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Climbing Walls

SPOILERS AHOY: Toy Story 1 & 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo

It’s weird, but I often find myself talking to different people about the same thing screenwriting-wise, whether I’m writing my own stuff, reading other people’s or having random conversations about writing. For example, this last week and a half I have had no less than six conversations about the problems people have in “keeping it going” in Act 2.

Very often in the specs I read, the Set Up may start very well, even catapult us right into in to the story – yet as soon as Act 2 kicks off, the problems surface. The protagonist’s journey often becomes turgid, as if the character is dragging themselves through treacle in order to get to their goal. Sometimes, the journey even grinds to a halt, so said protagonist feels as if s/he is “running on the spot”. In short, Act 2 – half the screenplay in real terms – has not got a sense of “progression”, the narrative “sags” in the middle. When it comes to structure, we can rattle off the names of the Three Acts without any issue: Set Up, Conflict, Resolution. Thanks to the likes of the Ten Page Test, the newer scribes are at last appreciating the importance of hitting the ground running so Set Ups are getting better. Very often too, Resolutions are avoiding the more obvious pitfalls like the dreaded Deus Ex Machina. Yet the “sagging” conflict is a problem it seems for all writers, of all experience, it seems to me – whether new, professional or reader.

So if it’s not experience (or lack of it) that causes “sags”, then what is it? Personally, I believe it’s a wish to NOT inflict the most pain and/or difficulty on your character. I realised this with Grace herself, the protagonist whom my script is named after; I had literally been avoiding putting her in the types of situation that cause the most conflict. I bet you’ve done the same at some point, or will in the future: you’ve created this person, they are literally your baby and you don’t want them to have to go through the worst of times. But guess what? Act 2 is called CONFLICT for a reason, because as we also all know thanks to Syd Field and the many other gurus out there, drama is conflict.

When thinking about good Act Twos for this article, it occurred to me Pixar movies are one of the best for putting their characters through “the worst of times”. No matter what happens to their characters, things will ALWAYS get worse before it gets better. It isn’t bad enough that Buzz Lightyear has bounced into the yard of a sadist kid who blows up toys?? Oh no — he has to realise he is deluded, he’s not a *real* space ranger at all!!! Buzz knows this in Toy Story 2, so when he’s looking for his friend Woody who has been toynapped — another deluded Space Ranger takes Buzz’s place!! In A Bug’s Life, Flik must inadvertantly sabotage himself, over and over again, so he gets thrown out of the colony, not once but TWICE. In Monsters Inc, not only do Mike and Sully have a little girl to send back to the real world, they discover a terrible plot to “steal” screams and not only that, their boss is in on it!!! In Finding Nemo, Marlin has escape after escape from the monsters of the deep and also must realise he’s molly coddled his son (and is in part responsible for his loss) actually in A WHALE’S MOUTH!!! And yet not one of these 3D masterpieces has an unhappy resolution. If Pixar animations don’t prove, absolutely, that drama is conflict, I don’t know what does.One of the best explanations I ever read about “keeping it going” in Act 2 was from the mighty Yves Lavandier. In his book, Writing Drama, he likens Act 2 to a “a series of walls, each one higher than the last.” In other words, a writer needs to provide specific events, with each one WORSE than the one that preceded it, in order to propel us towards the resolution. It’s bloody obvious when you think of it in such terms: I now think of it as the protagonist having to climb a ladder, rung after rung, towards that all-important goal. Yet sometimes it needs someone to state the obvious before **one** can grasp the obvious.

So next time you’re stuck in Act 2 Hell, ask yourself: what events can happen here, to ensure my protagonist has a wall to get over… And what happens AFTER THAT?!

Buy “Writing Drama” By Yves Lavandier here.

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19 thoughts on “Climbing Walls”

  1. I don’t want to restart hostilities on the value or otherwise of ‘gurus’, but I did find Robert McKee quite useful about this need to intensity the difficulties facing your character.

    According to McKee, human nature dictates that characters will generally take the ‘minimum and conservative’ action (from their POV) to achieve their goals. In life, that will give you the desired outcome 99% of the time. However, in story, it should always generate further conflict:

    In story, we concentrate on that moment, and only that moment, in which a character takes an action expecting a useful reaction from his world, but instead the effect of his action is to provoke forces of antagonism. The world of the character reacts differently than expected, more powerfully than expected, or both.My favourite example of this Ernest Lehman’s script for North by Northwest (PDF) – Roger Thornhill takes every sensible measure to extricate himself from his predicament, but each time it only lands him deeper in the brown stuff.

  2. I have a lot of clients who find McKee useful, Tom – you’ll get no hostility here… Though as I’ve said before, the most use “Story” was for me in putting out my husband’s flaming hair thanks to a fire poi-related accident! Arf! But then we is all different man, innit?!

    In all seriousness, like all things, Gurus are as useful as you want them to be. But the reason I like Lavandier the best is ‘cos he invites discussion and is not didactic like some. You should defo try his book. It’s not a “how to” at all.

  3. I’m more of a fan of the sequence structure myself. This approach says to concentrate on set pieces and situations about 10 pages long. This helps with the Act 2 problem as each sequence can be one of those walls.

  4. In our process of developing a drama, I have – in myself and clients – often seen this happening for several reasons:
    1. Our avoidance of conflict – as Lucy also touches – but I thinks its more our general avoidance of conflict, our tendency to stay safe – personally I have begun to constantly think “What is the worst that can happen now? For the character? For me as a writer?” The last going to the point of what would really fuck up my carefully planned script? Which leads me to:
    2. If we have planned our script, we know where we are headed and sometimes this becomes a head-rest – it becomes about getting the character to the end, not about getting them into trouble – we loose the moment.
    3. The three-act structure is flawed in its thinking. Four act is better or the sequence-way of thinking. 3A makes 2nd act like a desert to be crossed. Notice how Syd Field had to invent a pseudo plot point in the middle of 2nd, without going the whole way and realizing it means an act-break – flawed thinking, because the major plot points are act transistions.

  5. Hmmm, I agree AND disagree TCJ. I agree that Act 2 can seem daunting like the “desert” you mention, but I don’t think it’s flawed, because to me four acts is just a way of looking at the same three acts in a different way – and so is every other method. I think it depends on your POV – and whatever works, works.

  6. We had a very interesting lecture at Bournemouth that tackled ‘the desert of Act II’.

    I’ll try and blog on it a bit more fully, but it was based around taking the three-act structure and subdividing it into eight parts (I=2, II=4, III=2).

    Then, even if you don’t have your plot mechanics clear yet, you allocate each of those sections an emotional ‘colour’ that indicates where you want the characters (and audience) to be at that point.

    You can then use those cues to inform your plot choices. In the script I’m working on now, for instance, they were isolation/connection/belonging/sense of purpose/loss of control/attempt to regain control/flight/confrontation.

    Obviously it’s just a starting point, but it gives you a bit of a roadmap – and helps you to focus on your story’s emotional impact.

  7. That sounds interesting, Tom – when you have blogged about it, drop me an email and I’ll link to it in this article, because I’m going to be putting this one on the right hand sidebar.

  8. Hi Lucy –

    to you it may be just another way at looking at the same thing – and you would be right. I'm not at all saying there's only one way to look at it. But I do think the 3A thinking gets something wrong – not something deeply critical – and as I mention the 3A model has been accommodated with a mid-point which virtually turns it into a 4A model.

    I believe the deepest purpose of an act-structure is to create rhythm. Yes, it helps us to flesh out the story, to align it and accentuate the critical moments. The last part is the most important and this is possible exactly because of rhythm – which is a fundamental aspect of human perception&communication.

    When you have a 3A model where the middle act is twice as long as the other two acts – how does this play in a rhythmical sense? Not so well, unless its on purpose to do exactly so.

    For me a proper 3A model should have equally long acts.

  9. Thanks Lucy, thanks Stephen. Great post!

    Here's my two cents:

    The walls the character encounters are especially dramatic if they're caused by the character themselves, or rather by their lack of insight into what they're doing wrong. As they make one botched attempt after another to achieve their goal, they make matters worse for themselves in the process.



  10. Last year I read a book by the late Blake Snyder called "Save the Cat." It concentrates on structure rather than the overall process of screenwriting. But essentially, Blake attests that every successful film made since the 70s follows the exact same structure. Page numbers/minute count here are very arbitary but he recommends:

    Opening Image: 1
    Setup: 1-10
    Inciting incident: 11-12
    Debate (refusal, "should I/shouldn't I"?): 13-25
    Break into act 2 (acceptance): 25
    B-Story start (no later than): 30
    Promise of the premise ("fun & games" or the "meat" or "the reason we came to see the movie"): 26 – 55
    Mid-point: 55
    "Bad guys close in" (where things start to go wrong): 56 – 75
    "All is lost" (where things are worse than when the movie started): 75
    "Dark night of the soul" (the protagonist's dark moments, where they figure out how to "win"): 76-85
    Break into act 3 (the "aha!" moment): 85
    Finale (including buildup etc): 86 – 110

    This is all freely available from his website so there's no copyright infringement here. Also see: for longer/shorter screenplays.

    There is of course a lot of leeway with the page counts/minutes, for example, Lethal Weapon's "Dark Night" is one scene:

    We're gonna get bloody this one, Rodge.

    Are you full of s*** or are you as good as they say you are?

    [the above from memory, not necessarily word for word]

    When I first read this book, I was almost yelling at the book "no, I do not want to write formulaic trash", but this isn't a formula any more than four wheels and a roof is a formula for a car. It's what you do with this structure that matters, and how your characters change and cope with their challenges.

    Donnie Darko, Beautiful Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, all of them have exactly the same structure as Legally Blonde, Bad Boys, and Independence Day – they just handle those elements in different ways.

    Don't believe me? Watch any blockbuster or moderatly successful movie on your shelf.

    (NB – I find "Story" is useful in small chunks – impossible to digest all at once)

  11. Just wanted to add in relation to this section in the article:

    "In short, Act 2 – half the screenplay in real terms – has not got a sense of "progression", the narrative "sags" in the middle."

    The first part of act 2 is the reason we paid to come see the movie. In Bad Boys two, it's where they throw a truckload of cars onto the freeway, in a Jim Carey movie it's were he does the most gurning, in a Judd Apatow film it's where most of the funniest gags occur.

    The mid point is where A and B stories cross. It is also usually (but not always), a high point, often called a "tentpole" or "false victory": in a rom com the boy and girl are at the peak of their relationship but the antagonism in that story is about to pounce; in a thriller the detective has made a breakthrough (or the opposite).

    This is followed by a downward progression, where the stakes are upped. By this time there is almost always some sort of time clock (in Beautiful Sunshine, Jim and Kate realise the mind wipe is progressing and they only have so long to hide the memorty that Jim needs to keep Kate "alive").

    This leads to the lowest point in the movie, the "all is lost" moment. Snyder also recommends a "whiff of death" either literal or metaphorical. Things here are always WORSE than when the movie began. This leads to the darkest time for the lead character, where the soul-searching occurs, where the solution to the whole movie either presents itself or opens at door. This revelation is the end of act 2.

    As the meerkats would say: "Simples."

    (only it's not, of course)

  12. Thanks for posting all that, Antony.

    Blake makes some excellent points and works particularly well I think as a "checklist" for the newer writers. I also understand he was a great guy and really helpful & approachable to any writer who contacted him, though I never did.

    Whilst you won't get me arguing with the notion you need to "hook" readers within the first ten pages then, I've not found such specific advice re: pages etc so useful, for whilst HOLLYWOOD movies all might have the "Hollywood" bit all in common, they're not the only people who make films. Different cultures make differently structured films. You could no more compare a Ken Loach Film to Independence Day than you could call me a size 0.

    There are also those tricky elements to consider as well: if you compare, say, SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND to INDEPENDENCE DAY following the example, a HUGE difference occurs: whilst Jim Carrey's character is the sole protag of SPOTLESS, with Kate Winslet coming in a close second as the love interest (yet still a secondary), arguably INDEPENDENCE DAY has dual protags in Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum: think about it – both lose something, both gain something; both become "better men" and have almost identical character arcs in that they are BOTH heroes of the hour.

    IMHO, an "element" like this is not *just* character for me, but an essential part of the structure too, so really: I wouldn't say it was the same.

  13. Page counts are always arbitary, but the actual beats are what matter. They sound like a checklist, but I think of them more as elements. If they are missing the film falls flat. No all is lost moment and a potentially good film feels flat.

    The thing with Independence Day vs Sunshine is that they are different genres. ID is more of a buddy movie so dual protagonists will develop differently than a single one.

    However, the way the stories beat out – the midpoint, the "all is lost" both serve the same function. The timeclock shortly after the midpoint for example. I mentioned Sunshine's is the mindwipe, but in the same way in ID the aliens locate the humans' base and are on their way to wipe them out.

    In cars, you get four wheels, a chasis, a fuel tank, an engine; whether it's a Mini or a Bentley or a clapped out piece of junk, you have all those things, but it's what you do with those things that counts, and it's that which determines what gets churned out at the end of the production line. And whether Jeremy Clarkeson drives it sideways around his track or if they give it to James May to tootle around the countryside.

    Blake never really gets under the skin of movies when talking structure. Within each beat are infinite possibilities and huge potential for creativity. A midpoint can be a kiss, sex, death, birth, a discovery, success at work, getting fired, locating the bomb, an old man catching that damn fish, or just plain old simple "things are lookin' good, honey", but it's always there.

  14. Forgot to add – everyone worth their salt knows it's character that drives a movie. Without that, it's just events happening. But a character arc is different from story structure. One compliments the other and if they don't we fail.

    Buddy pics and rom coms and sci-fi blockbusters handle character differently, because they are faced with different challenges.

    In ID, the A story is defeating aliens, with a number of sub plots, one of which culminates in Will and Jeff's friendship on the mothership. Will also needs to find his girlfriend, the President needs to get over the death of his wife and prove himself as a leader, Jeff has self-confidence and daddy issues plus an ex-wife he still loves. Each of these characters MUST CHANGE if they are to achieve the A-objective of defeating the aliens. I haven't seen this movie recently so I can't remember off the top of my head, but I didn't think Will and Jeff met until the second half of the film, so I'd say they have their own arcs that are completed before their friendship commences – before they leave Earth their subplots are complete, and all that's left is to deliver a virus and smoke a cigar.

    Sorry, I've gone off topic a little.

  15. Reading all this reminded me that I read somewhere (Probably in "The Devil's Guide to Hollywood") that you *shouldn't* be thinking "What's the worst that can happen to my character now?" since that usually results in "His brother dies, his wife dies, his dog gets cancer, his car is repossessed, his TV guide is stolen…." all of which is old hat. In the PIxar movies you mentioned, all those dark moments of fear or doubt or self-discovery were at the heart of what the movie was about – Buzz discovering that being a toy is good thing, Marlin learning how letting go doesn't mean losing his son, Flik discovering that failure isn't always the end of invention. Just having misery upon misery because this is Act 2 won't work. Can I say that from the standpoint of never having written a successfull screenplay?

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  17. Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up and tell my protag, “today I am going to be the biggest asshole to you that you ever met in your whole life!”

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