We originally posted this blog on July 31, 2009, and Master Cats! have added new examples below the blog (in blue).
Here’s the problem you’re confronted with: Act Three isn’t gelling.
There doesn’t seem to be enough oomph in your big finish, and the hero doesn’t really seem to be learning a lesson — or applying it. That big, emotional uplift you’ve wanted to put in here at the end is missing. Looks like it’s time to roll up your sleeves and start re-working that finale, right?
But maybe the real problem lies back in Act One?
In a lot of scripts I’ve been reading lately, finding what’s wrong with the hero’s story starts with how we meet him, and what his problems are up front.
And most of the time, we haven’t given him enough problems to make the trip worthwhile, and the finale worthy of someone who’s come so far.
The fix is to take the hero “All the Way Back” — meaning to load him up with lots of problems, both individual and systemic.What’s stopping us many times is we are our hero! And we don’t like to look anything less than evolved. And like our hero, we don’t want to show ourselves to seem ignorant, or problem plagued, or deficient in any way.
But we must.
This is partly about showing a complete change, and an Opening Image and Final Image that are opposites. And the pros know how to make those hero arcs big. In the Oscar nominated screenplay for The Savages, we start Laura Linney off lost in her professional life, having a tacky affair, and under the thumb of her brother, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. By the end of that movie, Laura has a play she wrote being staged, has made peace with Phillip, and traded in her lover… for his dog.
But if the screenwriter hadn’t taken Laura “all the way back” to a point of desperation, and even humiliation, the finale would not be nearly as satisfying.
All we’re saying is, this is about the constant adjustment of the Alpha-Omega, the change a hero undergoes. And if you’re not feelin’ it at the end, maybe the end isn’t the problem.
p.s. Take a look at the review of Funny People by Dennis Willis in the San Francisco Examiner!
From Master Cat! Tom Reed:
I don’t think anyone working in film today understands this concept better, or applies it more vigorously, than James Cameron. He also happens to have written and directed the two top grossing films of all time, Avatar and Titanic.
Look at Jake Sully in Avatar: he’s a marine whose wounds have made him a paraplegic; his scientist brother, presumably his only family, has been murdered; we meet him coming out of cyrogenic sleep where he has spent the last five years on his way to a strange planet on a strange mission. He’s broken, body and soul, cynical, utterly alone. All he has is his grit, and, in classic Save the Cat! sympathy (which we hear in voice over), his idealistic ambition: “All I ever wanted in my sorry-ass life was a single thing worth fighting for.” He’s aching to be reborn for a good cause, and he will be (literally). All this happens inside the first five pages of the script and the first five minutes of the movie.
Rose Dewitt Bukatur, the protagonist of Titanic, at first seems to have everything a girl of her time could want: beauty, wealth, privilege, and a rich husband-to-be. But we soon discover she’s trapped in a loveless engagement, her family has nothing but debts, and she’s treated as an object and expected to behave according to the rules of Edwardian etiquette which prove more restrictive than the girdle she has to endure that nearly makes her faint. Her life seems so hopeless that she is actually driven to kill herself by jumping from the stern of the ship, though she’s saved by Jack Dawson and learns through him that life is precious and you must “make each day count.” This all happens a bit later in Titanic because of the framing story, but it’s still inside Act One, and Blake’s principal holds: you have to put the hero all the way back in order to bring them all the way forward.
From Jennifer Zhang:
“I know kung-fu.”
Not in Act One, he doesn’t!
The example of Neo from the Wachowskis’ The Matrix immediately springs to mind as a character whose journey and finale are made all the more bad-assier by his sorry state in Act One.
When we first meet Mr. Anderson, he appears not very different from most of us… in all of the most depressing ways. He works a desk job that he loathes, he’s disillusioned, and his dank and dimly-lit apartment leaves much to be desired.
But far more than most of us, he’s constantly vexed by the unshakeable notion that he’s trapped in a dream that he can’t wake from. And in this construct, it’s hard for him to find meaning in anything, because nothing in his life feels real.
And as it turns out, he’s right. He awakens to discover that his whole existence so far has been that of a battery – a living fuel cell, encased in a goo-filled pod for machines to sap energy out of. Things are actually worse than he could have imagined.
To be reborn, he needs a complete reboot – he needs to be unplugged, freed, reprogrammed, and reloaded before he’s going to transform into the spoon-bending, bullet-stopping, high-flying hero he’s destined to be.
And when he finally breaks all the rules of the Matrix and turns the unstoppable Agent Smith into Agent Smithereens, we’re able to look back on cubicle-bound Mr. Anderson and share in the triumph of what he’s become, and how his story has ended.
There were two other movies, but they don’t count.