, it is usually before the situation has reached crisis point, and contains the “fun and games” of the story – there is still room for banter, for conflict without dire consequence – and it is almost always the part of the film where the movie poster comes from and it is in this section that it really delivers the “promise of the premise” – where we see the scenes we feel the premise promises us.
In a story where the end of this act is a crisis (and therefore the end of the film is redemptive), this midpoint is often a “false dawn” – a moment where the characters, and the audience think it might be going to turn out OK after all.
Crucially however – they think it might all be ok before they have faced their deepest fear – and therefore without the deeper transformation it creates – the gods of story will simply not allow that to happen – it’s like cheating!
The second half of the second act things get a lot heavier as the enemies close in (again Blake Snyders term). The group (if there is one) starts to crack up under the pressure, the hero doubts they have the personal resources to cope, the enemy exploits the hero’s weakness, and drags him or her screaming into what they fear most – and what they have spent their entire life, and indeed constructed their personality, to avoid facing.
At the end of the second act, and this is one of the hardest things to do, you have to create a moment from which neither the hero or the audiences can see any hope of escape. It is really easy as a writer to pull your punch here – precisely because if you don’t it gives you and your hero the seemingly impossible task of extricating yourself from the problem – and that is going to take all your (and your hero’s) power and strength to achieve it.
NB – In a tragedy this might in fact look like it’s going to be OK (and the midpoint therefore a false down – because each act break reverses the polarity of hope in the story).
It is really hard to do – but if you don’t the audience will be “meh” about your story – and the third act in particular. They did not turn up to watch someone do something they could do – they came to watch someone becomes transformed through finding the resources they thought they would never have/find/discover in themselves. The audience want to do this because that is what they are trying to do in their own lives – and story offers them a template/promise that this could be possible.
Stories are not life – but they compress the promise of life’s transformational journey into a single digestible unit – and that is one of the ways we need them – they give us the overview life denies us – and this moment, when the old self dies – is a key moment people need to experience before they will believe the extraordinary actions they are about to witness.
Act three sees the hero combine all the lessons they have learned in the second act and synthesise them into a new version of themselves able to overcome the crisis if the second act. It could be calm, it could be empathy, it could be the ability to lead – whatever your hero needed to learn in themselves, whatever the mask they wear denies them in terms of their range of available action, whatever was burned away in the purging fie of the second act crisis – all that stuff has to be seen to be deployed in the resolution of the third act.
There are various, maybe more mechanical bits of advice I could give you about this act – to do with escalation, to do with taking the baddies out in escalating order, to do with lovers getting over themselves in order to truly be together, to do with false partners being seen for what they are (and ditto true allies), but in the end, it is all about truly getting out of that bind the crisis if the second act created and see the better stronger character that does it.
Take time moving these pieces around, take LOADS of time moving these pieces around, and making sure that they are driven by and mapped to your hero’s inner journey, and that they feel lean and clean and small in your mind. If a story still feels big and complicated – then it is probably a sign you haven’t fixed it.
Finally – pitch it to people – and observe your feelings – because as soon as you start to feel self conscious – your story isn’t working. You’ll tell yourself that “I’m just no good at pitching” – well the truth is that anyone can tell good story – and no one can tell a bad one well.