Act Three: The Second Up Angle
If we have done our jobs as screenwriters, by the end of act two we should be at the very bottom of the second down angle. Things were at their worst until our protagonist finally learned the lesson of their trials and saw the way forward. Now all that remains is to follow them up the steep slope of the second up angle to eventual success (an ‘up ending’) or failure (a ‘down ending’).
The revelation at the end of act two drives the protagonist into making a plan to achieve the resolution of her theme. Of course the opposing forces have not been idle and they will resist her every step of the way. That’s what makes third acts fun, so don’t stint on the resistance.
At the end you have a choice whether to have your protagonist succeed or not. Of course most mainstream movies end in success for their heroes or heroines. This is what is called in some circles the redemptive ending. Our heroine has redeemed her past failings and has restored a better world. Remember that you do have a choice here, but your choice as to how to resolve your story should come organically from the way you have written your protagonist and their theme.
A trap many young writers fall into is thinking that just by killing off their protagonist at the end they have somehow written a radical story. Yeah, you better blush and look away. I know who you are… This is almost always not the case. Unless their failure is in itself dramatically, thematically and emotionally satisfying we will ‘hear the typewriter’ behind the scenes and spot the twist for the empty and sophomoric gesture it probably is.
On the other hand, down endings can be incredibly effective when handled well. Historically, tragedies have their own internal logic in which an otherwise admirable and sympathetic protagonist has a tragic flaw which dooms them to an awful fate. This is loosely related to the concept of hamartia in Aristotle’s Poetics. In Shakespeare’s play, for example, Macbeth is doomed by his ambition: “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself, and falls on th’other.”
Of course one doesn’t have to write a Shakespearian tragedy to earn a down ending. Nevertheless, the link between character and fate we are shown in such classic stories offers an important lesson. In my book Write What You Don’t Know: An Accessible Manual for Screenwriters, I offer a long case study of Brick, a contemporary movie with a well worked down ending. In Brick the protagonist, Brendan solves the mystery of his ex girlfriend’s murder. However he ends up badly damaged as a person both physically and emotionally. The story punishes Brendan for his failings as a man, even as it allows him to succeed as a detective.
We’ve mentioned this before, but whether your protagonist succeeds or fails, the story world we are left with at the end of the movie has changed. Perhaps for the better, maybe for the worse but it can’t be the same as it was at the beginning or your story had no effect. In objective terms, the story world of Brick is restored at the end of the movie. In subjective terms, it is broken. At the end of the final story angle you might need to give us some time – maybe only a few moments, maybe a scene or two – to observe and reflect upon this change.
At the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two, for example, we are given a short epilogue set years in the future. We see many of the surviving characters on Platform 9 and ¾ of Kings Cross Station, putting their children on the train to Hogwarts. The world has healed after the death of Voldemort, we are being told, our wizarding friends are happy and life goes on. Now we can feel safe in leaving them to their destinies. At least until Ms. Rowling decides to write another book…
Act Two: The Second Down Angle
Whether your midpoint has redirected your protagonist’s wants or just forced them to finally take the plunge and give their all to get where they need to be, the rest of the second act should be an accelerating slide downhill through crisis. They have not yet been seriously tested. They may think they have, but a narrow escape from a trash compactor will look like a walk in the park when your Jedi mentor just died at the hands of Darth Vader.
We have already talked about the shift from avoidance to commitment as the watchwords for our protagonists at the fulcrum of act two. I won’t repeat myself here other than to remind you of the importance of this change. It signals that our protagonist is getting serious about becoming a… hero or heroine.
This is the angle where their commitment to the cause against all obstacles and all the odds makes your hero or heroine worthy of that appellation. Another way of thinking about it is this is the angle where their experiences finally force them to see themselves (their internal problem) for what they are. It will strip them bare emotionally and give them nowhere to hide from the truth. Only by doing so, Hollywood storytelling would have it, will they be able to see past themselves and understand the bigger picture. When they do this they will see their way to resolving their problem in the final act and angle.
Of course proving your heroism in a story might be about learning to have the courage to become an activist, or start a new career in middle age, or come out of the closet, or commit to your boyfriend, or reconcile with your mother, or stand up to your bullying dad, or finally walk out on a toxic marriage. It does not have to involve swords and guns and dodging dragons or laser blasts. Unless your mother is actually a killbot in disguise of course. Hey, it’s commoner than you might think.
In mainstream movies the second down angle is probably the most loosely structured of the four that make up your screenplay. Even in Hollywood movies the order in which things happen in the second down angle is not ‘set in stone’ and that’s a good thing for writers. On the other hand that doesn’t mean it’s easy to write.
The angle is actually quite a straightforward set of accelerating and intensifying beats. Enemies or bad situations pile on top of one another until there’s nowhere for your protagonist to hide, literally or emotionally. That simplicity enables a whole lot of raising of the stakes. Writing that intensification as satisfying drama rather than empty hyperbole is where the difficulty comes in.
As we have already established, midpoints are vital story moments after which nothing can be the same again. They are not the solution to your protagonist’s story problem. They are not the moments of revelation which finally allow that protagonist to see their way towards solving that problem. No, midpoints are the moments where your protagonist makes a commitment that – should she survive the crisis that is about to engulf her – will allow her to reach those goals.
This is a classic Hollywood story move. The first up angle is usually about one or both of the following: either it is all about slapping the pretense out of the protagonist to prepare them for a real commitment or it gives them what they began by wanting only to find that they no longer do. They get the easy thing only to find they want the hard thing that was hiding underneath it the whole time.
I’m in the middle of writing a big case study of How to Train Your Dragon for an upcoming project, so its example is fresh in my mind. In that movie we get both options together:
1. Our hero, Hiccup wins dragon training, which theoretically puts him right back on track with his want line – ahead of the game in fact. He gets what he always wanted. Only now it has become an empty victory. He won’t kill a dragon so not only is the reward bitter, it takes him even further away from his thematic goal of fitting in with his fellow Vikings.
2. Through his second angle successes Hiccup has learned that the Vikings are wrong to hate and fear dragons. That gives him a moral obligation to try and change things. But what can one kid do against an entire culture and centuries of tradition? It would take a much deeper commitment to his theme, indeed a more altruistic – for which read heroic – commitment. Now his own need for acceptance has been eclipsed by the greater need of a whole species.
I hope you guys see how wonderfully neat this is. It is an intractable problem for Hiccup and one that is really worthy of a hero. In screenwriting, ‘neat’ may imply ‘simple’ but should never mean ‘simplistic’.
At the midpoint in How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup has decided to leave the village rather than be forced to kill a dragon in public. As he is leaving he and his friendly dragon are discovered in the forest by Astrid – his B Story ‘love’ object. She runs to tell the village and Hiccup has to decide is he really running away from everything, including any chance of getting close to Astrid, or is he going to try and do the hard thing? Cut to Astrid running through the forest, she is grabbed by a dragon – it’s Hiccup and he wants to show her the truth. He didn’t run, he jumped. Nothing will be the same again, buy maybe he has it in him to be a hero yet.
Welcome to the midpoint. Everything is going to get much harder in the next angle and that will be the subject of the next post.
Act Two: The First Up Angle
As you can see from the diagram this angle shows a positive move up to the midpoint. Our protagonist is making progress here but they are working on their opening skill set and will not be fully tested until after their second commitment at the midpoint. This angle is about showing their potential while making things hard enough that they will reach a point of impasse.
Remember that the watchword of this angle is avoidance. Your protagonist decided to try and solve their story problem at the end of act one, but they have not yet fully accepted the personal weight of that decision. Typically, in a Hollywood movie they are skating by on their natural abilities and not giving their all yet. Alternatively they are working hard enough but avoiding facing up to the hardest part of the challenge they face.
This angle is about paying the audience back for coming to see the movie. It is where you do the storytelling work you promised in your trailers and ads. This is where we have fun with the concept that sold the movie in the first place. It’s where Reece Witherspoon goes from being merely blonde to Legally Blonde. It’s where Hiccup actually does learn to train his dragon. For those of you who know his book, this is what Blake Snyder called ‘the promise of the premise’.
You need to get your protagonist to a moment of realization at the end of the angle. That’s when they have done as much as they can to resolve their problem without getting their hands too dirty. They will then end all the avoidance with a second commitment and that will be the watchword of the second down angle (of which more in a future post). It’s either that or give up, so that makes your story and plot goals for this angle clear. You must get your protagonist to a point where the audience sees the essential nature of their choice.
Making the second commitment at the midpoint is what begins to transform a simple protagonist into a real hero or heroine. We should understand the nature of that commitment and applaud their courage in making it. We will discuss the midpoint commitment in more detail in the next post.
Second acts are about character change and they come in two parts.
The tone of the first up angle is usually relatively positive as it charts the protagonist doing the best she can to address her problem without making a major, irreversible commitment to the resolution of her story. For all its progress, therefore, in terms of character and story the up angle to the midpoint is actually all about avoidance.
In the ‘W’, the midpoint is the fulcrum of the whole story. It is the moment after which nothing will or can be the same again. That’s because the pressures of the previous angle have pushed our protagonist to the point where she can’t just skate by on her initial skillset anymore. Something happens which forces a second decision, a second commitment. The midpoint is where your protagonist jumps.
After the midpoint you need to arrange your story world such that your protagonist can’t climb back to where she was before she jumped. She can only try and move forward towards a resolution. Think of the second half of the act like diving into a fast flowing river. Events and revelations ‘flow’ down this angle faster and faster towards and then through crisis, while your protagonist tries desperately to keep her head above water. Without a total commitment – emotional, physical, moral, intellectual, spiritual, whatever is appropriate to the story – she will metaphorically sink and drown. So where the first half of the act was about avoidance, the second down angle of the ‘W’ is all about commitment. Your job as a writer is to design and deliver the plot and story mechanisms to enable that move in your protagonist.
As a shorthand rule, in mainstream movies the move from avoidance through commitment in the second act takes the protagonist from being (kind of) willing but completely unable to resolve their story to being determined and potentially capable of doing so. Their experiences in the act have changed them. At the very least, in the case of your basic square jawed lunk of an action hero, the act has helped them to develop new skills, allies and information without which the pesky aliens, terrorists, drug pushers or zombies would win the day. At the end of act two they should still face a harder struggle than they can possibly imagine – otherwise there’s not much point in having an act three. Even so, we should be able to see a chink of light at the end of the tunnel.
In the next post we’ll focus on the first half of the act, what I call the first up angle…
[NOTE: This is the first of a series of posts offering a quick introduction to the 'W' model of screenplay structure I offer in my little book. (The posts are not extracts from the book however.) You can find the beat sheets and diagrams here. The 'W' is one of three linked models we talk about in the book. You will see that it owes debts to a number of other common models, both published and implicit in screenwriting circles. Full acknowledgment of this is made in the book, so I won't repeat myself here. (The purpose is to distill, adapt and contextualize familiar approaches in a particular way for teaching purposes.) To start us off here are a few notes about the way first acts tend to work in many mainstream - and a lot of not so mainstream - movies.]
ACT ONE / First Down Angle
The first act and angle of a typical screenplay is all about your protagonist recognizing two linked truths. The first is that there is a problem either in herself, or in her world or, ideally in both that needs addressing or bad things will happen (or continue to happen). The second is that they are the poor sap that is going to have to do something about it. It is a down angle because these revelations signal an immediate future filled with nothing but trouble and right now trouble feels like a major downer.
In a well-written screen story, the problem the protagonist faces will manifest in both the story and the plot. At the very least the revelation of a problem in one will inform and affect a linked problem in the other:
Plot problems are external to the protagonist but still affect her directly in some way. Forces in the world may threaten her or those she cares about, for example.
Story problems are internal but also manifest practically in the world. A character flaw or challenge is good story material when it affects not only the protagonist but also those around her.
In How to Train Your Dragon for example, poor old Hiccup (the movie’s not very Vikingy protagonist) realizes that he can’t kill dragons. This is a bit of a problem in a world in which dragon killing is the very definition of cultural achievement. This plot problem arises from an internal story problem. Hiccup finds he thinks differently from his fellows. For a start he has empathy for the enemy. That revelation threatens his relationship with his community and thus his future hopes for any kind of happiness and success. The first angle of How to Train Your Dragon is all about helping both Hiccup and the audience to recognize the enormity of that problem and preparing Hiccup to get off his skinny behind and do something about it.
Bruce is a dinosaur in a world where ‘ooh look… your wife’s a mammal!’ See his problem
In my ‘W’ model we break the angles down into ever-smaller elements to help us understand how they work. As a first stage, we split each angle into two half angles.
In the first act, each half angle deals with one of the two truths we began with.
The first, Primary Exposition, is all about recognizing your protagonist’s opening problem. The second, From Rejection to Acceptance, deepens our understanding of their problem through witnessing their initial struggle to decide what to do about it.
In order to observe how each of these tasks is achieved in more detail, we can make a further split in each half angle. (This same pattern of halving and halving again will be repeated for all four angles of the story by the way.) In this way, the first half angle is comprised of two beats. The first: in a world where ‘ooh look, stuff’ introduces us to the story world and sets the protagonist and their problem within it. The second beat: if only… sets up their desire for change.
We do the same thing with the second half angle, which divides into its own two beats. Shan’t… reflects initial resistance to dealing with the problem – change is hard! Oh, all right then brings us to the end of the act and angle as the protagonist recognizes they have to do something and takes a first step onto the path of change.