I was watching one of my favorite movies, Terribly Happy, when a major development in the very limited understanding of story happened in my brain.
I highly suggest you check out the trailer. I describe it to friends as “what Hot Fuzz would be like if the Coen Brothers had made it.” Coincidentally, it’s on Hulu right now.
I think I always look for a break into the 2nd Act to be some sort of external change that happens TO a character. In Terribly Happy, the life-changing action happened before the movie started.
For the first act, we have learned HOW a character is, but not WHY. Then, at 34 minutes, we learn that our protagonist Hansen has pulled a gun on his estranged wife. We have seen hints at some past damage– he has a photograph of his daughter, he repeatedly calls his ex-wife– but we don’t know the backstory until this point. We know some trauma has deeply affected him, and now we see it.
This is a fantastic roll-out of information. This is great structure. The inciting incident has already occurred, but the audience is just catching up to the characters. Our revelation was not in Hansen’s world or even in his mind. It was what the audience knew about Hansen that he had known all along.
And, just like we should expect from a break into the second act, Hansen makes a new choice.
It was at this point in the movie that I was reminded of “Beginnings - Setting a Story in Motion” by Michael Arndt, the screenwriter of Toy Story 3.
Hansen will be asked the same question he was asked in the first act (should he punish a juvenile shoplifter with corporal punishment, as the locals suggest, or should he abide by the law, as his nature as the local law enforcement requires?), but now he will make the opposite choice he has made before.
He will make the FUN choice.
He will make the WRONG choice.
And we WANT him to do it.
Story comes from the character’s desires and fears.
First we show the Character doing what they LOVE*
Then we show the Character’s “Grand Flaw”
The flaw comes from taking their love too far
Then we warn about conflict to come
Then the world radically changes
Their LOVE* is taken from them
Their expectations about the future are taken from them
And, to add insult to injury, the world seems fundamentally unfair
Now the Character has two roads:
If they make the right choice, then we have no story
But we want them to make the unhealthy choice, because it is what they LOVE*