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Intermission / Getting Started with 12 Lines

If you’re a certain age, like under sixty, you may not know that movies once came with an intermission. A chance for youngsters to run out to the lobby and line up for popcorn and Milk Duds again. Old gals could put on a little lipstick, and old guys could ease their prostates.


If you’re a certain age, like under sixty, you may not know that movies once came with an intermission. A chance for youngsters to run out to the lobby and line up for popcorn and Milk Duds again. Old gals could put on a little lipstick, and old guys could ease their prostates.
But for our intermission, I’d like for you to watch a movie. Watch a few of them. Watch a dozen.
If you’ve read any screenwriting books, you know about the exhortation to write the ninety minute script. However, it isn’t that easy to find a ninety minute movie. I found a few on my shelves (give or take a couple of minutes), and some research on Netflix ought to net you several more.
The two-hour movie is just as useful for this exercise, as is the film that runs about a hundred minutes (which I figure is what happens to the ninety minute script anyway), and easier to divide into four parts.
Look for the running time on the box, divide a rounded off number by four (96 minutes, 105 minutes, call it 100 minutes). Watch the movie as you usually would, but stop it shortly past each quarter and take stock. Although a turning point could show up at twenty-eight minutes instead of twenty-five, it might also have appeared a little earlier. As you watch each film, look for the archetypes: orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr, or whatever it makes you happier to call the last act. Last act works. The main thing about the last act, the protagonist gives it his all, he relinquishes the flaw, he surrenders, and releases all resistance for the greater good, which, happily for us, is winning, even if on the soul level, which can look like our hero died. Watch to see how the archetypes apply to the main character. The viewpoint character.
And enjoy the movie.

Getting Stared with 12 Lines:

Okay, some brief paragraphs are good, a dialogue probably great, a full page also acceptable. What I want to talk about are plot points for the first act—required scenes, if you will. You may not need this list, you will certainly have heard of everything you find on it, and meeting the main character will be painfully obvious. But s/he could hardly be left out, right?
Also, you may have a firm grip on the opening. But I start fast, only slowing down as I wander deeper into the woods. More often than not I find it necessary to back track as I write, adding details as I need them, and over time I’ve realized many of those pesky things need layering into the first act. The first draft of the first chapter may double in length by the time I reach the last line of the last chapter of my first draft of a novel.
So now I have a list of what to look for as I come near the finish line. I can look back any time, of course, and I do, all the way through, but it’s as I finish the story that I need to be sure later ‘facts of the story’ show up earlier. And I need reminding of what I kept adding in, and wonder what will help me round off or come full circle.
So here it is:

1> we meet the main, or the stakes character (someone very important to him), or a victim, or the villain of the story that has a victim, or an antagonist, an observer, a supportive character—given that we have so many choices, the important thing is to determine the ROLE this character will play as soon as possible.
My own leanings are toward meeting the main character first, plus one other character, so there’s a possibility of dialogue (I mostly write in first person), and better yet, conflict. If you often write in third person, you probably find these shared openings more manageable too.

2> a scene in which we see “the hero’s flaw in relation to the stakes character.” This reveals the parameters of the main’s inner story, one that requires spiritual or moral strength and substance.
The stakes character may be someone more helpless or dependent upon the main (Baby), but may also be someone fully functioning that represents the better model the main might grow into (Maude). These characters may not do anything more actively supportive than carry a trait the main needs in order to be fully functional themselves, but generally, in terms of writing efficiently, we tend to give these characters more than one purpose in the story. In Maude, a lot of the plot movement depended on the more mature older sister, who is in trouble through no real fault of her own.
The scene in which the flaw is demonstrated usually has a strong emotional element.

3> there’s what is termed the inciting incident. It isn’t the larger story reversal of the first turning point, and in fact, it shows up much sooner. In some stories, it’s part of the opening of the story where we are first meeting the main character. It is always a point of conflict, else why would the main move out of his comfort zone.
It’s entirely your choice whether to start your story in the midst of an inciting incident, or to begin in the main’s familiar and comfortable world, just before the trouble begins. There is always a strong emotional element to the inciting incident, as well as a physical challenge. Many of us find it easier to open a story with a scene that allows us to tackle one element at a time, and when the inciting incident arrives, the emotional element is already evident and we can concentrate on the physical challenges of moving our characters through a troubled time.
Actually, it’s the way some stories are told best that determines our choice, but it’s always worthwhile to consider an unexpected entry into a story we feel happens on too familiar ground.

4> we meet the opposition (sometimes called the antagonist or the villain), and just as in meeting the stakes character, we see both the reason/justification from their point of view for becoming the opposition, we also see why this character(s) is a particular challenge for the main. Is it lack of experience to meet this challenge, is it tied to the flaw too? Or is it a misjudgment of some kind, even a misunderstanding, that creates friction?
And of course, as we write, we’re looking for signs of a plot. It’s when the opposition enters the picture that the plot shows up.

5> the main expresses a desire to change things, states his intention to improve things, make up for an injustice, find meaning in an unexpected loss or tragedy, or otherwise makes an emotional goal statement that gives the story its direction. Sometimes this statement is made in response to an event (the inciting incident), but sometimes it’s made in response to a challenge from another character.
Keep in mind this statement may be action rather than dialogue.

6> we meet other characters, and generally they fall into two categories: they are there to help, or they are there to obstruct. The most interesting of these are the characters who love us, who say something hurtful that is ultimately helpful, or those who don’t mean to help but are inadvertently supportive. These characters are more realistic for their ambivalence or cluelessness.

7> these characters show up in the course of the action of the story: they are the neighbor who alerts Aunt Patty to the nieces sitting on her roof, the boy who lives in the same apartment building and who saw Casey’s stepmother leave, and they are the gypsies who try to move in on her, they are family members, and strangers met on the road, people on the other end of the phone call, and sometimes they are dogs, and robots, and aliens, and witches. In the world of story, anything is possible.

8> apart from the inciting incident, there are necessary scenes to the opening of a story. One of these is resistance on the part of the main. Termed “refusal of the call,” by Joseph Campbell, this is the acknowledgment of fear and awe in the main. It may be a brief instant during which they are already in motion but feeling uncomfortable about it, or it may be a larger story movement during which they deliberate over pros and cons, the benefits and consequences of engaging with an opponent of greater strength, for instance.
Generally speaking, this is a point when the stakes are considered, and the stakes character will come into play as a purposeful motivator.

9> a greater threat is generally offered to move the main off this point of stasis, however momentary it may be—whether it’s the villain’s shift to a bigger, more lethal weapon, or the threat of a private embarrassment becoming a public humiliation, or an apparent small injury alerting medical professionals to a larger health problem, the level of threat fits the degree of resistance, and the story moves forward.

10> there is an emotional scene that describes or dramatizes the consequences of losing the game to the opponent. It may be a point at which the main experiences a loss, or it may be a scene in which the main and another character, usually the stakes character, successfully meet a head-on challenge together.
Consider the scenes you already have, and decide if one of them might be tweaked to underline what’s at stake for the main.
For that matter, what’s at stake for the stakes character?

11> a related (to what’s at stake) scene is one in which we see the main struggling with the changes that are required of him. It’s not so much resistance at this point as it is meeting the challenge of our own weaknesses, relinquishing complacency and comfort. If you love jelly donuts, if you love cats, if you love trekking in the wilderness, what would it take for you to give up what you love for life, no parole and no vacation time/respite in sight? If the challenge is greater, if the stakes are higher, how strong can you be?
Pick your poison, give serious consideration to the difficulties of change, self-imposed or otherwise, and transfer these shortcomings to your main’s situation.

12> and finally, the scene in which the main takes action. If he has needed clarity to take decisive action, through the aforementioned scenes he has achieved that clarity; if he needed to overcome a fear or lack of skills, he has enough of what he needs to go forward with an intention to get what else he needs while on the move; if he needed allies or weaponry or strategy, he has acquired enough to begin, and has some idea where he’ll find more. The main knows now what is required of him, what difficulties he faces or who his enemies are, and the consequences of failing to achieve his goals.
The consequences are always related to the stakes character, and to the stakes in general, as the main achieves a physical win, emotional growth, and spiritual and/or moral advancement. In fact, as you write toward the end of the story, it’s wise to keep the stakes, and the embodying character, uppermost in your thoughts, because a threat to the well being of this character is the greatest impetus to keep your main moving through the challenges he faces.

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