The original post for this episode can be found here.
Craig Mazin: Hello and welcome. My name is Craig Mazin and this is Episode 403 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
On today’s show, something we have never done before. It’s just me. No guest. No John. He’s off visiting family I believe in Colorado. So it’s just me today. And we’re going to do something that I’ve been looking forward to doing for a long time. I’m going to be talking to you today about structure and character. I’m kind of giving you my whole theory on how to write a movie.
I know it sounds like a lot. And it is a little bit of a lot. It’s a talk that I’ve done at the Austin Screenwriting Film Festival a number of times. I haven’t done it in a while. And I feel like their exclusive right to it has ended, so now I’m giving it to you. This is sort of my how-to write a movie.
But before we get into that we do have a little bit of business to go through. And it’s about our live show. Our next live show, we’ve talked about this before. It’s going to be on the evening of Thursday, June 13 here in Los Angeles at the Ace Hotel which is a beautiful venue. And it is benefiting Hollywood Heart. We do this every year. It’s a great charity.
We have probably the best guest lineup we’ve ever had. We have Alec Berg, the showrunner of Silicon Valley and Barry. We have Rob McElhenney, showrunner of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. We have Kourtney Kang, writer of Fresh Off the Boat. And we have Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone. And by the way that’s – Melissa McCarthy and Ben – I’m not talking about other Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcones that you don’t know. I mean the ones you know. Those.
It is just about the most comedy firepower I think we can ever assemble on one stage for this show. You’re not going to want to miss it. Tickets I believe are still available but we’re getting close to running out, so take a look at the link in the show notes and get your tickets.
All right. Let’s get into it. So when we talk about writing a script a lot of times we’re talking about structure. There are, I don’t know, four million books about structure. I went online and I looked for just images based on screenplay structure and what I saw was kind of mind-blowing. There are these long narrow lines with little ticks on them and then there’s a pie chart. And then there’s a swirly thing that kind of looks like a snail shell. There’s a triangle. There’s a diamond. I think there’s a parallelogram. And if there’s not a trapezoid maybe one of you can get on that.
All of this is designed to help you learn how to structure a screenplay. Here’s the problem. All of it is done from the wrong end. All of it. It’s all done from the point of view of analysis. They look at things, they take them apart, and then they say, look, all these pieces fit into this swirly shape, or this diamond. The issue is that’s not going to help you actually write anything because when you write you’re starting from scratch. You’re not breaking something apart. You’re building something out of nothing. And when you’re building something out of nothing you need a different set of instructions.
I can think of a doctor who takes bodies apart. That’s a medical examiner or a coroner. That’s not the doctor you want to go to to make a baby for instance. It’s just a very different thing, right? So we’re going to come at it from the point of view of making babies and your baby is your script. Don’t worry, we’re going to keep this safe for work.
So, structure. Structure, structure, structure. Screenplay is structure. You need to know how to do your structure. Structure I’m here to tell you is a total trap. Yes, screenplay is structure, but structure isn’t what you think it is. Structure doesn’t say this happens on this page, this happens on that page. Here’s a pinch point. Here’s a stretchy point. Here’s a midpoint. Structure doesn’t tell you what to do. If you follow strict structural guidelines in all likelihood you will write a very well structured bad script.
Structure isn’t the dog. It’s the tail. Structure is a symptom. It’s a symptom of a character’s relationship with a central dramatic argument. Take a moment. Think about that for a second. I’ll repeat it. Structure is a symptom of a character’s relationship with a central dramatic argument. Structure isn’t something you write well. It’s something that happens because you wrote well. Structure is not a tool, it is a symptom.
When we think of rigid structural forms I have to tell you there’s nothing honest about them. There’s nothing true about them. They’re synthetic. There’s never been one single great writer who created one single great screenplay following a structural template. Not one.
What real writers follow are their characters. And what great writers follow are their characters as they evolve around a central dramatic argument that is actually meaningful to other human beings. Let me stop for a second and tell you that we are going to get into real practicals but for a bit now we’re just going to talk a little bit of philosophy. First, let’s consider what we call basic structure. There’s a Syd Field point of view. You have your three acts, your inciting incident, act break escalation, magical midpoint character shift, third act low point, and kick off to climactic action.
We also have the Chris Vogler Hero’s Journey, ordinary world, call to action, refusal of call, acceptance of call, and blah, blah, blah. Save the Cat is a lot of stuff.
There’s a lot of what to do but where’s the why? Who came up with this stuff in the first place? Why is it there? Why are there three acts at all? Why is there a low point? Why do we like it when there’s an inciting incident? Why do we like it when there’s a low point? If we don’t know why those things are there how are we supposed to know how to write them? Because we process the world through our consciousness and our consciousness is sort of a natural storyteller, all of us are actually walking around doing this right all the time. We just don’t know it. We’re narrativizing our own lives better than most who try and do it on purpose on Fade In or WriterDuet, or Highland2. I don’t know any other software.
Right now you’re sitting there, you’re riding along in your car, you’re being passive. You are accepting this structure talk, wondering when I’m going to get to the practicals. And I will. But later if someone asks you about this experience you’re having you will naturally, without thinking, create a story. You won’t have to consult a graph or a chart or a swirly thing. You’ll just tell the story.
Here’s a story. I listened to a podcast. It was on the following topics. Reasonable people could agree or disagree. Anyway, I’m the same. That’s not a very good story, is it?
Here’s another story. I was listening to a podcast and it was OK, it was sort of a little boring, but then the person said this one thing and it reminded me of something else I’d heard once and that tied back to this moment in my life where something really interesting happened. And now I’m wondering maybe if I was wrong about that thing and I should be doing it this way instead. Huh. There you go. And that story has character, meaning you. That story is about you and maybe it’s about me. It’s about a relationship that we’re having right now through this podcast, for better or worse.
And if you were to relay this story, this experience, you might share some parts of this that you thought were interesting or some parts that you thought were stupid, but you will naturally contextualize it as such. This moment in time did or did not help you in your desire to change. We live our lives this way, but when we sit down to write we somehow forget. You know who never forgets? Actors. They have to get it because they are the characters and we are experiencing them as the characters.
So there’s that old cliché line: what’s my motivation? Well it’s not a joke. Believe it or not that is the key to structure. What is the purpose of all this storytelling that we engage in, all this narration? Well, narration helps us move through a changing world. And story is about a change of state. There are three basic ways your story changes. And this applies I think to every possible story.
The first way is internal. This is what is going on inside the character’s mind. This is the things they’re thinking, they’re feeling, their emotions. And this axis goes all over the place. It zigzags up and down. Then there’s interpersonal. That’s the main relationship of your story. It has a start, it has an end. It usually begins in a kind of neutral way. Then depending on how your story unfolds it can dip and then rise and then plummet and then spike. And finally you have the external axis. That’s the narrative, the plot, the things that are going on around you. And that generally is just a straight line. Start to end.
All of this is made up of scenes. And within scenes we’re doing something that follows the Hegelian dialectic. Calm down. You don’t need to look it up. I’ll help you out. The Hegelian Dialectic basically is a way of thinking about how we formulate ideas and thoughts and arguments. You take a thesis. That’s a statement. Something is true. And then you apply to that an antithesis. No, that’s not true and here’s why. Those things collide and in theory what results from that is a new thesis called the synthesis. And that starts the whole process over again. That synthesis becomes a thesis. There’s an antithesis. A new synthesis. That becomes a thesis. Constant changing. Every scene begins with a truth, something happens inside of that scene. There is a new truth at the end and you begin, and you begin, and you begin.
And who is the person firing these antitheses at these theses? You.
So, as we go through this talk never forget this one simple fact. At any given moment as you begin a scene you have a situation that is involving those three axes and you are going to fire something at at least one of them to make something new. That is all story is. But what is the glue that holds all those changes together? What’s the glue that you the creator can use to come up with your antitheses and get your new syntheses and do it over and over again?
And that brings us to theme. Theme is otherwise known as unity. Unity is a term that was first used by Aristotle in Poetics and this is one you actually should read. I know you’re like, Aristotle? Hegel? Hegelian guy. Calm down. It’s fine. In fact, Aristotle was really a contemporary writer in his own way. Poetics is an easy read. It will take you about 30 minutes. It’s a pretty good bathroom book. And in it you’ll find a lot of things that we hear today, like for instance the worst kind of plot is an episodic plot. Well, that’s pretty much true.
What did he think of unity or theme? Well basically theme is your central dramatic argument. Some of those arguments are interesting. Some of them are a little cliché. And the quality of the argument itself isn’t necessarily related to the quality of the script. For instance, you can have a really good screenplay built around you can’t judge a book by its cover. That’s OK. The theme itself doesn’t have to be mind-altering or, I don’t know, revolutionary. It’s your execution around it that’s going to be interesting.
But the important thing is that the argument has to be an argument. I think sometimes people misunderstand the use of theme in this context and they think a theme for a screenplay could be brotherhood. Well, no. Because there’s nothing to argue about there. There’s no way to answer that question one way or the other. It’s just a vague concept.
But, man and women can’t just be friends, well, that’s an argument. Better to be dead than a slave. Life is beautiful, even in the midst of horrors. If you believe you are great, you will be great. If you love someone set them free. Those are arguments.
Screenplays without arguments feel empty and pointless. You will probably get some version of the following note. What is this about? I mean, I know what it’s about, but what is it about? Why should this movie exist? What is the point of all this?
Now, it’s really important to note you probably don’t want to start with an argument. That’s a weird way to begin a script. Usually we think of an idea. And that’s fine. But when you think of the idea the very next question you should ask is what central dramatic argument would fit really well with this? And ideally you’re going to think ironically. For instance, let’s talk about this idea. A fish has to find another fish who is somewhere in the ocean. Got it. The animators will love it. Water. Fish. Cool.
OK, let’s think of a central dramatic argument. How about if you try hard enough you can do anything, even find a fish? That’s a bit boring, isn’t it? How about sometimes the things we’re searching for are the things that we need to be free from? Well, OK. That’s an interesting argument. I’m not sure how it necessarily is served or is being served by this idea of a fish in the ocean. How about you can’t find happiness out there, you have to find it within yourself? That could work. That’s sort of Wizard of Oz-ish.
But let’s go really ironically. How about this one? No matter how much you want to hold onto the person you love, sometimes you have to set them free. Well, that is pretty cliché but it is a great central dramatic argument to pair with a fish needs to find another fish. Because when you’re looking for somebody out there in the deep, deep ocean you the writer know that what you’re promising is they’re going to find them and then have to let them go anyway. And that is starting to get good.
All right. Let’s get into some practicals, shall we? Because this is thematic structure. This is going to help you write your script. In thematic structure the purpose of the story – and listen carefully now – the purpose of the story is to take a character from ignorance of the truth of the theme to embodiment of the theme through action. I shall repeat. The purpose of the story is to take your main character, your protagonist, from a place of ignorance of the truth or the true side of the argument you’re making and take them all the way to the point where they become the very embodiment of that argument and they do it through action.
So, let’s talk about how we introduce. We begin in the beginning with the introduction of a protagonist in an ordinary world. You’ve probably heard this a thousand times. But why? Sometimes movies don’t start ordinarily. You probably saw Mad Max: Fury Road. If you didn’t, do so. Well, there’s no ordinary beginning there. I mean, it’s crazy from the jump. Ordinary doesn’t mean mundane. Although sometimes it can.
What ordinary means here is that the protagonist’s life essentially exemplifies their ignorance of the theme, of the argument that you want them to believe eventually. In fact, they believe the opposite of that argument. That’s how they begin. Typically in the beginning of a story your main character believes in the opposite of the theme and they have also achieved some kind of stasis. There’s a balance in their life. In fact, their ignorance of that theme has probably gotten them to this nice place of stasis and balance. It doesn’t mean they’re happy. What it means is that without the divine nudge of the writer-god their life could go on like this forever. It’s not a perfect life. It’s not the best life they could live but it’s the life they’ve settled for. Their stasis is acceptable imperfection.
If we’re going to circle back around to my favorite fish movie, Marlin can live with a resentful son as long as he knows his son is safe. That’s acceptable imperfection. I get it. Nemo resents me. He’s angry at me. He feels stifled by me. That’s OK. He’s alive. I can keep going this way.
And then along comes you, the writer. Your job is to disrupt that stasis. So you invent some sort of incident. Ah-ha. Now we know the point of the inciting incident. The point of the inciting incident is not to go, “Oh god, a meteor!” The point of the inciting incident is to specifically disrupt a character’s stasis. It makes the continuation of balance and stasis and acceptable imperfection impossible. It destroys it. And it forces a choice on the character.
OK, but why? I’m just going to keep asking that question. But why? But why? But why? Why do you have to do this to this poor character? Because you are the parent and you have a lesson to teach this person, or animal, or fish. Your motivation is part of your relationship to your character. You don’t write an inciting incident. You don’t write push character out of safety. That gives you no real guidance to let something blossom. What you write is an ironic disruption of stasis. Ironic as in a situation that includes contradictions or sharp contrasts that is, and hear me out, genetically engineered to break your character’s soul.
You’re going to destroy them. You are god. And you are designing a moment that will begin a transformation for this specific character so you have to make it intentional. It can be an explosion, or it can be the tiniest little change. But it’s not something that would disrupt everyone’s life the way it’s disrupting this person’s life. You have tailored it perfectly and terribly for them.
So, what’s the first thing your character wants to do when this happens to them? Well, it they’re like you or me they’re going to immediately try and just get back to what they had. They have to leave their stasis behind because you’ve destroyed it, but everything they’re going to do following that is done in service of just trying to get it back. Shrek doesn’t have his swamp, so he has to go on a journey so he can get his swamp back. The point here is that the hero has absolutely no idea that there is a central dramatic argument. They’ve made up their mind about something and their mind has not changed.
Your heroes should be on some level cowards. I don’t mean coward like shaking in your boots. I mean coward like I don’t want to change. I’m happy with the way things are. Please just let me be. And underlining that is fear. And fear, especially in your character, is the heart of empathy. I feel for characters when I fear with them. It is vulnerability. It’s what makes me connect. Every protagonist fears something.
Imagine a man who fears no other man. He doesn’t fear death. He doesn’t fear pain. But, ah-ha, fill in that blank. But the point is it has to be filled in. You can feel it, right? Like he’s going to have to fear something. Because fear is our connection to a character. And a fearful hero should have lived their lives to avoid the thing they’re afraid of.
You, are taking their safety blanket away. So I want you to write your fearful hero honestly. What do they want? They want to return to what they had. They want to go backwards. And believe it or not that is the gift that is going to drive you through the second act. The second act.
Oh, the thing that’s so scary. No. No, you should be excited about it. Let me take a break for a second and say that everything I’m talking about here is mostly to serve the writing of what I would call a traditional Hollywood movie. That doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean cliché. It doesn’t even mean formulaic. It just means it’s a traditional narrative. So, I don’t know, if you’re looking to be a little more Lars von Trier about things, well, I don’t know how interesting or helpful this is going to be. But I’m presuming that most of you just want to write a general kind of movie that conforms to a general kind of movie shape.
So this is how we’re going to help you do it. And the second act is the part that I think freaks people out the most. They get scared. But I think you should be excited about pages 30 to 90 roughly. Please do not quote me on those numbers. But first, are you getting it? Have you stopped thinking about plot? Have you stopped thinking about plot as something to jam characters into? Because when you do that that’s why you run out of road in your second act. You ran out of plot because it wasn’t being generated by anything except you.
Ah-ha. But when you start thinking of your plot as not something that happens to your characters but what you are doing to your characters that’s when you can lead them from anti-theme to theme. How do we do it?
First, we reinforce the anti-theme. That might sound a little counterintuitive but hear me out. You’ve knocked your hero out of their acceptable stasis. They are now on the way to do whatever they need to do to get back to it. The hero is going to experience new things. And I want you to think about making those new things reinforce her belief in an anti-theme. Because this is going to make them want to get back to the beginning even more. Oh, it’s delicious. We’re creating a torture chamber basically. Keep thinking that way.
Imagine your hero is moving backwards against you and you push them forward and they push back. Ah-ha. Good. Design moments to do this. You’re going to keep forcing them forward, but you’re also going to put things in their path that make them want to go backwards. That’s tension. That’s exciting. And more importantly when they do get past those things it will be meaningful. You want to write your world to oppose your character’s desires.
So, you’re going to reinforce their need to get back. Ah-ha. So, let’s see, Marlin wanders out into the ocean. His theory is the ocean is really, really dangerous. What should the first thing be? Maybe let’s have him meet some sharks. And actually, oh, you know what, they’re not scary at all. Oh god, yes they are. The ocean is in fact way worse than he even imagined. That’s what you need to do. He needs to get his son back really, really soon so he can return to stasis. And then when you’ve done that you’re going to introduce an element of doubt.
Something or someone lives in a different way. Someone or something in your story is an example of the life of theme rather than the life of anti-theme. So remember, your hero believes in one side of the central dramatic argument. It’s the wrong side. You want them to believe the other one. OK, but they believe the wrong one. They need to run into someone or something that believes in the right side of it. This element of doubt creates a natural conflict for the protagonist because of course I believe this, you believe that. But it’s also attractive to them on some level because – and again, really important. Your hero is rational. This is a critical component of a good hero. You are dealing with somebody that probably lives irrationally, fine, but they have to have the capacity to see that maybe there is a better way.
You’re living things maybe the wrong way but you need the capacity to see things going the right way. It is fear that separates the irrational hero from their rational potential. And because they’re rational when they get a glimpse of this other way of being they’re going to realize there’s value to it through circumstance or accident or necessity or another character’s actions. These are all things you’re inventing, but here’s why – the hero is going to experience a moment of acting in harmony with the right side of the central dramatic argument.
This could involve their own action or it could be something that they watch someone else do or something they experience passively. But this is why the magical midpoint change occurs. See, now you know why. You’re not just doing it because a book said. These things generally happen in the middle of the movie because our hero’s belief system has been challenged. There is an element of doubt. There is not a willingness to go all the way and believe the other side of the argument yet. They may not even understand the other side of the argument.
There’s only a question that maybe for the first time they have to wonder if their side of the argument that they started with, the anti-theme, maybe it doesn’t explain or solve everything. Have I been living a lie? That’s what’s happening in the middle of a movie.
So, remember in Finding Nemo there’s a moment where because Marlin has to rescue Dory from this field of jellyfish he invents a game. She forces him to do something that he normally wouldn’t do. Play. He’s doing it for the old Marlin reasons of neurosis, but it’s working. She’s following him. And as he’s doing it he gets a glimpse of what it’s like to live without fear. He gets a glimpse of what it’s like to be carefree. To not worry so much. To be, well, a little less conservative with your own life. And he loves it.
And then what happens? She gets stung. Oh, glorious. And that gets us to this reversal of theme. The very moment your hero takes the bait that you put there to think about maybe switching sides – maybe switching sides of the argument – you need to hammer them back the other direction. The story has to make them shrink back to the old way. Dory almost dies in the jellyfish. And why? It happened because Marlin decided in a moment out of necessity to have fun and then forgot himself, forgot his fear. And what’s the price of forgetting fear and not being vigilant? Pain and tragedy. The tragedy of the beginning is reinforced and the hero retreats once again.
Ah. It’s good stuff. And it means you have to be kind of mean. Sadistic really. But it turns out that these are the kinds of things we want out of our narrative. It’s the essence of what we call dramatic reversal.
I’m going to put aside the examples from Pixar for a second and I’m going to talk about somebody real. There’s a guy named Jose Fernandez. This is a true story. Jose Fernandez is born in Cuba and at the age of 15 he escapes Cuba with his mother and his sister and many others, all packed in a very small boat. And during the difficult village he is awakened to the sound of someone yelling. That someone has fallen overboard.
And Jose, 15 years old, doesn’t hesitate. He dives into the choppy water to save whoever it is. And it’s only when he drags this person back onto the boat does he realize he has saved his own mother. Wow.
Jose Fernandez grows up, he’s a hell of an athlete. He goes on to pitch. Major League baseball pitcher. And he’s really good. In fact, he is the National League Rookie of the Year. And he’s an All Star. His future isn’t just bright, it is glorious. Jose Fernandez is living the American dream and I don’t know how much you know about baseball but ace pitchers they get paid hundreds of millions of dollars.
But at the age of 24 Jose Fernandez dies. He doesn’t die from illness. He doesn’t die from violence. He dies in an accident. But not a car accident. He dies in a boating accident. A boating accident. Now, do you feel that? Do you feel more than you would if I had said he died of a blood clot? Well, why? I mean, death is death. Why does this detail of the boating accident make you feel more?
Because it’s terribly ironic. Because this is a guy who saved his own mother from water and then he dies in water. It implies that there’s a strange kind of order to the universe even when that order hurts. And this is where we start to pull irony out of drama. This is essential to your choices when you decide how you’re going to push back against your hero. How you’re going to hammer them back. How you’re going to punish them.
Think about that Pixar Short, Lava. And I talk about Pixar all the time because it’s just pure storytelling and they’re really, really good at it. So he thinks he’s alone. He’s a volcano in the ocean. He thinks he’s alone. And then he discovers he’s not alone. But when he discovers that he also discovers that she’s facing the wrong way and she can’t see him. And he doesn’t know how to sing anymore. So she doesn’t even know he’s there. Oh, that’s terrible. It’s unexpected. It’s contradictory. And it’s ironic. And that’s exactly what you want to do.
So, consider the irony that’s involved with Marlin. Marlin is worried that he has lost his son. Every parent who loses a child, even for an instant in a mall, is scared. But that’s not enough. Let’s talk about what the people at Pixar understood they needed to do to this character from the very start to punish him so that his journey would be that much more impressive. It’s not enough to say, look, you love your kid, your kid is lost, you’ve got to go find your kid. Everybody loves their kid, right?
OK. But they go a step further. They say, you know what, there’s no mom in the picture. Mom died. It’s just you. You’re a single dad. You’re the only parent. You’ve got to find your kid. No, that’s not enough. How about this? How about your wife and all of your other children were eaten in front of you because you couldn’t protect them? And the only kid you had left out of all of that, the only memory you have of your wife and your happy life before is one tiny egg. One kid.
And that is still not enough. And this is why Pixar is so amazing. Because they knew that the further they went the more we would feel at the end. It’s not enough that he only has one kid. When he looks at that little egg he can see that the one kid that’s left is disabled. He has a bad fin. Now it’s enough. Now you have created the perfect circumstance for that individual, you cruel, cruel god of story.
Now I know why he’s so panicked that that kid is somewhere out there in the ocean. When you’re designing your obstacles and your lessons and the glimpses of the other way and the rewards and the punishments and the beating back and the pushing forward, keep thinking ironically. Keep thinking about surprises that twist the knife. Don’t just stab your characters. Twist the knife in them. If someone has to face a fear make it overwhelming to them. Don’t disappoint them. Punish them.
Make your characters lower their defenses by convincing them that everything is going to be OK and then punch them right in the face, metaphorically.
So, sorry to tell you that as a writer you are not the New Testament god who turns water into wine. You are the Old Testament god who tortures Job because, I don’t know, it seems like fun. And when you’re wondering where to go in your story and what to do with your character ask this question: where is my hero on her quest between theme and anti-theme? Or I guess I should say between an anti-theme and theme. And what would be the meanest thing I could do to her right now? What would be the worst way to do the meanest thing right now? Then do it. And do it. And do it again until the hero is left without a belief at all.
So as the demands of the narrative begin to overwhelm the hero, the hero begins to realize that her limitations aren’t physical but thematic. Think about Marlin. I promised that I would never let anything happen to him. But then I suppose nothing ever would happen to him. That’s what Dory says. And Marlin knows she’s right. He knows that if all he does is basically lock his kid up to prevent anything bad from happening to his kid nothing good will happen to his kid. The kid won’t have a real life.
So, now what? Well, the answer is obvious, right? If you love someone let them go. And I’m sure that at that point in the movie if you ask Marlin that he would say, “I suppose that’s the thing that I’m supposed to believe.” But they can’t do it. Not yet. In fact, you’re going to want to have a situation where they have a chance to do it. And they fail at it in some important way because they don’t really accept the central dramatic argument you want for them. They just lost the belief in their original point of view. They’re trapped between rejection of the old and acceptance of the new. They are lost. Their old ways don’t work anymore. The new way seems impossible or insane.
Shrek doesn’t want his swamp back anymore. He wants love, but he is also not willing to do what is required to try and get it. He’s trapped. And this is why they call it the low point. It’s not random. It’s not the low point because the books say page 90 is the low point. It’s the low point because your character is lost and in a whole lot of trouble.
Their goal in the beginning, which was to go backwards to the beginning to achieve stasis, to re-achieve stasis, that goal is in shambles. Their anti-thematic belief, whatever it was that they clung to in the beginning of this story, it’s been exposed as a sham. And the enormity of the real goal that now faces them is impossibly daunting. They can’t yet accept the theme because it’s too scary. When your core values are gone and when you aren’t ready to replace them with new values, well, you might as well be dead. And this is why people go to movies.
So, granted, we love the lasers, we love the explosions, we love the ka-boom, and we love the sex, and we love the tears, but what we need from drama – and when I say drama I mean the drama of comedy and the drama of drama – what we need are these moments where we connect to another person’s sense of being lost. Because we have all been lost.
And that’s why the ending is going to work. Because without this there can be no catharsis. Catharsis comes from the Greek word for vomiting I’m pretty sure. So just think of a lot of your plot as shoving really bad food down the throat of your hero because that’s how you’re going to get to this catharsis.
Now, I want to say that these approaches don’t help you map out a second act. What these approaches do is help you develop your character as they move through a narrative. And that narrative is going to impact their relationship to theme. And when you finish that movement of this character interacting with story so that their relationship to the theme is changing from I don’t believe that to, OK, I don’t believe what I used to believe but I can’t believe that yet, suddenly you’ll be somewhere around the end of the second act.
And here is the big secret. John and I have said this many, many times. There are no acts. So you can’t really be scared of the second act. It doesn’t exist. It’s not some sort of weird wasteland you have to get through. It’s just part of one big piece. There’s one act. It’s called your story. And now we get to the third act, sorry, end of your one act. And this is the defining moment. Your character needs to face a defining moment. And this defining moment is their worst fear. It is their greatest challenge. This is the moment that will not only resolve the story that you’re telling but it will resolve the life of your character. This moment will bring them to a new stasis and balance. Remember synthesis, thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Here we are again.
But what are you going to do? You have to come up with this thing. This is the difference between what I’m saying to you now and what a lot of books say. Books will say, “Defining moment goes here.” And I’m saying, yeah, but how? What makes it so defining? You’re going to design a moment that is going to test your protagonist’s faith in the theme. They need to go through something where they have to prove that they believe this new theme. They have to prove it. It’s not enough to say, OK, I get it. What I used to think is wrong. There’s a new way that’s right. That’s not enough.
They have to prove it. And they have to prove it in a way where they literally embody the point of that idea with everything they have. But before you do that don’t you want to torture them one more time? Of course you do.
The relapse. A nice ironic relapse. You want to tempt them right before this big decision moment. Right before the defining moment. You want to hold that safety blanket up and say, “Go ahead. Go back to the beginning. You get it. The thing you wanted on page 15, I’m giving it to you. Don’t go forward. Don’t change. Go back.”
And what do they have to do? They have to reject that temptation. You design a machinery where they have to reject that temptation and then do something extraordinary – extraordinary – to embody the truth of the theme. And now you get acceptance through action. The hero acts in accordance with the theme. Specifically by doing so they prevail. They have to act.
So let’s go back to Marlin. It’s not enough for Marlin to say, “I get it now. I’ve heard the wise turtles. I’ve seen the way Dory is. I’ve learned my lesson. I’ve got to let you live.” That’s not enough. What Pixar does is create a perfect mechanism to tempt and then force action. Dory is captured. And Nemo says to Marlin, “I’m the only one who can go in there and save her.” And this is a great temptation. This is where Marlin has to reject the old way. We’re saying go ahead, you’ve got your kid, we’re giving him back to you. It’s all you wanted. On page 15 you just wanted your kid. Here he is. Get out.
But he has to act in accordance with the theme. So he rejects that and he says, “No. Go ahead, son. And try and save her.” And that simple decision is how he acts in accordance with theme. And it is terrifying. And now you get one last chance to punish him. Briefly. Go ahead. Let’s see Nemo coming out of that net and let’s think that he’s dead. And let Marlin hold him. And let Marlin remember what he was like when he was in that little egg. And let Marlin kind of be OK with it. Because that’s what it means to live in accordance with theme.
If you say, look, sometimes if you love someone you have to let them go, that’s one thing. Actually having to let them go is another thing. Letting them go and seeing them get hurt is yet another. That is the ultimate acceptance of that idea, isn’t it? And that’s what he sees.
But then, of course, faith in the theme rewards. And Nemo is alive.
So then you get this denouement. What is the denouement? Why is it there? It’s not there because we need to be slowly let down and back out in the movie theater lobby. It’s there because we need to see the new synthesis. You have successfully fired a billion antitheses against a billion theses and come up with one big, grand, lovely new synthesis. Please show it to me. So we now see that the after story life is in harmony with theme.
And here’s the deal with the first scene and the last scene of a movie. If you remove everything from the story except the introduction of your hero and the last scene of your hero there should really be only one fundamental difference. And here it is. The hero in the beginning acts in accordance with the anti-theme and the hero at the end acts in accordance with the theme.
Now, this should all help you create your character. When you’re creating character I want you to think of theme. I want you to imagine a character who embodies the anti-theme. You can be subtle about this. You probably should be. It generally works better if you are. And I want you to think of your story as a journey that guides this character from belief in the anti-theme to belief in theme. Remember you’re god – angry, angry god. You have created this test. That’s what your story is. In order to guide your character to a better way of living, but they have to make the choices.
Oh, if you’ve heard, “The worst character is a passive character,” that’s why. They have to make the choices or you’re making it for them. And then, well, it just doesn’t count, does it?
If you can write the story of your character as they grow from thinking this to the opposite of this, and guess what, you will never ask well what should happen next ever again. You’ll only ask how can I make the thing that I want to happen next better. That’s a whole other talk. Maybe I’ll do that one in like five years or something.
I hope that you found this interesting. It was kind of fun to do. I mean, I’m not going to do it frequently because it’s scary. I mean, John really does run this show. But I’m all here all alone. But I kind of liked a chance to at least talk to you directly about all this stuff and I hope that you got something out of it. If you did, great. And you can let us know.
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