Beginnings, Middles and Ends
Every event in life has a beginning, middle and end. There is a situation, something happens and a new situation is created. It’s the structure of every joke, every news story, every personal story and every piece of dramatic writing. The transition from beginning to end is the change that is documented.
People talk about dramatic stories as being in three acts: The Set Up (Act One) , Complications (Act Two) and The Resolution (Act Three). This is not incorrect. Act One sets up the world of the hero, his or her desires and wants and the events that spin the story into a new direction. By spinning the story in an unexpected direction, Act Two becomes about the hero facing escalating complications until there is absolutely only one choice left for the hero to make which spins the story towards it’s inevitable conclusion. Act Three takes the hero through that final situation or situations until the hero’s conflict has been resolved and a new stasis has been created.
Ultimately, movies are closer to genre writing than true art in the sense that a screenplay is a commercial vehicle more than a purely artistic endeavor, there are limitations. “Moby Dick” is 700-page novel; “The Little Prince” is 100 pages. You can attempt that kind of variation with your scripts, but you probably won’t have much commercial success. Movies generally run between 85-90 minutes on the short end to 110-135 minutes on the long end. There are exceptions, but due to production costs and commercial demands, this is where your scripts generally land. If you figure, roughly, 1-minute/page, you have a sense of how long your script should be.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Act One should be around 30 pages, Act Two usually runs 60 pages, from pages 31-90, and Act Three is another 30 pages or less. Some screenwriting philosophies adhere closely to the number of pages. When working your craft, it’s best to think of these “numbers” as targets not specific pages. If events in your story are happening 15 pages into your first act, you probably haven’t plotted out your story with enough going on. Conversely, if the event that spins your main character into an unexpected world happens after page 35, you probably have too much going on. If the end of your second act lands on page 70, you probably don’t have enough going on in Act Two; and if it comes on page 100, you probably have too much story going on to keep your audience enthralled. That is the general rule. At times, depending on your story, the plot may justify what you have or don’t have; but you need to be aware of it when plotting out your script. These moments are often referred to as “plot points” for the reason that they turn the plot from one act to another.
Why is Act Two twice as long as the other two…? The real answer: no one really knows. And thus, there’s no reason to adhere to that structure. In fact, if you look closely at movies and dissect screenplay structure, you’ll notice that there is a change that occurs in the middle of every story that involves the main character and the audience. I call this, “The Midpoint Shift.”
The Midpoint Shift
In the midpoint of every movie, one of two things happens: either the main character acquires information that help him or her focus their want and understand their goal, or some aspect of the story is revealed to the audience which shifts their understanding and perspective on the story. Often times, it’s both.
In “Chinatown,” it is the midpoint when Jake Gittes encounters Noah Cross for the first time. It’s at this moment — in the middle of the story — that Jake realizes that Cross is behind it all and that the issue isn’t water but the young girl everyone seems to want. In “Star Wars,” it’s when Luke Skywalker makes it to Aldernaan and realizes that’s truly at stake. In “When Harry Met Sally,” is when Harry sees Sally with a date and realizes that he wants her.
This shift in the main character is subtle, but it exists. It effects how the main character process information about the world around him or her. It helps to focus the main character’s resolve and hone his desire (which is the drive that takes us to the climax of the movie). And it changes, albeit subtly, what kind of choices the main character makes and, thus, the actions that the main character takes. This is what ups the stakes and enables the rising conflict to grow as the story reaches it’s inevitable conflict in the climax.
While the Midpoint Shift is not as overt or profound as the plot points at the end of Acts One and the old “Act Two,” it is worth considering as a plot point. Why…? Because it shifts the entire paradigm of your screenplay structure.
We’ll examine how this new paradigm effects the structure of your script in my next post.