Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rulebook Casefile: The Big Crash in Frozen

In my notes service, this is a note I give all the time. The heroes begin “Act 2” with a goal, and then they reach that goal far too many pages later, just in time to begin the climax in “Act 3”. But one reason I’ve never been a fan of the “Three-Act Structure” is that it ignores the real turning point, which should usually be the midpoint.

If your heroes commit to a big goal at the ¼ point of your story, they should reach that goal at the midway point, fully assuming that their challenge is now over, only to find that the easy way has culminated in a disaster. Either they fail spectacularly, or they find that achieving their goal has only made things worse.

In Frozen, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf reach Elsa’s palace, only to get kicked out and mortally injured, which sends them off on another quest, temporarily forgetting their quest to get Elsa to shut down eternal winter. Here’s that Scriptnotes podcast again:
  • John August: So, one of the most surprising things that happens next is Anna gets to Elsa, which you sort of think of the quest of the movie, well eventually they’re going to get there and it will all be resolved by then. But at the midpoint of the movie —
  • Jennifer Lee: That’s a good point, yeah.
  • John: They actually get there and they have the conservation and The First Time in Forever and then like things seem like they’re going to be okay.
  • Aline Brosh-McKenna: God, another great tip for writers which is you can just go and do it.
  • John: Don’t delay it. Actually just start it. And it surprises you because you’re not expecting, you know, you establish a journey. So, like, oh, the journey is to get there. And like, oh, but we’re here. And so what else can happen? Well, she can shot in the heart with it and Elsa can refuse to change and shut them out and build an abominable snowman and sort of become more monstrous herself.
This can be a painful note to get, because it forces you to restructure your whole story, compressing your “Act 2” down to half as many pages, then adding a midpoint disaster and a second, harder quest before the climax is reached, but audiences demand this. They don’t want you to park it in cruise control for the middle of the story. They know how long your story is, but they don’t want your characters to know it. Your characters should be shocked to discover that their story is only half over after the big crash.

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