When coming up with a story, Act I must define what the hero wants emotionally. Then Act I must provide a physical path for the hero to achieve that emotional goal.
In “Don’t Breathe,” the hero is a teenage girl who wants to escape her abusive mother and take her little sister with her. To do this, the hero needs money so her physical path to this emotional goal is to break into the home of a rich man who happens to be blind.
Act I defines what the hero wants emotionally along with a physical path to achieve that emotional goal. Then Act IIa is all about the hero getting closer to achieving that emotional goal, but with a huge problem.
With “Don’t Breathe,” the hero breaks into the rich man’s house with her two friends and she appears on the verge of achieving her emotional goal, which is to get enough money so she can take her little sister and leave their abusive mother.
Now comes the huge problem. Once inside the rich, blind man’s house, the blind man traps them inside his house and starts hunting them down. Although he’s blind, he’s also incredible dangerous. Now Act IIa is all about the hero trying to get her goal (the rich man’s money) without getting caught or killed in the process.
In “Tootsie,” the hero doesn’t realize that his emotional need is to learn to treat women better. His physical path to achieving this goal is to masquerade as a woman and win a female role in a soap opera.
Now in Act IIa, the hero achieves fame and starts pursuing his co-star romantically, but he can’t because his co-star thinks he’s a woman. Now what?
That’s the key to Act IIa. It creates a “now what happens next?” moment. In “Don’t Breathe,” the hero is close to stealing the rich man’s money, but she has to avoid getting caught or killed. In “Tootsie,” the hero is close to fame and love, but he can’t because everyone thinks he’s a woman.
Watch any good movie and notice what happens in Act IIa, That’s when the hero appears on the verge of success, but has to deal with a new problem that’s getting in the way of complete and total success.
In “Die Hard,” Act IIa is about the hero trying to contact the police to achieve his ultimate goal of getting back with his wife. To do this, he needs the police to wipe out the terrorists.
However in Act IIa, the terrorists start hunting him down while he’s trying to contact the police. That’s a huge problem that the hero doesn’t overcome until he finally manages to contact the police at the end of Act IIa.
The structure of a screenplay is simple:
- Act I — Define the hero’s emotional goal and physical path to that goal
- Act IIa — Show the hero close to achieving the emotional goal but an obstacle blocks the physical path
- Act IIb — Show the hero appearing to lose the emotional goal as a greater obstacle threatens to shut the physical path for good
- Act III — Show the hero achieving the emotional goal by changing and defeating the villain who’s blocking the physical path to the goal
Once you define your story in this simple structure, you can then start fleshing out the details of your story.