Our friend Alex over at Complications Ensue is currently entertaining one of the perennial "three-act structure: useful tool or misleading cross-dresser in the bar" discussions. He (as do many guys in both TV and the action movie world) goes for the "sequence" model, while I still hew to a modified version of three act structure. This nicely leads into a whackload of questions about plot and breaking stories I've received. (we'll get to that urgent "How to rewrite" question too, this week ...) Everyone's got their own personal thing. Akiva Goldsman's told me he likes the three act 40/40/40 structure. I'd choke on that long a first act, but he's got an Oscar, I don't. Elliot likes thirty two-minute scenes. I tend to structure plot out in three-page sequences over a 25/50/25 three-act story structure ( I always run fat, that low count's my safety net). So frankly, whatever gets you to page 120.
This difference between TV writers and film guys is pretty common, actually. As one of the relatively few guys who flips back and forth I think this is because in film, a plot's something you move your characters through to change them. In TV, generally, your characters inhabit the plot, but don't really change. (this is evolving, but slowly). The goal of TV characters -- and I'm not even going to try to dive into the meta-osity of this -- tends to be to resume the status quo. TV characters may shift attitudes somewhat at the end of an episode, but they are essentially unchanged. Interestingly, if you look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you can see that there only only incremental changes at most to the characters in each episode, but the seasons produce radical changes in the personalities and lives of each character. I'd say Joss Whedon created 7 movies over 140-odd sequences. Or 1 long movie over 7 emotional swing points.
In short (too late), I believe TV writers have a fundamentally different relationship with story than film writers do.
Back to the discussion at hand. For the newbies, it's important to understand the difference between plot and story. For probably the thousandth time you've heard it:
A story is what happens. Plot is how it happens.
The story is about your characters. What they do, their changing relationships with each other and their surroundings, the choices they're faced with , the results of those choices and how they play out, all illuminating whatever little inner mystery you're trying to explore.
The horrible overly-used term for the character's journey is called, by various annoying executives who've taken a Bob McKee class, the character arc. There is something valid here, however, to focus on, even though there are subtleties in arc theory*. In a movie, your character starts somewhere, and ends somewhere else. Their emotions and the emotions of the tale change. Tracking that journey, breaking it down -- well, let's state this plainly: Breaking your story is not quite the same thing as breaking your plot. And that seems to be where a lot of you young'uns are getting hung.
Let's examine the story and plot breakdown for The Transformers script I just wrote.
Let's look at Alex's example of THE INCREDIBLES (his breakdown, not mine):
/* SPOILERS */
Act One: Mr. Incredible stops all kinds of mayhem. Gets married. Act out: he's sued.
Act Two: Mr. Incredible has miserable ordinary life. Gets in trouble. Act out: Gets fab job offer.
Act Three: Mr. Incredible defeats giant robot. Life is good. Then turns out it's all a setup. Act out: he's nearly killed.
Act Four: Mr. Incredible sneaks into bunker. Act out: Is captured.
Act Five: Mr. Incredible and family fight to defeat Syndrome and destroy his bunker.
Act Six: Mr. Incredible and family fight in the city to defeat Syndrome's robot.
Act Seven: Mr. Incredible and family fight Syndrome and win.
Now, at first glance, that kind of blows the three-act structure out of the water. But the thing is, you're looking at the plot here. The sequence of events which occur around Mr. Incredible's (the family's, actually) story. What complicates matters is that Alex has chosen a movie with essentially a stagger-step, a jump to a new narrative chain in the middle.
If you track Mr. Incredible's story, it's about rejection, isolation, ego, and family. (Here's a fun game to play. Take your favorite movies or unproduced scripts. Say what they're about in one word. It's very interesting.)
Now, I'm not going to go parsing out Brad Bird's genius here. But first, note that the movie is called THE INCREDIBLES, not MR. INCREDIBLE. If you look at Mr. Incredible's relationship with his family and their relationship with each other, and his own internal emotional state, the three act structure's pretty useful.
-- Incredible falls from grace.
-- Incredible is frustrated, angry , unhappy. He feels limited by his obligations to his family. (delineated in really, the only weirdly poor scene of the movie. Mrs. I couldn't be more wantonly bitchy here ...)
-- Incredible gets the opportunity to change his life.
-- Incredible regains his confidence.
-- Incredible is happy / affects relationship with Mrs. I. (distant from family)
-- Incredible, at the moment of his biggest triumph, discovers this is a false paradise.
-- Now, ignoring that fact that at this point it's really Mrs. I and the kids' movie, let's keep going. Incredible realizes he misses/needs his family.
-- Incredible learns to work with his family, growing acceptance ...
-- Incredible and his family are now a team.
-- Incredible's acceptance of his family as team is validated as they succeed in doing what he alone could not.
-- Syndrome at the house is really a weird coda, but it reinforces the same emotional point as the launch into this act, validating the family ethos.
Mr. Incredible moves from frustration to overconfidence to despair to new acceptance. That's the story. The events which bring either motivate these changes or create opportunities for them, that's the plot. You can even see the emotional/relationship change within Alex's own example -- note how in his breakdown, suddenly the phrase "and the family" pops up for second half of the movie. That change is the story right there.
So am I saying that it wouldn't matter what happened to bring Incredible low, or that he could have fought a frikkin' dinosaur instead of a giant robot, or that the plans of the villain were irrelevant? -- hell no. Choosing the cool/appropriate/telling plot points to move your story along is what makes you a good -- or in Brad Bird's case, brilliant -- writer. Melding plot to story, choosing the right plot for your story, sometimes orchestrating your plot so nobody notices the story ... in every way that's the craft.
You'll note I tend to put way, way more emphasis on the midpoint than many people. That's because, for me, it's the tentpole of the second act. I often mock my friend DJ for saying this, but he holds that "The midpoint is where the movie ... becomes an entirely different movie." I have to admit, that wrench is way more useful in the toolbox than I would've thought.
So, if you're stuck, the problem may be that you're tyring to break your plot before you've really structured your story. Try focusing on your story first, in the larger broad strokes of emotional movement, or conflict/obstacle. Then, when you have that working, figure out how the plot works to get you through your story. Just be aware that these are two separate jobs, and that may help you.
Let's say I'm breaking my movie. For example, in my first act, do I need to have introduced every character, every element, every detail ... ? No, I just need to know, by page 28, what everybody's status is, how they feel about it, and promise an interesting change. Complications ensue (heh) from decisions, leading to a big story change/obstacle in the middle, more struggles with obstacles in either heightened or changed emotions, and the in act three, all the decisions come home to roost. Once I've got my story broken, then I can worry about the plot structure and tone appropriate to this particular piece.
Later this week: Nuts and Bolts
*specifically, most executives only consider transformative arcs. There are also revelatory arcs. Almost every big-budget franchise hero (and good villain) has a revelatory arc.