Well, I wasn’t physically assaulted on the last day of the semester at Film School. But I sure felt like a punching bag, pitching my story to a teacher who was shaking his head and saying “No. No. No”.
At the National Film School of Denmark they teach the three act structure, as a rule. There are many examples of films that break the rule, even good ones. But the three acts are like a conversation. You always start with “Hello”, never “Goodbye”. People would think you were crazy.
The three acts (beginning, middle, end) can be split into 8 sequences, each 12-15 minutes in length. Acts 1 and 3 are two sequences long, act 2 is four. The sequences are labeled and described as follows:
Sequence 1: Presentation
Who, what, where, why. We are introduced to the genre, the world and our protagonist, the mood is set. There is a scene that creates sympathy for the protagonist. We see them act in a competent way or be subjected to injustice. We should start the sequence with something interesting, something that makes the audience look up from their popcorn. And the sequence ends with the point of attack, where we first learn of the conflict the movie is going to be all about.
Sequence 2: Big Opportunity or Big Problem
Something comes crashing into our protagonist’s life, changing whatever plans he had for himself. What looks like a gift is really a disaster, and vice versa. In Jaws, the shark is a disaster turned gift, because it turns the protagonist into a hero in the end, and helps him deal with his fears. The opportunity/problem comes in the shape of plot point 1, also referred to as the first turning point. The sequence ends, like most scenes and scenes, with a plan. The protagonist knows what to do, and is either afraid or looking forward. We understand the consequences of the turning point. The we break into act 2, beginning with:
Sequence 3: The Easy Way
Entering a new world in act 2, our protagonist still falls back on what usually works. He stays within the law, he tries to get help from the police or his friends. He fails, and by the end of this sequence, we know that the problem is bigger than first anticipated. And most likely, the problem got bigger from our hero trying to solve it!
Sequence 4: The Hard Way
OK, that didn’t work. Guess I’ll have to deal with this s##t myself. Will it work? No, then the movie would be over. We’ve only just reached the middle or the point of no return (PoNR). Now there is no going home. Where the first half of the movie dealt with the conflict in a professional manner, now it must become personal.
Sequence 5: Sequence of Love or The Cat’s Out of the Bag
If our hero was hurt in the PoNR, now would be a good time for nursing and recouperating before the final battle. Either that or at least now you know what you’re up against, what is going on. In Alien, they are searching the spaceship for the small creature that erupted from John Hurt’s chest – in the 5th sequence, they know it has turned into this huge monster.
Sequence 6: All Is Lost or Top of the World
This is where you set up the ending. If it’s a happy ending, at this point it looks like all is lost. If it’s a tragedy, everything looks to be going just great. Plot point 2 or the second turning point occurs here.
Oftentimes the quest now looks impossible, it’s over, we’re dead. But in the complete disaster lies also the key to the resoultion. The second turning point should be like an explosion, catapulting the story in to act 3.
Sequence 7: False Resolution
It could end here. It doesn’t. In Seven, the killer walks in to the police station, turning himself in (the second turning point). It could end with them all driving into the desert to find the last two bodies. But the show is by no means over.
Sequence 8: Resolution
The resolution should be a reversal of the false resolution. The protagonist must use what he has learned during the story arch in order to succeed. And when he’s done that, he must say whatever it is he has been unable to say before the point of attack. It doesn’t have to be an “I love you”, it can be symbolic or more subtle. In Heat, McCauley reaches out his hand to Vincent Hanna in the end. Had he been able to do that in the beginning, no movie!
I tried applying the 8 sequences to my story, and I thought I had it nailed. Not quite. I didn’t agree with every bit of input I got from our teacher, but my presentation sequence was definetely clunky. Specifically I was told never to introduce a protagonist in a static scene, and never in a crowd. “Suppose someone else in that crowd is more interesting than your hero?”
Today I rearranged my beginning, setting up my story and presentation in a much stronger fashion. I’m sure it will be changed many times over, but right now, I’m feeling pretty good about it.
Thanks to Lars Detlefsen for shaking his head and for sharing his insights on storytelling. It is much appreciated.