How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem

How to Structure a Story Around a Big Problem: The Archive

It’s interesting to see how much this all changed on its way into the book:


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How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 14: Climax and Epilogue

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • This one goes all the way back to Aristotle.  Every story has an end (even if it’s only temporary).
What Human Nature Dictate:
  • In real life, every project (whether it’s a relationship, or a confrontation, or a criminal enterprise) ultimately fails or succeeds, but fiction heightens and compresses these moments, creating something far more definitive and impactful than real-life climaxes, which, let’s face it, are often underwhelming.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Most heroes win, some heroes lose, some lose by winning (Downhill Racer) and some win by losing (Spider-Man, who sacrifices love for higher responsibilities), but in each case the story climaxes and the hero has a catharsis.
  • One reason that many first-time writers insist on writing unhappy endings is that it’s a lot easier to write a story in which the hero fails.  But whether your heroes win or lose, they must see their problem through to its climax.  An unhappy ending is only tragic when the hero loses at the last possible moment (Rick getting the girl and then having to give her away in Casablanca, Michael losing the last bit of his soul when he closes that door in The Godfather, Jack losing his life after saving the girl in Titanic)
Other Examples of Climaxes and Epilogues:
  • Hero defeats villain in most thriller and action movies.
  • Boy gets girl (and vice versa) in most romances. (And also, for that matter, in most action movies, except Spider-Man)
  • The discontented heroes of Sullivan’s Travels and Rushmore(in addition to getting the girl) mature and find more inner peace.
  • The surviving heroes of The Great Escape get dragged back to prison, content in the knowledge that they’ve caused a huge distraction.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Audiences hate movies that don’t climax, but you can use that tool to force them to think. Mutiny on Bounty, like the true story on which it’s based, denies its antagonists a final showdown, forcing the audience to decide for ourselves who’s right.  Limbo does a similar trick when it ends right before the climax.
  • In the case of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Blazing Saddles, the lack of proper finales are an FU to convention.
  • Killer of Sheep, Funny Ha Ha, and Old Joy are all independent films that end on quiet moments that provide little catharsis, and all three movies are excellent, but it’s notable that all three were self-financed by the filmmakers.
And that’s it!  
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How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 13: The Timeline is Unexpectedly Moved Up

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • I have never seen any other storytelling guru mention this essential step.  It took me years to figure it out, but as soon as I did, I noticed that it happens all the time.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • We always begin a huge project with proposed end in sight, but we rarely finish unless there’s an externally-imposed deadline to kick us in the ass.  And surprise: that’s when we do our best work.  Self-motivation peters out at the worst possible times, but impending doom sharpens the mind.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • This moment is necessary to resolve a paradox: the audience wants the hero to be smart and proactive at this point, but it’s still inherently unsympathetic for a hero to fight the final battle “at a time of our choosing” (as George W. Bush would say).  To resolve this paradox, the heroes should be preparing for a final confrontation, but then those plans should be ruined when the antagonist unexpectedly moves up the timeline.
Examples of Timelines Getting Unexpectedly Moved Up:
  • Most famously, George Lucas realized in the Star Wars editing room that the ending wasn’t exciting enough if they simply used the plans to attack the Death Star on their own schedule, so he re-cut and re-dubbed the scene in post to make it appear that the Death Star unexpectedly attacked them first.
  • Joel in Risky Business finds out his parents are coming home early.
  • The heroes of Rear Window and Blue Velvet find that the objects of their voyeurism are coming over to pay them a visit.
  • Clarice in Silence of the Lambs finds herself accidentally dropping in on Buffalo Bill without back-up.
  • …And Goldfingerliterally moves up the ticking clock on his nuclear bomb!
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • This step gets skipped more often than some of the others (it was skipped in about a quarter of the movies I looked at) and that’s fine.  It’s good to knock the hero off balance one last time, but sometimes the story already has enough momentum, or you have a setting like the Jury Room in 12 Angry Men where, by design, there’s no ticking clock.
  • In some rare cases, it’s more powerful to not only skip this step but to do the opposite.  In movies like Bringing Up Babyand The Apartment, the chaos ends early, and the hero finally gets what he wanted…but does he really want it?  Only when he’s no longer being dragged along by events can he really decide…
Next: The Finale!
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How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 12: Proactive Pursuit of the True Goal

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • This is universally-accepted advice and for good reason.  The number one mistake first time writers make is to have an overly-passive protagonist.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • Any recovering addict will tell you that once you stop sabotaging yourself, you still have a long, long way to go to get your life back on track.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Everybody hates a lucky man.  The solution shouldn’t land in the hero’s lap, and it shouldn’t be within easy grasp.  Even at this late point in the story, once the hero has a corrected philosophy, there should still be a long way to go and a short time to get there.
  • This the latest possible moment for the hero to turn proactive: it’s also fine for the hero to become totally proactive starting at step five, or any point in between.
Examples of Proactive Pursuit of the True Goal:
  • Mike in Swingersfinally goes out and meets a new girl.
  • Cady in Mean Girls begins to make amends and joins the mathletes.
  • Clarice in Silence of the Lambs decides that the answer must be back in Ohio…
  • Tired of sneaking around, Steve McQueen steals a motor cycle and peels out in The Great Escape
  • Spider-Man and Iron Man stop reacting and go on the hunt for the bad guy. 
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • This is usually considered the one unbreakable rule of fiction, but there are rare exceptions: the heroes of Bridesmaids and Witness remain reactive until the end, and the hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark suddenly becomes passive in the third act.
  • The first cut of The Terminator included a much bigger proactive turn, but it was cut out in the editing room in order to speed the movie up, and that storyline became the basis for Terminator 2.  In this case, the movie was so exciting that the audience didn’t care.
  • In very rare cases, it can be heroic not to go on the offensive: the dad in Kramer Vs. Kramer could re-double his efforts when he loses his custody case, but he decides that would be too hard on his son. When his wife relents, it feels like he earned it by not fighting. 
Next: The Timeline is Unexpectedly Moved Up
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How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 11: The Spiritual Crisis

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • What’s marks the transition from the middle to the end, or from “Act Two” to “Act Three”?  Why is the hero now ready to solve the problem the right way?  Most storytelling gurus are vague on this point.  Joseph Campbell focuses on the “special weapon” and/or “elixir” found in the cave, but more often than not, that should read metaphorically…
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • …because the real secret weapon is self-knowledge.
  • The easy way tends to end in a disaster and loss of safe space, but trying again the hard way is no guarantee of success.  In fact, it often leads to yet another failure.  The difference is that, this time, our eyes are wide open, and we can see why we failed.  Now, we have to face the factor within ourselves that’s causing these failures.
  • On a Freudian Journey (a change arc) the spiritual crisis is the point where heroes realize they need to change.  On a Jungian journey (an individuation arc), this is the point where heroes realize that they have to be true to themselves.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • This is the usually the point at which the hero replaces his or her false goal with a true goal, and his or her false philosophy with a corrected philosophy.
Examples of Spiritual Crises:
  • The couple realizes that divorce just isn’t fun anymore in The Awful Truth.
  • The couple decide that they’ll probably split up in Raising Arizona.
  • After admitting he’s not Italian, Dave in Breaking Away visits his father’s quarry and admits he’s not really a stone cutter either.
  • Andy in 40 Year Old Virgin freaks out about selling off his action figures.
  • The heroes of Blue Velvet and Donnie Brasco realize how far they’ve fallen when they each hit a woman.
  • The heroes of Alienand The Fugitive realize that they’ve been betrayed by the people and institutions they believed in.
  • The Spiritual Crisis is quite literal in Witness when the cop and his Amish crush finally kiss.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Perpetual exception James Bond has no spiritual crisis in Goldfinger, but it’s notable that he does force Pussy Galore into a crisis of conscience at this point in the story.  This is similar to many TV shows, where the main character can’t change much, so he or she frequently helps the guest star go through a change arc.
  • In some rare cases, heroes have the spiritual crisis early: Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragonhas his in the first act, and Sheriff Brody in Jaws has his at the midpoint where he gets slapped…
  • …even more rarely, they have one late: like Taylor in Planet of the Apes who doesn’t abandon his hubris until that famous last shot.
Next: Proactive Pursuit of the True Goal...
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How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 10: The Hero Tries the Hard Way

Conventional Wisdom:
  • It can be tempting to regard the entire third quarter as a string of betrayals, reversals, and assaults, but it’s important to remember that this is all happening now for a good reason: the hero is finally tackling the problem head on.
What Human Nature Says:
  • As with cleaning your home, tackling the problem means that things have to get worse before they can get better.
  • Trying the hard way should not be instantly-rewarding, and shouldn’t lead to any better results than the easy way, at first. The advantage of trying the hard way is that it forces us to lose our illusions and leads us to a spiritual crisis, and that crisis becomes the secret of our success.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • This is the section where the hero finds out who his or her real friends and enemies are.
  • The easiest way to drop a huge reversal on your hero is to reveal that all of his or her seeming success was actually all a part of the villain’s plan, but this is never a good idea.  This inevitably creates huge plot holes, and makes the hero seem way too stupid and predictable.  Instead, reversals should come about because of the hero’s blind spots and hubris.
  • It’s tempting to overmotivate the hero in this section.  Beware of the tendency to prop up a flagging story by tacking on an additional motivation, such as revealing that the villain also killed the hero’s family years ago.  If you want to strengthen your hero’s motivation, then simplify it instead of multiplying it.
Examples of Trying the Hard Way:
  • After pretending to be poor in the first half of Sullivan’s Travels, our hero finds out the hard reality.
  • Max in Rushmore learns to struggle through public school.
  • The prince in The King’s Speech finally agrees to talk about the troubled childhood that caused his stutter.
  • The heroes of Fatal Attraction and Silence of the Lambseach admit that they lied their way through the first half of the movie.
  • The heroes of Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, on the other hand, keep lying, but now they have to face the mounting consequences of those lies.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • If heroes don’t try the hard way, they get horribly depressed, as in Swingers and Bridesmaids.  This is hard to make interesting, but it can be done.
  • Avoid the urge to simply have a deus ex machinaswoop in and bail out the heroes at this point, as in Superbad, where the cops show up and solve a lot of their problems.
Next: The Spiritual Crisis...
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How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 9: The Midpoint Disaster

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • When Aristotle refers to “beginning, middle, end” or Syd Field refers to “Act 1, Act 2, Act 3”, they place too much emphasis on the two “act breaks” (the ¼ point and the ¾ point) but the midpoint is frequently the most stark dividing line in a story.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • In real life, we will stick with the easy way, stay in our safe space, cling to sheltering relationships, and refuse to examine our own motives for as long as possible.  It takes a huge hubris-fueled failure, in which we lose that safe space, to force us to try the hard way, and consider the possibility we’re our own worst enemies.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Don’t go easy on your hero.  Worse is usually better.
  • Beware of the false midpoint disaster.  On “Mission: Impossible”, at the first act break, the whole mission would seemto fall apart, but when they returned from break it would turn out that “getting caught” was actually part of the plan.  But the network imposed a smart rule upon the writers: at the second act break (aka the midpoint) the plan had to genuinely fall apart, and the team had to improvise.  At this point your hero should throw away the map.
Examples of Midpoint Disasters:
  • Often the loss of safe space is literal: Max is expelled in Rushmore, Rick’s bar is trashed by the Nazis in Casablana, Bruce’s house is burnt down in Batman Begins, Tony’s house is blown up in Iron Man 3.
  • Sometimes it’s figurative: Sheriff Brody gets slapped in Jaws, Michael gets slapped in Tootsie.
  • Some movies prefer to pile on multiple midpoint disasters.  Bridesmaids has several huge disasters in a row, as the heroine loses her job, her apartment, her crush, her lover, her car, and her best friend.
  • Likewise, Raiders of the Lost Ark has two.  First Marion seems to die in the bazaar chase, then a few scenes later Indy gets some good news and some bad news: Marion’s still alive, but he’s lost the ark and been sealed into a tomb of snakes with her.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • In tragedies like American Beauty, we get the opposite: the midpoint peak, at which point the hero starts heading for a fall.
  • Even non-tragedies like How to Train Your Dragon can sometimes do something similar.  Hiccup gets everything he’s ever wanted at the midpoint, and it doesn’t fall apart until the ¾ point.
Next: The Hero Tries the Hard Way...
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    How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 8: The Promise of the Premise is Fulfilled

    The Conventional Wisdom:
    • This phrase was coined by guru Blake Snyder and it’s since become Hollywood gospel, and with good reason.
    What Human Nature Dictates:
    • This step is dictated less by human nature and more by the demands of the market. Nevertheless, we are more likely to tackle a huge challenge if we think we might have some fun doing it.  Of course, we only have fun when we’re doing it the easy way, and we’re not going to make real progress until we stop having fun and get to work.
    What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
    • This section tends to provide the big trailer moments and the poster image.  This is where the hero does the thing we’ve come to see him or her do, and has fun doing it, right before the disaster hits and things get serious…
    • In this one area, there’s a huge difference between horror and almost every other genre.  Some gurus call this step “Fun and Games” and that’s true for every genre except horror, where our heroes have no fun at all in this section.  Nevertheless, the audience has fun, because we experience the creeping dread that sends a tingle up our spine.  In most genres, we totally identify with the hero’s ups and downs, but in horror, we identify only partially, because we also want to see the heroes punished for their sins.
    • You can’t be in too much of a hurry to get to the promise of the premise.  The Negotiator is about a hostage negotiator who gets framed for a crime and winds up taking hostages himself.  That’s a great premise, but they rush into it way too quickly: as soon as he gets framed, taking hostages is his first step, rather than a last resort, which is unbelievable and unsympathetic.  In this case, they should have taken their time, as in the exceptions listed below…
    Examples of The Promise of the Premise:
    • Picture the posters: the couple and their baby sunbathe together in Raising Arizona, the lovers have steamy sex in Body Heat
    • Think of the trailer: the Falcon jumps into lightspeed in Star Wars, the therapist and the prince practice rapid nonsense sounds in The King’s Speech
    • It’s not just in horror movies, such as The Shining and Alien, that we’re having more fun than the heroes are, it’s also true of some especially tense thrillers: the big trailer moment in The Fugitive happens when he leaps into the artificial waterfall to save his life.  Presumably, that’s a lot for fun to watch that it is to do.
    Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
    • Some movies require more set-up than others, and that’s okay.  In Safety Last, it takes an extraordinary series of screw-ups to force our hero to do the unthinkable: climb the side of the building without a net.  The audience doesn’t mind: we appreciate that the hero exhausts all other option first, and we enjoy the mounting dread as we see his other option disappear.
    • Likewise, in disaster movies such as Unstoppable, it often takes the entire first half just to move the pieces into place.  In this case, our heroes don’t start chasing the train until more than halfway through.  The action-packed second half makes up for it. 
    Next: The Midpoint Disaster...
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    How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 7: The Hero Tries to Solve the Problem the Easy Way

    The Conventional Wisdom:
    • This section is totally glossed over by most structure gurus, many of whom fail to differentiate the two halves of “Act Two”
    What Human Nature Dictates:
    • Even when we’ve accepted that we have to solve a large problem, and even after we’ve run into unexpected conflict, we are absolutely hard-wired to try the easy way first, and stick to it until it ends in disaster.
    • The easy way can take many different forms, but what they all have in common is an insistence on treating the problem as an external obstacle, rather than an internal dilemma.
    What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
    • Audiences quickly get bored with a story in which the hero has five tasks to complete, and then dutifully knocks them out one by one until arriving at the end of the story.  The hero should be trying and expecting to solve the whole problem in almost every scene.  The second quarter and third quarter should usually consist of two different attempts to solve the same problem, not two halves of one problem.
    Examples of Trying the Easy Way:
    • Some heroes spend this section juggling different lies, assuming that the targets of their lies will never compare notes, such as in Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and How to Train Your Dragon.
    • Some heroes spend this time escaping from the danger, without realizing that they’ll eventually have to face it head on, such as in Witness, Die Hard, and Unstoppable.
    • Some use this time to unsuccessfully seek allies, such as in High Noon.
    • Others devote this time to overly-optimistic plotting, such as in Double Indemnity, The Producers and Body Heat.
    Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
    • In rare cases, the easy way and hard way can occur in the opposite order.  In 28 Days Later, our heroes spend the 2ndquarter facing the zombies head on, and then spend the 3rd quarter in the false-security of the soldiers’ compound.
    Next: The Midpoint Disaster...
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      How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 6: Committing Creates Unexpected Conflict

      The Conventional Wisdom:
      • The concept of the “inciting incident” often implies that the hero is fully aware of the scope of the problem before he or she commits, but that’s not the best choice, for various reasons…
      What Human Nature Dictates:
      • As any filmmaker considering a second film will tell you, it’s much easier to commit to a big undertaking if you don’t know what you’re getting into.  Just because you know an opportunity is intimidating, doesn’t mean that you’ve comprehended what how much trouble you’ll be in once you dive in.
      What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
      • You might assume that it would be more sympathetic to have a circumspect hero who sees all the angles of the situation ahead of time, but usually the opposite is true: audiences prefer heroes with a limited perspective.  Given how bad things are going to get, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone who would put themselves and their loved ones into that much risk intentionally.
      • Almost always, the unexpected conflict should come from an actual person, as opposed to the weather, or a physical obstruction or a faceless bureaucracy.  Sheriff Brody isn’t opposed by “the town”, he’s opposed by the mayor.
      • This is a dangerous moment where the story can lose its momentum.  You’ve finally arranged all the pieces on the playing board, so it’s tempting to take it easy for a few pages, but you need to wallop the hero right away to keep the reader from putting down your manuscript.
      Other Examples of Unexpected Conflict:
      • Jean Arthur finds that accepting a mink makes everyone assume she’s a mistress in Easy Living
      • The couple in The Awful Truth have just one problem with their divorce: who gets the dog?
      • The hero of Speed has accepted the danger of leaping on the bomb-rigged bus, but he doesn’t know that a wanted passenger will freak out and accidentally shoot the driver, instantly making the whole task a lot tougher.
      • This is also a great moment for the hero to realize that the villain is a lot smarter than anybody thought, such as in Goldfinger, The French Connection, and Silence of the Lambs
      Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
      • Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a surprisingly conflict-free second quarter, becoming more of a smart, quiet, anthropological story.  It more than makes up for it in the apocalyptic second half.
      Next: The Easy Way...
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