Plunge Your Protagonist Into Crisis At The End of Act One

This crisis point will effectively ensnare your protagonist in a literal or figurative “trap” that compels him/her into action – and often quite reluctantly. Think of this active goal as “Plan A” – which needs to be an urgent, challenging quest.  And, the more difficult it is to accomplish this challenge, the better.  Ideally, Plan A will sustain the entire second act of the movie.

Ideally, Plan A motivates your protagonist’s need to regain control of his/her destiny and will be based upon necessity versus desire. 

When you’re in crisis, you must do something – or else.  Stakes are your protagonist’s consequences for inaction.  If Plan A is accomplished, he/she will gain or win.  If Plan A fails, then he/she has something of value to lose.  This +/- polarity is the source of dramatic heat.

In “Up in the Air,” Ryan Bingham’s (George Clooney) crisis point comes when he’s introduced to young, brash Natalie (Anna Kendrick) and the buzzword “Glocal.”  Natalie is an efficiency expert brought in by Ryan’s boss to streamline operations and keep the crew of corporate terminators grounded – so they can fire people remotely via the internet instead of flying all over the country.  Given that Ryan’s whole purpose in life is his nomadic, unencumbered lifestyle – and his desire to accumulate frequent flyer mileage and hotel loyalty points – Natalie is his worst nightmare. Feeling trapped in company policy, Ryan spends the bulk of the second act determined to protect his territory. He must sabotage Natalie’s new protocol in order to return to his comfort zone – up in the air. During the process of road testing the new program, Ryan succeeds at dismantling Natalie and sends her packing, but he also comes unmoored when he meets the beautiful traveling executive, Alex (Vera Farmiga) who is his perfect match in virtually every way.  Smart, sexy, funny, charming, impulsive – and married.  In the end, Ryan gets his corporate life back on track, but the void in his personal life has come to life, and where he goes next is a destination unknown.

The setup in act one is often a literal or metaphorical “trap.”

The trap is often a three-pronged process that breaks down like this:

Page 10: a trap is set by the antagonist or via a (seemingly positive) opportunity.

Page 17:  the hero steps into the trap.

Page 25:  the trap is sprung – via circumstances beyond the hero’s control.

In “The Dark Knight,” the inciting incident occurs when Batman visits Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) in the bank vault and discovers that the notorious Joker (Heath Ledger) is back in action stealing mob money (trap is set by Joker).  This compels Batman to prioritize his super-heroism and move in on all the mob banks at once.  Gordon asks what about the Joker? Batman says, “One man or the entire mob?  He [Joker] can wait.”  And wait he will.  But we know the Joker is baiting Batman into a trap that’s going to test the limits of Batman’s invincibility.  The mob can be leveraged because they’re greedy and power hungry; but Joker doesn’t care about money at all, and his only goal is to obliterate Gotham – which Joker deems as beyond salvation.  Joker offers the mobsters a deal; he will assassinate Batman for half of the mob’s money. Batman’s crisis point is Joker’s wrath.  All Joker is concerned with is to annihilate Batman.  But Batman is compelled not only to vanquish Joker, but also to protect the good citizens of Gotham.  Joker exploits Batman’s “handicap”: his heroism.  And the trap is sprung.

Failure is not an option. 

A strong crisis point forces protagonists to be proactive.  They must formulate a plan.  There is no going backward; either they’ve burned their own bridges back to normalcy or the bridges back have been erased by others.

In “The Hunger Games,” it’s clear that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) has no alternative to winning the game.  She’s put her life on the line to protect her little sister, and winning the game will also help save her family and her entire district.  Her crisis point is the start of the games.

In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the crisis point comes when protagonist Caesar is wrested away from his human “dad” Will (James Franco) and sent to live in an animal shelter. Now the formerly coddled Caesar must fend for himself – first, against the other apes in the shelter, and later against the sadistic human handler in charge of the shelter.

Excerpted from: The Screenwriter’s Roadmap by Neil Landau ©Taylor & Francis 2012

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