The PROBLEM of THE Problem
Dramatic stories are about solving a Problem, but it's easy to get this wrong.
- FIRST ACT should set up the Problem that faces the Protagonist
- SECOND ACT should Complicate the problem, make decisions/action more difficult
- THIRD ACT should be where the Protagonist makes a Decision that leads to the action required to solve/resolve the problem
And this requires the Protagonist to experience: Or...
- an intellectual climax wherein she decides what must be done
- an emotional climax wherein something impels her to finally take the difficult action
- which usually leads to an action climax (no sex jokes, please) wherein she actually does what needs to be done
- What must the Protagonist DO to resolve the Problem?
- What decision does he make?
- What drives it?
- And what action does he take?
The problem with most fanfilm scripts is that the characters are REACTIVE and not ACTIVE. They are not propelling the story by making decisions; they are reacting to the complication of the moment. That’s passive, not active.
In my script, the Problem was set up in the right place, but the Protagonist made a Decision about what to do to resolve it almost right away. The Second Act Complications ended up being complications of the implementation of that Decision rather than complications of the actual Problem. This is what I’m calling a “False Complication” as it appears
to do what the Second Act Requires without actually doing it.
If the Protagonist isn’t forced to make a difficult Decision at the cusp of the Third Act the end result is dramatically inert.
If the Decision was made 30 pages ago, all we’re witnessing is a procedural on how the decision was implemented.
In other words, we’re not on an emotional journey with rising stakes and rising tension, we’re just watching the Protagonist dodging roadblocks.
Does that make sense? I can see this could get confusing.
A lot of scripts—even ones that get on TV and into movies—fall prey to this “False Complication” situation. It’s not inherently “wrong”, but neither is it as dramatically satisfying. You want the audience to be on a journey with your Protagonist, and feel their struggles and the difficulty of the decisions they have to make.
* * *
So, to solve The PROBLEM of THE Problem
in my script, I went back to fundamentals and decided that the Problem absolutely had to be something that required a very difficult Decision on the Protagonist’s part, a Decision he shouldn’t eagerly undertake, and which had serious possible repercussions for himself.
As a model I went back to some Westerns, including Clint Eastwood’s film Unforgiven
, but as I write this I realize that for the purposes of this forum, there’s a perfect example for this within Star Trek. In fact, it’s the pilot that sold the show: Where No Man Has Gone Before.
Let's look at that episode through the lens of what I've described above:
1. FIRST ACT should set up the Problem that faces the Protagonist
Kirk takes a risk and the Enterprise is so seriously damaged that it might never get home2. SECOND ACT should complicate the problem, make decisions/action more difficult
Kirk’s good friend Mitchell begins to mutate into something increasingly more powerful. As the story progresses, the act of saving the ship becomes more and more imperiled by Mitchell’s growing powers. Kirk is faced with the possibility that saving the ship may require killing his friend, or at least marooning him on a planet where he hopefully won’t be a threat3. THIRD ACT should be where the Protagonist makes a decision that leads to the action required to solve/resolve the problem. As in:
- The Protagonist must experience an intellectual climax
Kirk comes to realize Mitchell's changes endanger his ship, ergo Mitchell must be marooned
- an emotional climax wherein something impels action
Mitchell kills a colleague and escapes, which finally drives Kirk to decide to take the action he has avoided, which is…
Kirk goes after Mitchell in order to kill him or at least delay him long enough for the ship to escape. He's willing to sacrifice his own life to this, knowing that he's responsible for Mitchell, and won't assign anyone else with the task to kill his friend
- The Protagonist must be active, not reactive
It’s Kirk’s decision to risk going through the energy barrier that sets up the whole problem, and then he must take decisive action to save the ship. His initial decision sets up everything else that happens. He’s paying a price for the decision he made. Had the skip just been hit by a phenomenon without his deciding to take a risk the dramatic tension would be greatly diminished.
You see? The Problem of the safety of the ship can only be solved by the sacrifice of something else, and the Protagonist must make a terrible decision backed up by action on a seemingly impossible-to-achieve goal.