No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Four-Act Theory of Everything

I need a roadmap.  I'm not disciplined enough to stick to a simple, clean through-line when I'm storycrafting.  I need an unflappable navigation system to steer me true north.  So over the years I've refined a master mindmap charting the gotta-haves and put-it-heres.

Storytelling is structure.  Screenwriting is structure.  There's your secret to success.  If you sucked in a breath just now and narrowed your eyes and formed the word "but..." in your mind, you are wrong.  But you can be cured.  Zen with me now: screenwriting is structure.  Take your medicine.  Fight that burning fever driving you to start writing with no outline.  Without even a logline!  Drink deep and drink again and feel the pain and anguish lift and drift away.  You were lost but you are found.  Screenwriting is structure.

Dan Harmon is our gen-X Joseph Campbell.  I mean that in a good way — not that it could be construed in a bad way.  Nobody distills monomyth four-act writing like Dan.  Also, nobody makes John Goodman cool again like Dan.

Only when I stumbled across the School of Dan Harmon* did everything click — really click.  That guy knows.  It's scary at first how totally he gets it.  Thankfully, Dan's wisdom lies scattered throughout the interwebs.  You should go find all those little pockets of storytelling treasure (hint: alongside Dan's name google "channel 101" and "").  Also read this.

Dan's insight helped me understand and organize my years of story structure notes — an ongoing process, one I expect to end only when I do.

Here's the birdseye of My Precious...

* Not an actual school, but let's lobby for one.

The Harmonious One

This concern with external beauty that you reproach me for is a method for me. When I discover a disagreeable assonance or a repetition in one of my sentences, I can be sure that I'm floundering around in something false. By dint of searching, I find the right expression, which was the only one all along, and at the same time the harmonious one. The word is never lacking when one is in possession of the idea.

--Gustave Flaubert, March 1876

That in response to criticism at taking a whole day to produce a single sentence.

Like he says, the idea's in no hurry.  Dress it up, dress it down, keep going until you find the right look.  When you see it you'll know.  Then shove that sentence out the door and dress the next one.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Old Man and the Scene: Cat in the Rain

It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain.
Let's scriptify Hemmingway.
Beach - Day
RAIN. Dripping from the palm trees. Water stands in pools on the gravel paths. The sea breaks in a long line in the rain and slips back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain.
Hell yes. Subject, verb (five strong ones), object. At least three distinct, vivid shots suggested. Look at the lengthening sentences. There's your shot pacing. And a final sentence that unfolds exactly like the action it describes.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"What Fuels Story" -- The Comment They Couldn't Stop

So apparently Blogger only allows 4,096 characters in a comment on a post.  Fair enough.  "Nobody will ever need more than 4K for a comment" shall not thwart the ravings of a story guy.  Here's my comment to Go Into The Story's "What Fuels Story" article.  Any comments, please add them to the Go Into The Story article instead of here.  Thanks.

@James -- You can have Wants/Needs (goals).  You can know what the obstacles are in your way.  You can have Wounds that fuel those Wants/Needs.

I *want* to pass the grueling selection process and be one of the admired few to make it into the city's elite firefighter special unit: the Vapor Squad.
I *need* to save people's lives.  Snatch them from the jaws of certain fiery death.  I need this because at the age of eight I watched my six-year-old sister soak herself in petrol and set herself alight.  I didn't know what to do to save her.  My parents say I'm not to blame, but we share moments of silence that speak otherwise. 
Right now I work a day job at an accounting firm.  I'm living with my pregnant girlfriend Gloria and there are bills to pay.  Although she doesn't press the subject, she wants to marry me.  On my bad days I wonder why.  Sure, I make money, I socialize with our family and friends, I treat her well, we make love, we laugh, we cry, we have a life.  But more and more I sense things in the silences between us... those same silences I get from my parents.  Gloria wants me to be who I need to be.  That's what's written in those silences.  I know I'm letting her down.  I need to stop doing that.  That's the day I'll marry her.  On our wedding day I'll be the man she knew I could be.  I try to visit the gym to shape up, but most nights I come home tired and it's easier to sink into a chair and chase away the flashbacks with a quarter bottle of scotch.
I'm going to get started.  Soon.  Hit that goddamn gym like a machine.  Burn the weight.  Clear my head.  Hit the books.  Be ready for next year's Vapor Squad try-outs. But for now...

You can have all those things simultaneously.  You have them today.  You had them yesterday.  A week, a month, ten years -- they've been there for some time, and so far you've never been compelled sufficiently hard to follow through.

What changed today to force you (the protag) to act on those goals after you successfully put off doing anything about it for so long?  What changed today (in our first act) that made it impossible to sit idle another day, hour, second?

Today's a Saturday so I went to the pub to bitch about life with my usual group of probie wannabes.  Those guys have as much chance as me of passing the entrance test.  Sweet F-A.  Yet all of us talk like we're *this close* to getting serious, *this close* to committing 110% to the challenge.  We know we're talking crap, but nobody calls anyone on it.  That's the unwritten rule.
I get there and the usual smiles and backslapping is gone.  It's all grim faces and huddled whispers.  Most Saturday nights a couple of the boys from Vapor Squad -- real firefighting heroes -- drop by to share a beer and talk about their week.  It's the real reason us wannabes get together.  We wallow in the real firefighter stories of near misses, strange situations, and heroic deeds.   We listen to the Vapor Squad guys, we joke around, we nod our heads and drink our beers.  Then we go home to our meaningless lives and dream we're the ones telling the stories.
Anyway, so it's like somebody died in there, and I'm not wrong.  I hear that Eric -- a Vapor Squad guy and a regular at our Saturday night booze-ups -- is back at the firehouse, planted on the bumper of Truck 17, crying like a lost child.  That got my attention.  I've never seen Eric anything but dopey happy or crazy energized like a baboon in a nunnery.  What's going on? I ask.  Eric's crew just got back from a call, I'm told.  Six-car collision in the tunnel joining I-23 and I-30.  Mangled metal and body parts mashed to gravy for 200 feet.  The Vapor Squad arrives, Eric spots one of the crumpled sedans, stops dead in his tracks.  His eyes flick to the registration plate.  Scorched and buckled as it is he still recognises it.  His wife's car.
Now, Eric is a special bro to me.  I've always had the feeling he sees something in me.  Something he doesn't see in the other wannabes.  Something I can't see in myself most days.  That maybe I've got what it takes, deep down, to earn a place by his side in Vapor Squad one day, battling blazes and saving souls.
So I hightail it for the firehouse.  Push my way through the crowd of cops and firefighters... and a chaplain.  They're all keeping a distance.  Eric's where I was told he'd be, sitting on that bumper, rocking back and forth like a metronome.  Little gasps and echoing sobs pricking the silence.  I didn't realize I was standing in front of him until he looked up at me through those wet red eyes.  He wasn't rocking now.  His hopeless gaze held mine.  You can imagine the look.  All I'll say is, for one scary moment I was right there with him, dropping like a doomed planet into that bottomless black hole of despair.
My hand went to his shoulder before I could think what to do -- speak to him or hug him or just... just be.  Then he was on his feet, and he was hugging me, his body jolting with a thousand tiny spasms.  Every muscle in his body contributed to those heaving sobs.  His wife was dead.  He loved her more than anything.  This morning he woke up by her side, went to work, and by the end of the day there was nothing left to go home to.
Gloria was alive.  In that moment I knew I loved her more than anything, even if I was stupidly guilty as the next guy of not showing it enough.  Some days not showing it at all.
What had I done to earn a place by Eric's side at this darkest moment, embraced like a brother?  Surely that belonged to one of his Vapor Squad buddies.  I was nothing to him.  An occasional drinking buddy and, probably, object of pity.  A coulda-been-if-only.  If only.
That's not true, of course.  Not at all.  Eric never looked at me as an object of pity.  During those loud nights of beer and teasing he would shoot me these long, amused looks, as if to say, Kid, one of these days you're gonna grow up, but I can wait.
And it hit me: that's what Gloria's been doing this whole time.  Biding her time.  Forever hinting in her cute but annoying way that I should stop being content with being content.  Patient as a saint, she was waiting for me to grow up.
When Eric released me from that desperate hug, I did.
I went home.  Without saying a word I gave Gloria the longest kiss she's ever had, guaranteed.  I think she liked it.  She looked kinda stunned.  That was nice.  I got a calendar and marked off the date of the next Vapor Squad intake.  Three months from now.  Gloria watched from the bedroom door -- eyebrows arched, almost smiling, her thumb and forefinger gently twining and untwining a braid of her hair the way she does when she watches a foreign movie with no subtitles -- as I surfed the web, jotted down information about firefighter training, mapped out a schedule, packed my gym clothes in a bag, and organized the SHIT out of my life.
I wasn't sure how Gloria would react when I told her I planned to married her the day after I get accepted into Vapor Squad.  I didn't say if.  Ifs and me had abruptly parted ways that day.  I suppose me and Gloria would also part ways if I didn't make good on this grand promise.  This was definitely a 'bet the farm' kinda deal.  If I let Gloria down this time...
At first she was worried.  I can't blame her for doubting. She searched my eyes for the old me and saw him gone.  I don't think she quite trusted the new resident.  This guy was focused.  Determined.  But she was finally happy.  I could tell.  Because that night she screwed the bejesus out of him.  

Something earth shaking happened today.  Something that took away all your options for doing nothing.

What happened today is the stakes suddenly grew critical, and the immediate pain required to achieve your goals is now less that the approaching pain of what will happen if you continue to do nothing.

In other words, you (the protag) now have something critical at stake.  And with those stakes comes a ticking clock.

That's where the story begins.  And that's why I think 'stakes' deserves its own place in that 'What fuels story' diagram.  :-)

Monday, May 02, 2011

Michael Arndt Sprinkles Some Pixar Storycrafting Magic

Michael Arndt

Stephen Hoover took notes at the Austin Film Festival when Michael Arndt spoke about cooking up Toy Story 3.  This is manna from story heaven -- not a new recipe for most structuralists out there, I expect, but tasty nonetheless.  Reading once isn't enough.  Rest, digest, then return for seconds.  Thank you, Stephen, and thank you, Michael.

  • The First Ten Pages
    • Establish the protagonist’s expectations for the future. What exactly are they expecting? It doesn’t have to be super positive, but it’s their realistic take on where they are headed.
    • Establish the interactions/relationships between the characters. What is their life in its normal state.
    • The expectations should be concrete with specific details. E.g. TOY STORY 3 (TS3) – Toys expect they will be put in the attic. Not a great expectation for the future but that’s what they think. Clear specific examples – Christmas stuff is up there, won’t be so bad. Central philosophical viewpoint of protagonist Woody: Love is being there for Andy. Love is staying.
  • The Inciting Incident
    • A game changer. Destroys these expectations. Shocking when the expectations not met. Disrupts plans for the future. Changes sense of self. Changes sense of world.
    • TS: Woody expects things to go on as is and ... here comes Buzz. Woody is cast aside and lands under the bed. This is great because: 1) unforeseen by Woody, 2) visceral (gut wrenching to see Woody under bed cast aside), 3) action set piece illustrates it (Army men move out), 4) represents Woody’s darkest fear.
    • TS2: Woody expects to go off to Cowboy Camp with Andy but his arm rips and he’s left behind.
    • TS3: A dual inciting incident: 1) Woody is going to college – better than he expected, 2) other toys are put out as trash – worst possible outcome for them. Action set piece: Garbage truck coming to get the toys – worst fear.
    • So an ideal inciting incident is:
      1. Unforeseen
      2. Visceral
      3. Action set piece – an enactment of the character’s worst fears
    • Other Inciting Incidents:
      • Mr. Incredible is happy being a superhero and expects to continue. His plans for the future are shattered when he’s sued out of ‘business.’
      • TOOTSIE. “No one will hire you.” Can’t continue as he has been in the past.
      • STAR WARS. Family killed. Can’t go back to that.
    • The Inciting Incident spins story in new direction and protagonist must come up with new plan.
      • TS3: Woody will rescue the other toys.
      • STAR WARS: Go to Aalderon.
  • First Act Break
    • Page 25.
    • TS3: Toys arrive at Sunyside. Hero should be active. His decision drives it. Woody leaves friends behind – got to get to Andy. Circumstances change – quest begins. Rooting interest.
    • Finding Nemo: Dad has to find Nemo. Sets up the second act goal – specific and defined – to achieve global goal. Seems easy but thwarted at midpoint.
    • STAR WARS: Get the R2 unit to the Rebel base. Specific goal. Global goal: defeat the Empire.
  • Midpoint
    • Deepen the stakes.
    • Change direction.
    • Six Story Threads in TS3:
      1. Andy going off to college – does want the toys (Mrs. Potatohead sees this.)
      2. Toys – want to go home. That’s their new goal.
      3. Lotso – bad guy but we don’t know this until midpoint (MP).
      4. Buzz – deluded guard at MP
      5. Barbie and Ken – romantic subplot; she breaks up with him at MP
      6. Woody learns Lotso’s backstory (he was dumped by the girl as she grew up).
      • All of these REVERSALS happen simultaneously. No treading water. 3 minutes of screen time.
  • Second Act Break
    • “Out of frying pan into the fire.”
    • Forces the stakes of the story.
    • Succeed in 2nd act goal BUT major setback in global goal.
      • STAR WARS: Get R2 to the Rebel Base but was part of Darth’s plan and now the Death Star has located them.
      • LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE: Register Olive in the contest on time (2nd act goal) BUT they see she’s way out of her league.
    • Stakes – win or lose – force them.
      • TS3: Stakes for Woody at 2nd act break:
        • external – fate of toys
        • internal – does Andy still care?
        • Philosophical stakes – is child/toy love real?
        • In the original version, Woody wins the argument with Lotso. This was changed to Woody losing the argument/being in doubt. Big setbacks in all 3 sets of stakes. No way out of crisis. Philosophical stakes between your protagonist/antagonist. Lotso’s being together = love. Kids grow up, discard toys. Therefore, there’s no real love between kids and toys. It’s an illusion and Woody is an idiot for believing it.
    • In some sense, the protagonist struggles because he on some level agrees with the premise of the antagonist.
      • SPIDER-MAN: Goblin tells Spider-man they are alike. Do all this for the regular people and they end up resenting and hunting you down.
  • Climax
    • Epiphany for hero.
    • Hero’s sense of world changes.
    • Philosophical climax of story. Philosophical success leads to external and internal success.
    • Must resonate and be universal.
      • TS3: Epiphany for Woody. World view of love. Love = being there for Andy. Lotso was tossed aside (like Jesse in TS2) – universal that kids grow up; never really loved me.
    • Push the stakes.
      • IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: “You’re worth more dead than alive.” George Baily agrees with Mr. Potter. He has the view of wealth = financial success. Travel the world; trips to Europe.
    • The villain POV appears irrefutable. The protagonist struggles because he agrees with it to some extent.
    • Epiphany is the philosophical climax.
      • TS3: Woody sees Andy with his mother. MOM: I wish I could always be with you. ANDY: You will be, Mom.
    • Villain POV is accurate but it’s shallow and petty – hollow version of the truth.
    • New truth the protagonist realizes is deeper and a more poetic understanding of the world.
      • UP: “Adventure is out there.” Narrow/literal definition. Protagonist believes he had to go out and explore. End he reads the book where his deceased wife tells him she did have a great adventure – their lives together.
    • Redefines these ideals.
    • Storyteller’s role is to change audience’s perspective on life and to find these deeper truths and live a fuller life.

UPDATE: More about Toy Story 3 from Bob Hilgenberg and Rob Muir who worked on an earlier draft.
"Some people have asked about the ending of our TS3 script. That's a pretty complicated question if you haven't been able to read the entire script. BUT, here's a quick thumbnail version of what we did and how the toys fared in our version."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Four Act Story Structure Model

Archiving. It's still available at, all but gone from the web otherwise.

Field calls it the "pinch".  Vogler calls it the "second major
threshold".  What they both refer to is the middle of the
traditional second act of the three-act structure.

For God's sake, gentlemen, LET'S CALL A SPADE A SPADE!  It's been
there all along, yet no story structuralist wants to go against the
grain and say that the middle act is in fact TWO ACTS (point C on the

What's the problem with acknowledging that the traditional three-act
structure has in fact been a four-act structure all along?  It's not
going to shake the foundations of Hollywood.  But it might help
screenwriters fix stories that sag between pages 30 and 90 (in the
120-page paradigm).

            REALM 1  .  .  .  . A .  .  .  .  REALM 4
            .                 * | *                 .
            .               *   |   *               .
            .             *     |     *             .
            .           *       |       *           .
            .         *         |         *         .
            .       *           |           *       .
            .     *             |             *     .
            .   *               |               *   .
            . *          ACT 1  |  ACT 4          * .
       p.30 B-------------------|-------------------D p.90
            . *          ACT 2  |  ACT 3          * .
            .   *               |               *   .
            .     *             |             *     .
            .       *           |           *       .
            .         *         |         *         .
            .           *       |       *           .
            .             *     |     *             .
            .               *   |   *               .
            .                 * | *                 .
            REALM 2  .  .  .  . C .  .  .  .  REALM 3


        REALM 1         The hero's Ordinary World.  This is the realm
                        That the hero knows -- he knows the terrain
                        and how to live in it.  But here is just your
                        average Joe Public, although he displays hero

        REALM 2         The Netherworld.  This is the realm the novice
                        hero must pass through to reach the Kingdom of
                        Evil.  This territory is unknown, frightening
                        and wonderful.  Here, the hero is swept along
                        on an inexorable tide that leads to ...

        REALM 3         The Kingdom of Evil.  Here the forces of evil
                        are the masters.  This is their home turf,
                        where they are strongest.  The hero is gonna
                        have to be very clever to avoid capture.

        REALM 4         Back to the Netherworld.  Only now the hero
                        knows the rules and expectations of this
                        realm.  He'll need this knowledge to help him
                        evade the pursuit by the Bad Guys.


      - Each act is the reflection of it's opposite.  Realm 1 is the
        opposite of Realm 3, just as Realm 2 is the flipside of Realm
        4.  Where in Act One the hero feels relatively safe, secure,
        and in control, in Act Three he faces mortal danger,
        uncertainty, discomfort, etc.

      - In Act Four, the flight, the helpers of Act Two reverse to
        become hinderers (revealed to be agents of evil all along),
        the hinderers of Act Two reverse to become helpers
        (swapping sides to join the forces of good).

      - The development of the hero shows a similar opposition between
        Act 1 & 3 and Act 2 & 4.  In Act One the hero is a powerless
        orphan; in Act Three he has become a powerful warrior.  In Act
        Two he is a wanderer in the Netherworld, acting on his
        own behalf and being pulled or lead toward the domain of evil;
        by Act Four the hero has become a Martyr working for society,
        leading the way instead of following.

There is *nothing wrong* with working in four acts instead of three.
You still work with a beginning, middle, and end.  You still work with
ascending levels of conflict and crises.  It will only make your story
stronger by clarifying the middle of your story.

My two cents.

Got change for a dime?  ;-)

Andrew Ferguson.

A response from P. Michael McCulley:
If it works for you, your writing and screenplays, go for it. I've often
felt reading other scripts the middle of Act Two was a critical point in
the story; getting from page 30 to page 90 is agony without page 60, to
my way of thinking, so I try another mini-story in 30-60 and another
mini-story in 60-90 --call them B-story and C-story perhaps.
I enjoyed the graph, and explication on Realms and Acts. Well done.

A response from Pepper-n-Christina:
Welcome to the club!  You're not alone on this one. In fact,
when I was teaching the screenwriters class in Texas, I told
the students there that I was a firm believer in mythic four
act structure as I call it.  They kind of looked at me like
WHAT?  Now there's four of them?
Vogler even divides them into four acts himself. I don't
think he goes into it in JOURNEY but in his class he
flat out told us he looks at them in four acts.  I was
happy to see someone else thought the way I did.
He told us exactly what I told my students that day. Us
writers will just have to keep that little ditty to ourselves.
I can hardly get producers and development people to understand
three act structure. Throwing another one in would just
devestate them. :-)