How to Cure Writer's Block with Active Structure (Part 1)
How to Cure Writer's Block with Active Structure (Part 1)
Welcome back, dear readers of Stage 32! By now, most of you know me pretty well. Because I’m eager to dig into the meat and matter of this article, I’m going to skip the part where I try to sell you on myself as an authority in the field of film development. If anyone needs a breakdown on my achievements and status within the industry, there’s a little bio at the bottom of the article which nobody ever reads.
In her wisdom and foresight, Taylor the Stage 32 Content Queen had me write up that little block of text and paste it there, just for you. Check it out! What’s more, please thank her in the comments. Nobody will ever know how much Taylor C. Baker does on a daily basis to support the dreams and goals of the people here on Stage 32… so yes. Please do thank her.
What I can tell you, right up front, is that I’m paying rent in a West Hollywood apartment and shopping at Whole Foods on the money I make by giving my script doctor clients the very same advice I’m about to give you for free. Good enough? I think so. Let’s dig in.
In my article on “WHY I PASSED ON THAT SCREENPLAY,” I talk about how cinema is a language of action. If you haven’t read that article, please be sure to do so because we’re going to be using it as a jumping off point. Action is the essential unit, the building block, of an actor’s performance - and yes, this is why we call them actors. Everything from the tone of the story, to the themes, to the emotions captured in the performances, comes from what the actors are doing.
From the structural turning points to the last line of dialogue, active characters define the plot through their efforts to accomplish a goal that’s urgent, personal, and overwhelmingly challenging. Passive characters are defined by the plot, and by their reactions to the things happening to them. Passive characters feel wooden and flat, inevitably, because passive writing creates a story that actors need to “sell” to the audience.
Selling things by playing an emotion or a tone... isn’t actually acting at all. Acting is about playing an action, and not necessarily an emotion. Literally, technically, playing an emotion is what models do. “Give me melancholy. Give me wistful.” Passive writing is advertising, structurally speaking. Of course the audience feels like we’re selling something!
Letting our characters define themselves by what they are doing, and specifically by the details of how they are doing it, gives the audience something to watch. When we step away from that, and we define our characters by passive means, then things have to happen to move the story forward. When “things start happening,” the audience stops watching. They start waiting for the next thing to happen.
Our most important job, as screenwriters, is to make sure the audience is never waiting for something to happen. Our actors, all of them, need to be actively trying to accomplish something with every moment they have on screen. We’re not here to tell our story, and the actors aren’t here to sell it. We’re here to empower the actors to drive the story forward for themselves, and for the audience. Anytime we falter in that responsibility, the audience starts waiting for something to happen and their connection with the actor is broken.
If we don’t trust that the tone, the themes, the emotionality, the necessary bits of backstory, and anything else that might be important will flow naturally from the efforts our characters are making to achieve their goals, and from our efforts to render that action with as much specificity as possible, then we wind up writing a scene that pushes that information at the audience. We pull the actor from their action, just to sell something to the audience that our egos are refusing to let go of. By letting this happen, we break the movie.
Action is literally everything. We don’t need to put anything else in front of the camera, apart from the action of the story. Effective screenwriting means placing our faith in the action of the story, and in the actors.
So, a story is about what our protagonist is doing to see their mission through, and how it conflicts with what the other characters in the story are doing to achieve their own respective goals. Our screenplay is a tapestry of actions, but we’re really just following the action of the protagonist. Writing this screenplay is a simple matter of knowing what our protagonist is trying to achieve, and then knowing the things a person needs to do to achieve that thing. Literally, that’s the plot of the story. Once we’ve got that, we just need to make sure the other characters are pursuing missions that in some way compromise the goals of the protagonist, and that they’re doing it with enough commitment to destroy any hope of success our protagonist might be harboring.
If we don’t know what to write, then one of two things is going on there. More often than not, we’ve fallen into passive writing habits and we’re trying to figure out “what happens next.” Rather than try to find an event that moves the plot forward, we need to just let the protagonist do whatever it is they need to do to achieve their mission. Alternatively, we may not know how the protagonist - or anyone, really - would go about achieving the thing the protagonist needs to do.
If the problem is that you don’t know how the action of your story works, then your problem is research-oriented. Go look up how people do the things your movie is about. Go find out what problems people typically run into. Most screenwriters love research. Go do it.
If your problem is that you’ve been writing for years as a novelist, a journalist, a comic book writer, or what-have-you, and you just can’t stop writing in terms of observation and theme…
…then the solution lies in breaking down the three-act structure in terms of the actions your character is taking. Instead of thinking of the story’s arc as something that happens to your character, we’ll take the central action of the story - your logline - and we’ll break it down into the actions that define each act of your character’s effort to succeed in their mission.
Your arc isn’t some catharsis you inflict on your characters, by dumping experience or trauma on their head until it finally starts changing their perspective. Instead, an arc is a thing our characters do to themselves. When the story begins, our character is completely unprepared for the mission they’ve undertaken. They’re not capable of success. Our arc is the way in which our character forces themselves to grow, evolve, and sacrifice in order to become the person who can finish what they started.
The three act structure is a roadmap for how that arc plays out. Plenty of screenwriting books like to talk about shifts in paradigm… and respectfully, that’s a load of crap. To succeed in the mission, our protagonist will have to change their perspective in radical ways. Those are the act breaks, it’s going to be the protagonist’s own efforts to succeed that lead them to these moments of reckoning.
One quarter of the way through the movie, at the end of Act I, our protagonist comes to understand - through their efforts - the full scope and challenge of their mission. Three quarters of the way through the movie, at the end of Act II, our protagonist discovers that all their efforts up to that point were unsustainable. All their plans come crashing down, like the stock market on a bad Tuesday. Whatever assumptions they were making were garbage, it turns out. Now, in Act III, it’s time to take what they’ve learned, accept what they’ve lost, and build a new approach to the mission that’s based on what’s actual and real.
Getting through the writing process without getting lost is a simple question of taking that big action that the movie is about, and then breaking it down into smaller and smaller actions until finally we’re writing lines of dialogue and action beats that reflect the characters efforts to achieve all the steps necessary to their larger goal. Looking at the overall action through a microscope, we slowly, slowly increase the magnification of our lens so we never lose our focus or our place. To begin with, we need a logline. We need to know what the action of the protagonist actually is.
Think simple. Think literally. “Lucas takes over the government.” Doris invents interstellar space travel.” Ok? Once we have that, we need to break that action down into acts:
On page one, what is your character doing to get their mission started? Get into the action, and do it right away. Please, don’t talk to me about inciting incidents.
Ok. Yes. I know that “Save the Cat” says you need an inciting incident. I know that Blake Snyder is the single most successful spec screenwriter that ever lived… but he got that way by writing Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot, and basically nothing else. Without imposing any disrespect on the cast and crew of that fine contribution to Hollywood history, I think we can all agree that better screenplays have been written over the last century of cultural advancement. Consequently, I ask you to consider the possibility that Blake Snyder may not be the sole authority, or even the foremost authority, on what makes a screenplay excellent.
“Watch what happens to the comments,” he whispered with an air of mischief.
Lose the inciting incident. Let your character be actively pursuing their mission from the first frame of the film. Trust the action of the story to communicate what that mission is, and why it’s necessary.
What is that action? What’s the first thing your character needs to do to actually set their mission in motion? Whatever that thing is, write it down.
This happens one quarter of the way through the script, and it marks the beginning of Act II. Your character has finished pulling together whatever tools and resources their mission demands of them, and now they’re engaging the conflict head-on. Suddenly, it’s all real. Somehow, they didn’t think it would be this hard… but that’s ok. They’re “in it to win it.” After all, this is what they’ve been preparing for.
What is the thing your character does, in the pursuit of their mission, that opens the floodgates of conflict? What do they do that finally exposes them to the risks they’re taking? Whatever that thing is, write it down.
This happens one quarter of the way through Act II, ⅜ of the way through the script. Something your character is doing, or something one of the supporting characters is doing, has a profound impact on how the mission works. Maybe someone uncovers (or creates) a problem that nobody anticipated. Maybe someone has a breakthrough. Write it down.
This happens halfway through the film. Your character has reached a point in their mission where their actions are putting them in the center of the conflict. By fighting their way to this point, your protagonist has revealed the full scope of the film itself. In a boxing movie, this is a big fight. In Jumanji, it’s where the animals wind up running down the street.
What is your character doing that shows the audience what this movie can really do? Whatever it is, write it down.
This happens three quarters of the way through Act II, ⅝ of the way through the script. Again, one of your characters is doing something that has a profound effect on the mission of the protagonist. Whatever they’re doing, it’s amplifying the stakes and the urgency of the conflict. Whatever it is, write it down.
This happens three quarters of the way through the film, and it’s the beginning of Act III. Your character has been working on this great big plan, all this time, and their actions have created a situation that’s beyond their control. Now is when it all comes crashing down. How? Why? Write it down.
Don’t pull punches, here. Your character has been creating this failure since page one, even if they didn’t know it. Let the weight of all that effort crush them completely. It’s their responsibility to figure out how to keep going, not yours.
This is, obviously, the end of the movie. Now that you’ve completely obliterated your protagonist’s hopes and dreams, you actually do need to figure out how to keep moving forward and finish the job. I know I said that wasn’t going to be your problem. What can I say? I’m a scamp.
I will say, however, that your character doesn’t necessarily have to succeed. They do need to reinvent themselves. They need to earn their success. Whether or not they actually find it will be a question of how the antagonists perform in their missions, and how effectively the protagonist’s emergency backup plan actually plays out… but the empowerment and the magic of cinema comes from seeing your protagonist grow and change enough to mount that last, best effort in the first place.
About the Author
Tennyson E. Stead is a master screenwriter, a director, a worldbuilder, and an emerging leader in New Hollywood. Supported by a lifetime of stagework, a successful film development and finance career, and a body of screenwriting encompassing more than 50 projects, Stead is best known for writing an...