Take a 120-minute movie and divide it into four equal 30-minute parts. Then each part tells the story about the hero as the hero gradually changes from a dead-end life in the beginning to a changed person in the end.
In most movies with happy endings, the hero starts out downbeat in the beginning (“Rocky”) and gets a better life in the end. In tragedies, the hero starts out with a decent life in the beginning (“The Godfather”) and winds up in a worse life by the end. Whether you’re writing a happy ending or a tragedy, the key to any story is that the hero must change from the beginning to the end.
The way the hero typically changes in a happy ending movie is this:
- Act I – The hero is stuck in a dead end life partially created by his or her own flaws
- Act IIa – The hero enters a new world and uses deception to essentially be two different people, their real self and their new self
- Act IIb – The hero learns that this deception can’t go on and it’s revealed, forcing the hero to admit his or her flaws
- Act III – By admitting his or her flaws, the hero can finally change for good
Dead end life, Deception, Exposure, Final change. This is the pattern the hero goes through to become a better (or worse) person in the end.
Every story is about change. The hero must change drastically from the beginning of the story to the end. That’s why mediocre James Bond movies are boring despite all their action and special effects because James Bond never changes from beginning to end.
Start with your hero’s dead end life (Act I) and decide how that hero will change for the better in the end (Act III). Once you’ve defined this dramatic change, you have the basis for a story.
In “Avatar,” the hero is paralyzed and unable to walk. By the end, he can walk inside his avatar body.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the hero’s family is dysfunctional. By the end, the hero’s family has come together to love and support one another.
In “La La Land,” the hero is a struggling actress. By the end, she’s a successful actress.
Once you know the dramatic change in your hero between Act I and Act III, the next step is to define this transition. In Act IIa, the key is deception. The hero is fooling others and often him or herself as well.
In “Avatar,” the hero is still a paralyzed Marine, but he’s fooling others inside an avatar body. However, he’s essentially two people, a human and an alien.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the family travels to take the little girl to her beauty pageant, but the family doesn’t really get along despite their outward appearances of doing so.
In “La La Land,” the hero dreams about show business, but she’s still working as a barista.
Act IIa is about the hero getting a taste of a new world but still clinging to the past. Now Act IIb is about the hero learning that they can no longer live as two people by deceiving themselves and others.
In “Avatar,” the hero is banned from accessing his avatar body, which makes him realize he’d rather be an alien than a human.
In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the family realizes that they’ll all hurting from failure.
In “La La Land,” the hero puts on a one-person show that appears to bomb so she decides she can’t become an actress any more.
Put all this together and you can see the transition of the hero from within each Act. This is how the transition works in “Die Hard”:
- Act I – The hero is separated from his wife and wants to get back together with her.
- Act IIa – The hero has to hide his identity from the terrorists.
- Act IIb – The hero’s identity and weakness (he’s barefoot) is revealed and he realizes he’s the cause of separating from his wife.
- Act III – The hero defeats the terrorists and saves his wife so he can get back together with her.
This is how this transition works in “Coco”:
- Act I – The hero wants to be a musician but his family is against it.
- Act IIa – The hero has to hide his identity as a living person in the land of the dead.
- Act IIb – The hero’s identity as a living person in the land of the dead is discovered and he realizes that family is more important than anything.
- Act III – The hero uses his music to save his family.
Think of your story first in the dramatic change between your hero in the beginning to the end. Then think of Act IIa and Act IIb as deception and the exposure of this deception. When you can change the hero in each Act to the final dramatic change, that will create the outline of a strong story.