Tag Archives: Turning-point

Structuring Act I, etc.

Building Structure

Building Structure

In his book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the first act of any story is a block of dramatic action, which begins on page one, is inflected by the inciting incident within the first half of the act, and ends at the first turning point. The primary function of the first act is to set up the dramatic context for the entire story, introduce the protagonist as well as other important characters, their world, and the goal – that which the protagonist must achieve in order to save the day, restore the balance, fulfill his or her potential.

Dramatic context

Establishing the dramatic context of the first act means setting up characters, the situation they find themselves in, and the premise of the story: Who is the protagonist? What is at stake? What is the goal? What are the initial obstacles in the way of achieving this goal? And more concisely, what is the dramatic question of this act? Indeed, the dramatic question encapsulates these concerns in one precise sentence.

Syd Field provides us with a powerful example of this in his book. In the film Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us in a standup monologue, “Annie and I broke up and I—I still can’t get my mind around that. You know, I—I keep shifting the pieces of the relationship through my life and trying to figure out where did the screw up come. You know, a year ago we were…in love…” The first act, and indeed, the entire film revolves around that short statement. The film examines the “pieces of the relationship” and tries to answer the question where “did the screw-up come?”

Pilot Question

This illustrates an important aspect of the dramatic question: in the first act there are really two questions: one which quizzes the entire story (how did the screw-up happen) – what I call the pilot question, and a smaller one which concerns itself with the single act; for example, when, how, why, and where, did Alvy and Annie fall in love?

The Value of the Dramatic Question for Each Act

Identifying the dramatic questions of the first act allows us to hook into the dramatic questions of the second and third acts in turn. In the second act of Annie Hall, for example, the dramatic question might be, when, where, and how did things begin to go increasingly wrong for the couple? The third act’s dramatic question might well ask, what is the final straw that finally breaks them up? Our task as writers, therefore, is to lay out the answers to these questions – a process which involves writing material that addresses each question, scene by scene.

Summary

Encapsulating the needs of the first act (and indeed, the second and third acts in general) in terms of a dramatic question helps us focus on the dramatic context of our story and propels us to write material that is purposeful, concise and which keeps our entire story on track.

Invitation

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Exploring the Story Network II

Network Connections

Network Connections

The main structural hoists between the 1st and 2nd turning points are: the 1st pinch, the midpoint, and the 2nd pinch. In this post, we explore the dynamic relationship that exists between these structures.

1st Pinch, 1st Turning Point, & Midpoint

The 1st pinch is a scene or scene sequence that occurs about halfway through the first part of act ii and the midpoint. It helps to keep things moving by propelling events toward the midpoint and the moment of illumination that occurs there. The 1st pinch feeds off the 1st turning point, reminding us of what is at stake. Its relationship to the 1st turning point, therefore, is not of one of surprise or deviation, but of reiteration. This is because the 1st turning point has already changed the story’s direction and the task of the 1st pinch is to keep the story on track by subtly and adroitly reminding us of this fact, not to surprise us by introducing yet another change in direction.

2nd Pinch & 2nd Turning Point

The 2nd pinch is a scene or scene sequence that occurs halfway between the midpoint and the end of act ii. As with the 1st pinch, the 2nd pinch keeps the story on track by revisiting, through a single scene, or scene sequence, the (changed) concerns of the story and propels it towards the 2nd turning point. The relationship between the 2nd pinch and the 2nd turning point, however, is now one of deviation and surprise, since the task of the 2nd turning point is to spin the story around in a different direction by introducing a new challenge, or by deepening the existing one in a game of rising stakes.

1st & 2nd Pinch Symmetry

Sometimes a strong symmetry obtains between the 1st and 2nd pinch. In his book, The Screenwriters Workbook, Syd Field points to an example of such symmetry in the film, Thelma and Louise. The 1st pinch occurs when the two girls pick up J.D. (Brad Pitt) who then proceeds to steal their money (at the Midpoint). The 2nd pinch occurs when J.D. is picked up by the police and rats on the two women by telling the cops that the women are headed for Mexico, thus sealing their fate.

Summary

Pinches 1 & 2 are scenes or scene sequences that keep the story on track by reminding the reader or audience of the central concerns of the story initiated by the 1st turning point. The relationship of the 1st pinch to the 1st turning point is one of reiteration; that of the 2nd pinch to the 2nd turning point is one of surprise and deviation.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

The Inciting Incident and the First Turning Point: what are they?

The first significant incident in any story (from a structural point of view), is the initial disturbance that sets everything in motion. In his book, Story, Robert McKee reminds us that this disturbance, usually referred to as the inciting incident (in relation to the main plot of your story), is an event that upsets the balance in the protagonist’s world. In seeking to restore the balance, he (or she) is forced to respond to the challenge, creating a domino effect, which culminates in the story’s first major turning point.

Magnitude and Direction

While the inciting incident and the first turning point are distinct entities, there exists a strong relationship between them — one of direction and magnitude, mediated by the injection of new information. The inciting incident is a result of the protagonist’s response to an outer (or inner) event, but the respose is either misdirected, or not strong enough to solve the problem or grasp the opportunity at hand. Indeed, the forces that have caused the disturbance, now regather to confront the protagonist more powerfully than before. In the light of additional information, this causes the protagonist to rethink the old goal, or to seek a new one. In this way, the story moves from lower to higher stakes to the first major turning point, the mid-point, the second turning point, and finally, on to the climax and resolution (the subjects of future blogs).

In The Matrix, for example, the inciting incident occurs when Neo meets Trinity in the club. Trinity surprises Neo by pinpointing the foremost question in his mind: what is the Matrix? This question is answered when Morpheus asks Neo to choose between the blue and red pills – essentially to choose between continuing to live a life of illusion or waking up to the truth in “the desert of the real”. Neo, of course, chooses the red pill. This choice/action bundle constitutes the first major turning point and leads directly to the end of the first act: Neo’s connection to the Matrix is broken and his body and mind are jettisoned into the real world. The question raised by the inciting incident – what is the Matrix – now becomes, how does Neo defeat the agent Smith and machines? These questions frame the dramatic context of future events and help to keep the story on track.

In Summary

The relationship between the inciting incident and the first tuning point is one of magnitude and direction. The inciting incident introduces the initial disturbance and asks an early version of the dramatic question, while the first turning point increases the stakes and reframes the question in the light of new information – a question answered only at the story’s climax and resolution. Mastering the use of these two important structural entities will help you launch your stories and keep them on track.