THE ART OF STORYTELLING – PART 3
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Welcome to the final Part in our Storytelling Trilogy!
If you missed Part 1, it’s all about the ‘big picture’ of storytelling. Here’s the link to read it:
If you missed Part 2, all about Audience and Character, here’s the link:
If you’re new here, this trilogy of articles on storytelling is for Visionaries. The dictionary defines a Visionary as a person who ‘thinks about or plans the future with imagination or wisdom”.
I define a Visionary as anyone whose ideas can educate and entertain others, and ultimately change the why society thinks. A Visionary can be an artist, entertainer, educator, entrepreneur, author, speaker, or coach. The list goes on.
One of the most important skills that all Visionaries need to master is the art of Storytelling.
When you listen to a Visionary sharing a great story, the storytelling feels natural and easy. But don’t be fooled by that impression. I assure you that before they were able to use stories to effortlessly connect with their Audience they had to master everything I am covering in this Storytelling Trilogy of articles.
Stories come in all lengths, so they can be used in almost any situation. One of the shortest types of story is a joke. This has a simple setup and punch line.
Medium length stories can be an article, news clip or Youtube video. Longer stories manifest in movies, novels, plays and the ramblings of my Aunt Gertrude.
So what makes up a story? What are the building blocks that you can use to construct a story?
If you didn’t read Part 1 of this ‘Storytelling Trilogy’ then why not read it now? It’ll go over the ‘big ideas’ of stories and relate to how a story is like a roller coaster.
If you did read it, here is the infographic from that so you can refresh your memory. 😉
Remember that the track of a roller coaster is like the concept, or premise of a story. We talked about this in the first Article. The track can be broken down into sections. Each section is called a ‘Story Beat’, and all the ‘beats’ linked together are called the ‘plot’. Here’s another way to think of it. A recipe is made up of different ingredients. A plot is made up of different beats.
A beat is a specific story event that your Protagonist experiences in your story. These experiences of your Protagonist are what make up the Plot. In other words, the plot is the series of events that the Protagonist experiences. A great storyteller will construct a plot that is full of exciting situations and suspense. However, most storytellers will use cliché situations, explosions and boobs to mask a lack of a solid plot. Michael Bay and Zack Synder, I’m looking at you.
Great plots only contain the essential info they need.
That’s why boring stories can usually be saved with good editing. This is because the boring and cliché parts are edited out. Only the good stuff remains, which propels the plot forward.
Now that you know what a plot is, let’s go back and explain the building blocks, or sections of track, that make up the plot. You probably need to hear this a few times, so I’ll repeat it. The large building blocks of a plot are called ‘story beats’.
‘Story Beats’ are the essential ‘plot elements’ that you want to hit.
You can’t tell a story where nothing happens.
It’s like a heartbeat. Each beat keeps the story alive.
Great stories consistently hit the same beats in the same order in order to fully engage (and satisfy) the Audience. That means that once you understand plot and story beats, you’ll see them repeating over and over in various stories.
For example, every story has a beginning. Every story has an ending. These are two examples of Story Beats.
There are 11 Story Beats that great stories seem to always have. These are spread out over the course of a plot. But 11 things to remember is pretty hard!
That’s why I call these 11 Beats the ’S.T.O.R.Y.T.E.L.L.E.R. Beats’. I hope you can easily remember the word Storyteller so you can more easily remember them.
A little later in this article we’ll cover exactly what those 11 Beats are. For now let’s focus on the biggest part of story structure…the 3 Acts.
THE 3 ACTS
Fortunately, the Greeks (the inventors of modern story structure) figured this out for us. They figured that all stories have three major structural elements. You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘Act 1’? There are three acts that make up every story, and most people know these (but they don’t know the smaller building blocks of the 11 beats that flesh out the three Acts).
The infographic above shows you where the 3 Acts fall upon our Story roller coaster example.
Think of the three acts as the Beginning, Middle and End of your story. This is also known as the Setup, Build Up, and Payoff. In business stories, these three acts are sometimes referred to as the Challenge, Struggle and Resolution.
Keep in mind that some stories, like short jokes, don’t have an Act 2. They often just have a setup and payoff, also called a punch line.
Now let’s dive deeper into the function of each act.
Act 1 is the setup. This sets up the basic info the Audience needs in order to follow along with the story.
This includes such important information, also known as exposition (which is similar to the word explain), as:
- Who is the main character?
- What is their personality flaw?
- What is the main issue that they need to overcome?
- What is the conflict that stops them?
- Where does the story take place?
- What are the rules of the world?
- What does ‘being stuck’ look like?
- What are the stakes (what happens if the character fails)?
Act 2 is the buildup to the story. This is where the Protagonist attempts to solve their problem, but each attempt seems to make things worse. If you’ve heard of Murphy’s Law (not named after me) you’ll know how this comes into play in Act 2. We want your character to face conflict and hardship. That means Act 2 needs to beat them up and test their motivation and determination.
A great Act 2 shows the Protagonist trying increasingly more complex solutions to solve their problem. That means the actions the Protagonist takes needs to start with the laziest action first and then gradually climax with the most intense and demanding action. For example, a character who is trying to shoo a fly away would first attempt to smack the fly with the back of their hand before fumigating their house.
Of course you can’t have escalating conflict for your Protagonist without an Antagonist, or Villain, making life worse for them. There is a great quote (I think Walt Disney said it):
“A picture is only as good as the villain.”
That means if you don’t have conflict, or your Villain is a wuss, then you’ve got a very boring story!
Act 3 is the ending. It’s where the story ‘pays off’. That means all story elements that the Storyteller has ‘setup’ earlier in the story get paid off here. It is also known as the climax because the action and conflict build to a crescendo. It is also known as the resolution, because the story resolves itself and answers all the questions the Audience had about how things will turn out for the Protagonist.
Basically, in Act 3 the Protagonist makes one final attempt, involving a lot of effort, in order to solve their crushing problem.
Once they succeed (or fail if it’s a tragedy) the story wraps up in the resolution.
Remember in Video 1 how we talked about every story having a moral? The moral is often revealed in Act 3 through the Protagonist’s final actions and the lessons they learned from taking those actions. This is where Luke in Star Wars, learns to believe in himself by using the force. In Indiana Jones, this is where Indy learns to have faith in God by respecting the artifacts he spent his life plundering. This is where Tony Stark learns that he should protect others, instead of manufacturing weapons. The Audience gets to see the Protagonist learn something about life and themselves. In a good story the Audience learns the same lesson as the Protagonist.
Also in Act 3, the Audience gets to see a snapshot of where the Protagonist ends up. What I mean by that is that in Act 1 the Protagonist has a big problem. Life pretty much sucks for them. They’re not happy. They’re either single, jobless or just a mess. Or they can be on top of the world but have some flaw that keeps them from where they want to be. But after they solve their problem and arrive in Act 3, their life looks different. They have gone from single, jobless and a mess to married, billionaire and put together.
The best example of this Act 1 to Act 3 character change is in marketing ads for weight loss. You’ve probably seen the ‘before’ image of the fat loser hunched over sad and defeated in some dark living room in the Mid-West. Then the ‘after’ picture is the same guy, now with a six-pack, as he climbs onto his private yacht with three supermodels and a huge smile on his face. You visually, instantly know the journey he went on.
A great story starts the Protagonist in an extreme ‘before’ lifestyle so there is a dramatic change when they arrive in the ‘after’ portion of the story that happens in Act 3.
Following me so far? Let’s recap… there are three ‘acts’ that make up every story. These three acts are the key ‘building blocks’ of a story’s structure. These are three Acts are then made up of 11 ‘Story Beats’.
We’ll go over the Story Beats here in a minute. But first, I want to make sure you are clear on what needs to happen within the three acts.
You must have a Protagonist, or main character, that has a big problem they can’t run from. You must have conflict so the Protagonist has to struggle. You must have emotion so the Audience gets involved and invested in your Protagonist. Your Protagonist must find a solution to their problem that leads to a reward of some kind. Remember that in Act 1 they are struggling and stuck, and by the end of Act 3 they’ve solved their problem and are rewarded. This reward could be the private yacht, six pack abs and three supermodels. But it could also be believing in themselves, finding faith in others or accepting love.
Above all else, the logic of the three Acts should be simple. You get no points for overwhelming your audience!
As Spielberg says about the lack of knowledge of three Act Structure:
“People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”
In Act 1 a question is raised that the Audience wants to know the answer to. ‘Will the Protagonist succeed and get what they want?’
Then during the remainder of the story smaller questions can be asked and answered to further engage the Audience’s curiosity. This is often called ‘open loops’ or ‘cliff hangers’.
In Act 2 the Protagonist (and the Audience) try to figure the riddle out:
- Will Luke defeat Darth Vader?
- Will Indy find the Lost Ark before the Nazis take over the world?
- Will the Ghostbusters be able to save New York City from the plague of nasty ghosts?
Finally, in Act 3 the riddle is answered. In most stories the Protagonist succeeds by learning something and adopting to change. In tragedies the Protagonist fails. This is because they didn’t learn and ultimately couldn’t solve their problem.
Now that you are clear on the three Acts, let’s jam onto what exactly the 11 Story Beats are.
In the Infographic above you can see the 11 Beats. Just as you learned in Part 1 of this ‘Storytelling Trilogy’, a story is like a roller coaster. For that reason we’ll stick with the roller coaster analogy.
Each lift, dip and twist of a roller coaster matches the emotional twists and turns an Audience goes through when they experience an engaging and entertaining story.
Ready to dive in on what happens in each Beat?
To make this as easy as possible for you to follow, let’s break the beats up into each Act.
Keep in mind that these 11 beats happen over the course of the three Acts. In other words, each Act doesn’t have all 11 Story Beats. Act 1 has Four Beats, Act 2 has Four Beats and Act 3 has three. That’s 4 + 4 + 3 = 11 Story Beats within one story.
Let’s begin with the beats that happen in Act 1. Because Act 1 is all about the setup, I call these the ‘Setup Beats’.
ACT 1 BEATS
The beats in Act 1 are meant to set up the story. They give the Audience the information they need in order to follow along with the rest of the story.
A joke, the simplest type of story, combines all these beats into a sentence or two. The example I used in Video 1 about the chicken crossing the road tells you all the info you need in this one sentence:
‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’
It tells you:
- Who the main character, which we’ll call the Protagonist, is (the Chicken)
- Where the story takes place (the road)
- And what the character wants (to cross the road, though we’re not clear exactly why the damn chicken wants to get across the road, but we’ll figure that riddle out in the punch line of this awful joke).
As you hear about the Act 1 Beats, just keep in mind that they’re all there to set up the story so the Audience can follow along.
BEAT 1 - SPARK THE CURIOSITY
The best stories hook the Audience immediately when they start. This is often called the Prologue as it hints at the excitement, or terror, that is to come. This is meant to spark your Audience’s curiosity and hook their emotions.
For example, the first beat of Jaws opens with a girl getting eaten by the mysterious shark. If the shark didn’t claim a victim early on in Act 1 we’d feel cheated that the shark doesn’t do anything until the beginning of Act 2. Because the story is about the Sheriff and the small island community, Spielberg needs all of Act 1 to set things up. That means the hook of the story lets the Audience know there is a nasty shark cruising around. Ironically the Audience knows about the shark and dead girl before the Protagonist (Chief Brody). This knowledge creates suspense (we’ll talk more about Suspense later).
The Hook is used to let the Audience know what they should anticipate. Imagine if you go to see a musical and the first song happens 30 minutes into the movie! The musical numbers would seem bizarre to you, as they would be coming from left field! But if the movie opened up, as most musicals do, with a musical number, you’d know you were watching a musical and all future musical numbers would seem completely normal.
I’ll give an example of a movie that failed because the storytellers, the Coen Brothers who are geniuses and should have known better, didn’t use the Hook to set up the magical element of their movie. They made a film called The Hudsucker Proxy that was inspired by Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. That movie opens up with an angel getting his mission to save Jimmy Stewart. Therefore, the Audience is excepting supernatural elements later in the story. But in The Hudsucker Proxy the magical angel shows up near the middle of the story!
When this happens the Audience is totally confused and feels cheated. I remember loving the movie up until that part. Audiences agreed and the film flopped.
The lesson here is to use the first Beat to hook your Audience and set the expectation of what type of story you’re about to tell.
BEAT 2 - TIME AND RULES
The ‘Time and Rules’ beat is also known as the ‘setup’ because it sets all the critical info the audience needs to know. If they don’t understand this information they’re going to be lost. For example, if your story is Star Wars then the Audience needs to know that the plans of the Death Star are hidden inside of R2D2. Without this info every Audience member would be asking, “What the hell is happening?”
The ‘Time and Rules’ Beat needs to show where the story starts. I studied Improv Comedy for several years. The key to a successful stand up sketch was to properly let the Audience (and the other actors in the scene) know what the location was, who the characters were and what they wanted. Without this info the scene just laid there like a gasping fish.
The same info needs to be laid out in any story. Crucial questions must be answered such as:
Where does the story physically take place? Outer space, a haunted house, a small town.
What key events are happening in the characters lives to make us relate to them? Someone is about to have a baby, someone is about to get fired, someone just got a promotion.
What time period does the story take place in? Present day, the past, or maybe the future.
The Protagonist is usually introduced here.
Usually the Protagonist is ‘stuck’ in a negative or idle place (emotionally and physically). By the end of the story the Protagonist gets unstuck. Remember my example of the ‘before’ overweight guy compared to the ‘after’ ripped version of him on a yacht? In your ‘Before’ Beat, you will show the overweight dude having a miserable life. He needs to change his life otherwise he’s doomed for a life of no yachting! Poor bastard.
Another thing you may need to set up here is the attitude of the times. If your story is about women getting the right to vote, then you’d have to make sure the Audience understood that people in those backwards times had a much different attitude than today.
You also want to set up the ‘rules’ of the world. In some stories, like sci-fi or fantasy, something out of the ordinary happens. The great screenwriting guru Blake Synder called this the ‘big buy’. It’s the one preposterous idea the Audience has to ‘buy’ for them to ride along with the rest of the story.
For example, we all know that magic isn’t real. So you stretch your levels of imagination to believe that the kids in Harry Potter are magical wizards. That’s a pretty big concept to ‘buy’. Conversely, you can’t have two big buys in one story. If aliens started invading Hogwarts then you’d have to believe that kids have magical powers AND aliens exist! It’d be too unbelievable and thus the Audience would mentally check out. You’d think ‘this is ridiculous.’
BEAT 3 - OUTLINE THE PROTAGONIST
Remember that we call the ‘Hero’ the Protagonist. This is important because in some stories the Protagonist, or main character, is not heroic. If you were doing a biographical film about one of the biggest dickheads of all, Hitler, then I hope you agree there’s nothing heroic about him.
In this Beat we want to give the Audience all the info they’re going to need in order to become emotionally invested in your Protagonist
The key to making your Protagonist become believable to your Audience is to follow the 3 sub-beats of Beat 3. These are Big Problem, Big Dream and Big Flaw.
Every story involves a character trying to overcome a problem. The bigger the problem, the better the story! That’s why most Hollywood Blockbusters involve the hero having to save the entire world. This is a lot more dramatic than the hero trying to tie their shoe laces.
Everyone has a big dream. As humans, we all want something more. And when we get it, we move on to the next dream. To make your Audience relate to your Protagonist, you must clearly show them what the character’s big dream is. What keeps them awake at night with excitement? What do they nerd out over? What drives them to succeed?
Examples of Big Dreams are Luke Skywalker wanting to escape his boring farm life and become a heroic rebel. It is Woody in Toy Story dreaming that he’ll always be Andy’s favorite toy. It’s Harry Potter dreaming he’ll be able to stand up to the bullies in his life.
No one is perfect. Even me. Shocking, I know.
In order to make your Protagonist feel believable, you must give them at least one negative trait, or flaw. This should be an inner problem that has to do with a negative or outdated mindset. This can be Luke Skywalker being whiny and scared, Woody being jealous of others or Harry Potter being too idealistic about helping others.
If you don’t give your character an obvious flaw (that they’ll have to learn to overcome during the course of your story) then the Audience will detect the character is B.S. It’s a fake personality constructed by a sloppy storyteller. Not a living, breathing character we can all love.
Some characters have massive flaws but we still love them. One of the most popular characters I had the privilege to work on was Gollum. He’s nasty and horrible, but because we see his pros and cons, we accept him as real. He was so well-written that Audience’s forgot they were watching a fully animated creation.
No matter who your Protagonist is, it’s important the Audience empathizes with them. Empathy is fancy word, but it basically means that the Audience can relate to why the character is making the decisions they make.
In Toy Story, Woody acts like a dick. He’s jealous of Buzz Lightyear. This is because he’s Andy’s favorite toy, and Buzz threatens this. So Woody decides to push Buzz behind a desk so Andy won’t be able to find, and play with him. Not a nice thing for Woody to do. In the original version of the movie (the one screened for Disney executives), Woody came off as an un-sympathetic creep. Thankfully Pixar’s creatives were smart. They fixed the story issue by showing the Audience why Woody was doing such a nasty thing. They showed us that Woody was frightened that Andy wouldn’t love him anymore. Since we can all relate to the fear that our loved ones won’t love us anymore, we got why Woody would do this. Since we now related to him, we could forgive him for his negative traits. This relatable quality made Woody (and the Toy Story franchise, and Pixar) iconic.
Let me say this one more time so it’s very clear to you…Empathy is when you relate and cheer for a character.
Here is the official definition from the dictionary on my Mac:
“the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Empathy is different than sympathy. We can relate to a down-on-his-luck private eye with a drinking problem but don’t necessarily feel sorry for them. For us to like this character we’d have to show why he is down-on-his-luck. In the case of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the protagonist had his brother killed by a ‘toon’ character. Hence he’s bitter and hates Roger (a toon).
Audiences will only root for protagonists they empathize with! If you fail to do this they won’t relate to your story. If you do this successfully then you just might launch an entire multi-billion dollar studio like Pixar. Just saying!
In this beat you also need to show what the Protagonist clearly wants. This should always be to solve their ‘big problem’.
In real life, at any given moment you want something. Therefore, for your Characters to come across as believable (and for the Audience to track along with their motivations), they need to want something as well.
The best ‘wants’ (that the Audience can easily relate to) are primal. Things like wanting food, companionship, shelter, sex, money and higher social status.
The more primal it is, the more the Audience can empathize and relate.
In order to figure out your character’s ‘want’ you must first define the character’s unconscious ‘emotional want’. This is what drives them towards their goals. It is often a fear or desire they aren’t aware of.
In most movies the outward ‘want’ is clear. To get the girl, to claim the treasure, to stop the villain. But internally the Protagonist needs to learn something and grow.
Just like how you learn new things in real life, your character needs to learn and grow in your story. They need to go from one view of the world to another. For example, in Toy Story Woody goes from thinking that Andy should only love him to understanding that there is more than enough love to go around. Or in Star Wars Luke goes from being a whining farm boy to being a confident hero who saved the galaxy.
In both stories the character ‘arcs’.
We talked about Arcs in Article 2. If you need to refresh your memory go check it out:
There are three fuels to a great story: Emotions, Curiosity and Conflict. In Video 1 we talked about Emotions and Curiosity. But I promised you then we’d also talk about conflict. So let’s do this!
Throughout all your beats you need Conflict!
Why? Because conflict creates drama. Drama is what charges our emotions. If your story has no conflict then your Protagonist doesn’t have any struggle. Everything is handed to them. There is no tension. Hence your Audience gets bored.
Basically, a story can’t exist without conflict!
I’m bringing conflict up here (under the Protagonist Beat) because you can’t have a great Protagonist, or Hero, without a great Antagonist or Villain.
That means the opposite of a Protagonist is an Antagonist.
But does an antagonist always have to be a villain?
If you said ‘no’, you get a cookie!
Stories create conflict in four main ways.
The first type of conflict is represented by another person. This is your quintessential bad guy. Darth Vader, Voldemort, Nazis, DMV workers.
But the Antagonist doesn’t necessarily have to be a person.
It can be a thing or an animal. In Poltergeist the ghosts are the Antagonists, and in Independence Day the aliens ain’t so nice. And in Jaws the shark is definitely not the hero.
The antagonist can also be a mindset. It can be the self-limiting belief or fear the Protagonist has. In Good Will Hunting, Will’s own brilliant mind is what causes him conflict. In Trainspotting, the character’s addictions are what make life very miserable for them.
The Antagonist can also be an external force. Things like weather. The Tornado in Twister is the big baddie. The earthquake in San Andreas causes the heroes to suffer greatly.
Sometimes the mindset of society can be the antagonist. For example, in the movie Selma, racists were the group of Antagonists. Or it could be a religious dogma that holds people back. Anyone who was burned alive during the Inquisition would probably agree.
And let’s not forget the most formidable antagonist of them all. Far worse than Nazis, Darth Vader and killer earthquakes. Bad Wi-Fi connection. Pure evil.
BEAT 4 - REVEAL THE WHY
As we’re knee deep into Act 1, the wheels of the plot are firmly set in motion.
In this beat you need to reveal the reason why your Protagonist has to get off his lazy butt and start taking massive action!
Something big has to happen in the Protagonist’s life that will affect them throughout the rest of the story. This is something that ‘slaps’ the Protagonist and starts to wake them up from whatever personal issue was holding them back. In other words, this is the event that begins to force the character to start having to solve their problems.
This is when Harry gets the letter to go to Hogwarts. He realizes there may be more to his life than suffering at the hands of his adoptive family.
This is when Spiderman gets bit by a radioactive spider (I hate those things) and starts to realize he has super powers.
This is when Indy gets the assignment from the government to find the missing lost ark. When the Sheriff in Jaws discovers a dead swimmer on his beach. When the scientists in Ghostbusters get fired from their University jobs and have to start a new business in order to survive.
The Big Slap causes the Protagonist to have to start taking action to solve their problem.
Ignoring the problem is not an option.
Once the Big Slap happens, the character will usually try to ignore it. Not too dissimilar to what we do in real life. It’s like hitting the snooze button so we can avoid our troubles for another five minutes.
They can hope it will go away. But fate will not let it. After all, they are flawed and need an event that will force them to face their worst fears and learn something new.
Typically the Big Slap happens in the middle of Act 1. The Protagonist then reluctantly avoids the problem for as long as possible. But something so major happens that they have to step into action and face it head on. This big action by the Protagonist propels the story into Act 2.
In Star Wars, the Big Slap is when Luke Skywalker sees the hologram of Princess Leia asking Obi Wan to help the rebels. Immediately after that, R2D2 wanders off to find Obi Wan and Luke decides to go find him. He gets attacked by Sand People and rescued by Obi Wan. Obi Wan asks Luke to join him and help fight the Empire, but Luke refuses.
However, at the end of Act 1 Luke returns to his farm only to discover that his aunt and uncle have been turned into charcoal by Darth Vader’s Stormtroopers. Now Luke must join the rebels and fight evil. At this precise moment the story shifts from Act 1 (where Luke was refusing his call to adventure) and into Act 2 where Luke has to start attempting to kick the bad guys’ asses.
In Toy Story, the Big Slap is when Andy gets Buzz as his newest toy. This makes Woody, the protagonist, very jealous. Woody tries to downplay how important Buzz is for the second half of Act 2. It’s only once Woody discovers Andy can only take one toy to his birthday party that Woody decides to push Buzz behind the desk. Of course this backfires and Buzz falls out the window. At the end of Act 1, Woody is tossed out the window and forced to bring Buzz back if he ever wants to see Andy’s room again.
In both stories the Big Slap smacks the Protagonist who then reacts. After doing their best to avoid the situation, they are forced to address the problem head on. Sometimes this is due to fate (like in Star Wars). Sometimes this is due to their own actions (like in Toy Story).
ACT 2 BEATS
Beats 1 through 4 all happen in Act 1. That means they all happen in the beginning of your story in order to setup the necessary information (also called exposition) for the Audience.
Next let’s talk about the beats that happen in Act 2. These beats all happen in the middle of the story. The middle beats represent the part of your story where the Protagonist is actively trying to solve their problem. They can’t get out of their unfair situation so they’re forced to deal with it.
A great story makes solving this unfair situation extremely difficult. The Protagonist should be forced to learn new skills, make new friends who can help them and deal with the emotional setbacks that come with attempting to solve the big problem.
Whether you’re telling a story for a movie, or for a business presentation, the Act 2 of your story should layer on the conflict for your suffering Protagonist. Remember my law! If you, as a storyteller, can inflict as much conflict and suffering on your Protagonist (always asking ‘what is the worst thing that might happen at this point in the story) your Audience will be paying attention!
BEAT 5 - NO MORE YAWNING
Practically the entire first half of Act 2 is taken up by Beat 5. That means there is a very big potential to bore the living daylights out of your Audience. What do Audiences do when they’re bored? They YAWN!
That’s why in this Beat I’m going to give you some tools to help you beat those evil yawns and keep your plot moving forward.
In this beat the Protagonist attempts to solve their problem, but always makes it worse. If things don’t get worse, and the conflict doesn’t worsen, then the Audience will get bored. We don’t want that.
This becomes a series of actions and reactions from your Protagonist. The Antagonist does something and the Protagonist reacts. The Protagonist then takes action which causes the Antagonist to react.
This could get extremely boring, so a good storyteller will create ‘rising’ action. That means each action the Protagonist and Antagonist takes get bigger and require more energy.
This is why in Star Wars Luke first has to face a cantina of angry aliens, then a battle station of stormtroopers (with really bad aim), and finally an entire aerial dogfight against Darth Vader. Each series of events gets increasingly more intense and requires more effort and mastery from the Protagonist.
During this beat in Act 2, some sub-beats can take place.
FRIENDS AND FOES
No hero can do it alone, so it’s wise to give them some friends to assist them on their journey. In Star Wars, this is Han Solo, Obi Wan, R2D2 and Chewbacca. In Ironman this is Tony Stark’s girlfriend Piper and his trusty computer sidekick Jarvis.
This is also where foes, or enemies, are introduced. These are henchmen of the villain who cause the hero to fight smaller battles that ultimately prepare them for the final fight with the villain. In Star Wars, these are the thugs in the cantina, the stormtroopers and the slimy creature who ‘eats’ Luke in the trash compactor.
The Hero needs to get help, or get pushed back, by others. Just like what happens in real life.
The Heroes have to learn new skills and gain new insights that will help them overcome their big problem. If they had nothing to learn, then there’d be no conflict. They’d just waltz in and kick the bad guy’s ass. Story over. Thanks and good night.
In tragedies the heroes do not learn and grow. They die. However, most stories are not tragedies, so a good story will allow the Protagonist to slowly master the skills they need to let them overcome the Antagonist in Act 3.
THEREFORE, BUT, BECAUSE
I learned this from a great video from the South Park Guys.
Every story structure needs to be constructed like a puzzle. In other words, you should not be able to remove any of the pieces. The best stories are a subtle mixture of setup and payoffs that interlock and build.
That means there are a few little tricks you can do to make sure the mechanics of the plot are helping your story advance.
A great formula to make sure things link up and build is to use the words Therefore, But, and Because.
By adding these words in between your story beats you’ll link ideas together to create a compelling story.
Most Storytellers use ‘and then’. This creates a totally boring story experience.
Let me give you a boring example:
Bob got a new boat. And then he took it to a lake. And then he went fishing. And then he caught a fish. And then he went home.
See how the ideas don’t build? See how it’s totally boring?
Now let’s take the same fundamental story ideas and use the ‘therefore, but, because’ words to link the story together.
Bob just inherited a new boat. Therefore he decided to take the day off (much to his boss’s dismay) and go fishing. But the boat was haunted by his crazy dead Uncle Larry! Because it’s haunted Uncle Larry’s ghost caused all the fish to jump into the boat! Bob was excited! With Larry’s help, he could get rich selling fish to the fish market. Meanwhile the local Priest realized the boat was haunted and headed off to the exorcise the spirits, therefore planning to ruin Bob’s fish winning streak. But…
I hope you agree that the second version of the story is drastically more interesting. That’s simply because using the ‘therefore, but, because’ words to link ideas together make the Storyteller work a little harder. It’s very hard to have story events be unrelated.
You may have noticed in that story example I also used the linking word ‘meanwhile’.
You can use ‘Meanwhile’ so you can cut somewhere else and create some momentum. A classic example of this is cutting to the villain making plans to make things worse for the hero.
This lets you constantly keep the story moving and not become ‘stale’. In our Bob example, the ‘meanwhile’ let us cut away to the local Priest who is about to come and try to exorcise the delightful spirit of Uncle Larry from the story.
TWIST AND TURNS
Act 2 of any story can easily get repetitive and boring. That’s why you want to layer in ‘twists and turns’. A great twist and turn will create tension and suspense in the Audience.
Suspense is an amazing story tool. The master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, liked to highlight the distinction between surprise and suspense. They are two very different things, and create two very different reactions in the Audience.
As Hitchcock teaches, ‘Surprise’ is when a bomb suddenly goes off. This is a shock and only creates a momentary emotional reaction.
Suspense, on the other hand, is a sustained emotional experience. It’s often described as ‘edge of your seat’.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s say a couple is sitting at a lovely restaurant sipping wine. Suddenly BOOM! A bomb goes off. The couple is dead.
This is a surprise. It’s momentarily shocking but ultimately not that satisfying.
Now let’s re-imagine this scene. Same couple. Same table at Chez Fancy-Pantzy’s. But this time you know the evil bad guy has placed a ticking bomb under the table. You know it’s going to go off. Then for the rest of their meal you’re thinking ‘those idiots, don’t they know there is a bomb under the table? Why don’t they get up?’
The suspense and tension of the situation keeps you glued to the screen.
Every time the lady says, “Shall we get the check?” and the man says, “One more glass of wine darling” you think, “NO! Get out of there!” Then when they leave just before the bomb goes off the Audience breathes a collective sigh of relief.
Surprise simply shocks us. But suspense ramps up our emotions and makes us pay attention to the story.
Great stories twist our expectations.
We think one thing will happen, but something else happens instead. Storytellers can trick the Audience into thinking something different is going to happen by placing ‘red herrings’ into the story. An example of this is in the film Scream. The filmmakers make you think a number of side characters might be the killer, leaving you in suspense as to who it might really be.
BEAT 6 - MAJOR TWIST
In a movie, the ‘Major Twist’ beat happens around the middle of the film’s running time. A typical movie is about two hours, so about an hour into every good movie some major story twist happens. Some Screenwriting Gurus call this the ‘Midpoint’.
This twist usually ups the stakes for the Protagonist and gives them a new goal, or objective they need to achieve. If you think of Act 2 as one long act, adding the midpoint helps you break it into two. This essentially gives you a 4 act structure (where we break Act 2 into two distinct structural building blocks).
The clearest example of this is Raiders of the Lost Ark. The first half of the story Indy needs to locate the lost ark before the Nazis find it. At the midpoint of the story he finds it BUT the Nazis capture him and take the ark for themselves. Indy goes from wanting to find it, to wanting to get it back.
In order to keep things from getting repetitive, something major happens at the midpoint of all good stories. It’s like a milestone the story has to reach. Without this the events of the story could get pretty boring. If Indy spent two hours trying to find the ark it would start to feel very repetitive. Not only that, the storytellers would have a hard time thinking up new ways to have Indy try to find the ark.
A second example of this is Toy Story. For the first half of Act 2 Woody needs to find Buzz Lightyear and bring him back to Andy’s house. At the midpoint Woody is able to get him and Buzz back to Andy BUT the evil kid next door, Sid (who tortures toys) finds them and drags them off to his bedroom torture chamber. That means Woody goes from wanting to find Buzz, to wanting to escape for his life. The stakes definitely escalate! Toy Story is so wonderfully constructed it helped Pixar become a multi-billion dollar company.
BEAT 7 - EXPERIENCE DEATH AND DOUBT
Near the end of Act 2 the Protagonist needs to get a whiff of death. This death makes them doubt their abilities when it comes to solving their big problem.
This could be that they momentarily ‘die’, like Luke Skywalker appears to when he’s dragged under the water by the trash compactor monster. Or it could be the death of a dream, like when Walt Disney’s dreams of turning Mary Poppins into a movie seem to have stalled in Saving Mr. Banks, or death of a friend or lover like when Agent Coulson dies at the end of Act 2 in Avengers.
When the death happens, the Protagonist reacts. They typically do this by experiencing doubt. Just like in real life when we second guess ourselves after a major failure, the Protagonist needs to go through this same experience.
The Death and Doubt Beat is when all hope seems lost. The Protagonist reaches their lowest point and questions their Vision and Mission. If you’re not familiar with my Visionary Planner training, the Vision and Mission are vital tools to help you set your goals. A character who wants to succeed, just like a person in real life, has to clearly define their goals. When it seems as if they will not succeed they have to reach the moment of questioning. This is an important part of overcoming inner doubts so that we can roll into the next beat…
BEAT 8 - LISTEN TO YOUR HEART
In Beat 7 the Protagonist reached their lowest point. All hope seemed lost.
But here the Hero gets a glimmer of hope. This builds up until they can overcome their inner doubts (caused by the Death and Doubt beat). Just like a fallen cheerleader at a pep rally, they need to pick themselves up, put a smile on their face and cheer for the success they’ve been hoping for. They must get fired up and ‘listen to their heart’ so they can then motivate themselves, and their sidekicks, to overcoming their setback.
They get renewed energy and muster up the courage to try one last time. Often in movies this is the point where a triumphant montage happens. Or the Hero gives a rousing speech to rally the troops.
The secret to this beat working is that the high energy of the Rah-Rah must balance out the low energy of the Death and Doubt beat.
ACT 3 BEATS
The last three beats happen in Act 3.
They are all about tying the story up. These beats resolve everything so the Audience feels satisfied.
Think of these last three beats as paying off the big ideas that were set up in Act 1, and then twisted, turned and played with in Act 2. Up until now the Protagonist has had glimmers of success, but hasn’t fully ‘hit the jackpot’. They’ve hit their lowest point but found renewed strength to give it one last try.
BEAT 9 - LAUNCH TO THE CLIMAX
In the beginning of Act 3 the character is fired up to succeed due to the ‘Listen to Your Heart’ beat.
The Launch to the Climax shows how they attempt to overcome the final conflict. It’s the race to the bad guy’s lair; it’s the race to catch the girl before she flies off to Paris with some other guy; it’s the race to escape the village before the damn breaks. Typically the ‘Launch’ sets up a ‘race’ or ticking clock element that makes the story feel like it’s building to a climax.
Remember how Hitchcock loves suspense? This is because it engages the Audience. When all of Act 3 is a long, sustained suspense sequence the climax of the story has more emotional impact. This is because the Audience has been on the edge of their seats for the duration of Act 3 and feels relieved when the climax happens. It’s a very manipulative storytelling trick, but it works every time!
In Star Wars, this is the sequence where Luke and the Rebel pilots are flying in the Death Star trenches attempting to blow it up. The Rebels are severely outnumbered but they believe they can succeed.
In Toy Story, this is when Buzz and Woody get to Andy’s house, only to find that Andy and his family are moving! They race towards the moving van in a wonderful action sequence full of suspense and excitement.
However, all hope seems to be lost as the forces of antagonism are much greater than the Hero anticipated.
In Star Wars all the other rebel pilots are shot down, leaving Luke all by himself. Darth Vader has locked onto Luke’s X-wing and the Audience assumes Luke is done for!
In Toy Story, the toy car Buzz and Woody were riding in (to get to the moving van) runs out of battery power. There is no way the two of them can catch up with Andy.
But the Protagonist has already experienced their ‘Doubt’ moment, so here they forge ahead and believe in their abilities.
BEAT 10 - EARN THE SUCCESS
Ah, the Climax! This is when all the tension that has built up over Act 3 gets released. So far there have been ups and downs, twists and turns.
But finally the Protagonist, despite the odds, succeeds!
They confront the ultimate version of the Antagonist. This could be facing the ultimate villain of the story (like Darth Vader) or the biggest challenge (like losing a loved one). The Hero prospers only by using their new skills and friends to win. This means that everything they’ve learned (from all the mistakes they’ve made) in Acts 1 and 2 pay off here. The Hero has learned and they benefit from this. The exception is a tragedy. The character doesn’t learn and thus suffers.
In Star Wars, Luke uses what he learned in order to blow up the Death Star. He uses the Force (which is a metaphor for listening to his intuition).
Also, Han Solo has learned the theme of the story…that we all have to do our part to conquer evil, so he shows up out of nowhere to shoot Darth Vader’s ship. This lets Luke fulfill his ‘Want’ of saving the galaxy. It also reinforces the theme.
A great climax does what the sexual metaphor implies. It releases tension and makes the Audience feel pleasure. Who knew that storytelling could make so many people so happy?!
BEAT 11 - RESOLVE THE STORY
Remember our example of the ‘Before’ and ‘After’?
This beat mirrors Beat 2 ‘Time and Rules’. Remember Beat 2 serves as the ‘before’, so this final beat serves as our ‘After’.
The ‘Before’ is all about showing how crummy life is for the Protagonist before they got called onto their adventure. This is when they’re 300 pounds overweight, deep in debt and a virgin living on their grandmother’s couch.
But in the ‘After’ the Audience gets to see how much life has improved. They’ve lost 300 pounds, got six pack abs, made a billion dollars and get to hang out with Justin Bieber. Lucky them!
Long story short, there must be a clear visual difference between the ‘Before’ beat and the ‘After’ beat. We need to see how the character has changed. We also need to see how the character’s friends, family and society have changed because of the character.
This change is what ultimately leads to the moral of the story. If the character learns never to lie and cheat (like in the Wolf of Wall Street) then the moral is something like ‘cheaters never prosper.’
A great ‘After’ Beat is short and sweet. There is nothing worse than a story that drags the ending out. A classic example of this is Return of the King. It has like five different endings! The writers could have condensed all the ideas into something a little speedier.
Now you know that all stories must have a beginning, middle and end in order to be satisfying. You know that within a longer story there are 11 Beats that writers should try to hit.
Within a short story you don’t have to hit all the beats in Act 2.
Hitting them all makes the story expand, so you must pick and choose which beats you want in order to tell your story (and fulfill the goals that story needs to help you accomplish).
As an example, look at my short film Night of the Broccoli.
There are no ‘Spark the Curiosity’ and ‘Listen to Your Heart’ beats. Adding them would have dragged the short film out too long.
Now you’ve read all three articles on Storytelling. I’ve read dozens of screenwriting books, attended several seminars and written over a dozen scripts. I tried my best to clearly sum up all the ‘big ideas’ you should know if you’re going to tell stories.
Storytelling is wonderful for anyone who wants to feel heard. I hope you learned something; whether you’re a screenwriter working on a blockbuster, an entrepreneur trying to get the word out on your Brand, an artist who wants to capture people’s emotions or just a film fan.
I hope you can now see the structure of great stories and feel empowered to go out and create some of your own!
Storytelling for fun, for movie making, screen plays or even just to be HEARD, is an art. Study the basic steps I’ve shared with you and Write On!
Utilize my simple tools to elevate your skills and tell the stories you have to share. We will all be listening!
THANKS FOR READING!
I had a great time writing this for you and I hope you enjoyed it.
Now go out and tell a great story!
P.S. Want to read the other articles in this trilogy?