Monday, January 4, 2010

Building A Story – ACT II & III: The Basics, The Mechanics

While strolling down a beautiful country road, gravel and dirt included, Finbar is deep in thought. The sound of a speeding and unmanned jeep escapes him… until it nearly hits him.

Finbar soars through the air, landing safely in a ditch. The driver, Olivia Harris; a woman who’s emotionally “all over the place”, hadn’t been paying attention to the road ahead of her and, inadvertently, nearly killed the tiny man. Upon seeing what she’s done, she throws the two-thousand pound lethal weapon in park and leaps out, rushing to the aid of little Finbar. He’s pissed. He doesn’t want to talk to her, he doesn’t want her apology, she’s frantic and in tears and the cold hearted little nymph doesn’t even care. Olivia cares. In fact, she cares so much that she makes a mental vow to make it up to him, and from this point on, will stop at nothing—not even his cold, vile attitude—to include him in socially stimulating activities.

This is the inciting incident of The Station Agent. From here, we begin a journey with Finbar as he in included—willing or unwilling—in the social commotions of Olivia and Joe who, incidentally, runs his hotdog vendor business from the same yard in which Finbar’s new “home” is located.

The investigation comes just after the inciting incident and is the main bulk of your story. It provides the most entertainment value and allows us to see all of the experiences that will, ultimately, lead our protag into the final phase of his transformation, where he/she will then be faced with a story twist, an unexpected crisis and the final confrontation. The investigation of the protagonist is thrust into motion by the occurrence of the inciting incident, and is kept in motion by four elements: obstacles, conflicts, complications and experiences that challenge the character’s world view.

The protagonist’s goal must be obstructed by incarnate forms of the things that have contributed to the wound and flaw, but nurture the evolution of the need, paving a path for the character to travel in order to ‘earn’ it. Your main objective is to throw your protagonist into situations that force him/her out of their comfort zone and confront their affliction. This, in turn, leads to conflict residing inside the character based on the confrontation of that need/flaw. The world around them must front them out, and they’re going to be kicking and screaming the whole way, afraid of change.

In The Station Agent, Finbar experiences this every time he is pressured into joining Olivia and Joe for social activity; his world view tells him that he’s being put in a ‘guard down’ position which is opening him up to criticism, but he’s going to have to learn that it’s something that everyone—regardless of physical, mental , social, emotional disposition—must incur. He’s gotta stop taking everything so personal!

By this point, you’ll need to address how their lives are becoming complicated by the resistance they exhume to the new situation they’ve found.

Based on your protagonist’s affliction, each will cope differently, so this call is entirely up to you and your story. We’ll discuss this more in depth when we examine CHARACTER ARC.

The Turning Point & Twist
The turning point will come once you’ve explored all reaches of the character’s confrontation with investigation. Up until this point, your character has faced subtle—subconscious, even—confrontations with all of the things that challenge his/her personality and affliction the most. They’ve grown, little by little, with every situation and issue, but they haven’t essentially realized it until they meet the turning point. This is where they will come face to face with a very real and very literal problem that forces them to admit that they have a problem but come to understand that they can tackle it with the new wisdom and experience gained during the investigation portion of your story.

Finbar’s turning point comes when he is confronted with life and death. Throughout the story, his miserable persona emits the feeling that he truly believes that his life is worthless, and that he may even be better off dead. This isn’t actually stated anywhere in the story but, based on the value and concern that he takes in his day-to-day life, it’s a thought well provoked.

It happens, one night, when he decides to really let go of the anger, hurt, and embarrassment that he has bottled up inside. He takes to a bar, drinking one round after another and another, becomes completely inebriated and ends up in a fight with the ‘asshole boyfriend’ of a girl who has become a very close friend of his. After making a complete fool of himself at the bar, he staggers home but doesn’t make it inside. He passes out on the tracks just outside his property and is run over by a train. In his final moments of consciousness, he sees the train barreling towards him but is incapable of moving, be it by affect of alcohol or merely the desire to end his pain and suffering altogether.

Finbar wakes up, early, the next morning. Alive! Get this; he survived because, and only because, of his small stature. Had he been a normal sized man, he’d have not survived the encounter.

So what does this illustrate to us, the viewer?

Survival is innate to any human being, despite their quirks or hardships. After coming face to face with an oncoming train and realizing his mortality, Finbar has a new lease on life. He experiences his internal transformation.

The Surprise Crisis
The surprise crisis comes when the protagonist has gained all the knowledge and experience needed to heal their wounds. This event will occur just when the protag believes he/she has finally got it all “figured out”. It’s function is to test the new skill that the character has earned by throwing something dire and extreme into the near-ending path to their goal. This is almost like a test run for the final confrontation.

Finbar’s surprise crisis comes when he wakes up after surviving the train and hurries over to Olivia’s house. He finds her in a state that may have claimed her life, had he not had this unexpected change of heart, and is able to help her before it’s too late. For the viewer, this puts Finbar’s new world view into motion. He takes charge of a situation where a friend needs him, thus breaking every rule he’d set for himself in the beginning of the story. By this point, Finbar’s personality has already shifted, significantly.

The Final Confrontation
The Final confrontation happens where act II and act III merge. When you reach this point, your duty is to bring your protagonist to the very situation that they could not have tackled when we first met them way back in act I/the set up. They will face something that intimidated them the most, proving that they earned their transformation, triumphed over their need and flaw, and have a shifted world view. We’ll explore this more in depth in the upcoming article on the character arc.

Finbar’s final confrontation occurs when he agrees to give a speech on locomotives at a local elementary school. While he doesn’t mention the fact that he was, once, run over by one and lived to tell, he is confronted with the curious and candid scrutiny of a crowded room of ten year olds. To the Finbar that we met in act I, this environment would have been one that he’d have never included himself in.

Our story’s ending draws near with a climax, where the results of the final confrontation settles and resonates, and then moves swiftly into the resolution. Here, you’ll decide if the character has failed or succeeded in the pursuit of their tangible goal, or outer motivation.

The Station Agent’s ending shows us a content and well adjusted man of no more than 4' 5". He is surrounded by his friends, Olivia and Joe the hotdog professional. They sip beer and enjoy a lazy evening, just shooting the breeze. Ultimately, Finbar failed at his main goal—to find refuge from the outside world, to exile himself from every other living being. His success came by way of triumph over his need and flaw; he found comfort with himself and his physical appearance and learned that he COULD be accepted by the outside world and that there would always be a few who’d reject him, but that’s just life and it’s the same way for everyone, no matter how beautiful or hideous, smart or dumb, big or small you are.

No matter if your protagonist is destined to win, lose, or draw; the most crucial aspect that you, the writer, must define lies in the shifting of their personality and the perspective gained from the transformation of their inner motivation. This is your ending.

And though much of the CHARACTER ARC has been addressed and discussed throughout the unwinding of the STORY ARC, we’ll be taking a closer look at it in an upcoming installment, here at Gophergrrrl’s Screenwriting 101. Keep writing and keep working hard!