How to Drive the Hero to Defeat

In the first half of any story, the hero gradually starts getting a better life. Then at the midpoint of the story, everything shifts. Suddenly the villain is on the verge of success while the hero’s life starts falling apart. The entire structure of a story can be divided into four Acts:

  • Act I – Exposition
  • Act IIa – Positive rising action
  • Act IIb – Negative rising actioni
  • Act III – Climax

The beginning of Act IIb (right after the midpoint) starts with life going badly for the hero, but the hero managing to salvage a minor victory anyway. However the second part of Act IIb is where life really goes downhill for the hero. While the hero starts suffering, the villain reaches his or her high point to get on the verge of success. 

By the end of Act IIb, the hero hits a Rock Bottom moment while the villain nearly achieves total and complete success. The only thing stopping the villain from achieving complete success is that the hero still has the Symbol of Hope.

The Symbol of Hope is something that appears early in Act I. In “Star Wars,” this Symbol of Hope was Luke seeing the hologram of Princess Leia. In “WALL-E,” this Symbol of Hope was the hero finding a plant. Whatever appears in the hero’s life, this Symbol of Hope gives the hero a direction to follow.

Act IIa and Act IIb act like mirror images. In Act IIa, the hero pursues a Symbol of Hope and finally achieves a goal related to the Symbol of Hope by the midpoint scene. Then as Act IIb begins, the hero gradually loses control of the Symbol of Hope.

Where the hero’s fortunes continuously rise throughout Act IIa, the hero’s fortunes suddenly reverse and go downhill throughout Act IIb. 

In “Legally Blonde,” the hero’s character flaw is that she thinks she needs a man to succeed. By the end of Act IIb, her law professor wants sex in exchange for passing her in his class. Now the hero must face the true consequences of clinging to her character flaw.

In “Die Hard,” the hero’s character flaw is that he’s arrogant. Only when the villain finally discovers his wife’s identity and he fears he’ll never see her again does the hero finally realize that his arrogance is what broke them apart. 

In “Top Gun: Maverick,” the hero’s character flaw is that he’s always been a loner who cared only for himself. Once he has been relieved of his duties as an instructor and grounded, he realizes that being a loner will no longer help him any more.

Forcing the hero to face his or her character flaw is crucial. Two other important elements in this part of the story also involves losing the Symbol of Hope and being separated from the mentor, often through death. By nearly losing the Symbol of Hope, the hero’s fortunes hit a Rock Bottom moment. By losing the mentor, the hero feels lost without guidance.

The following occurs in this part of the story:

  • The villain reacts to the hero’s minor victory by attacking the hero directly for the first time
  • The hero loses control of the Symbol of Hope
  • The hero’s mentor often dies or is unavailable to help the hero
  • The hero hits Rock Bottom where the villain appears victorious and the hero must finally deal with his or her character flaw

In “Top Gun: Maverick,” the hero’s mentor dies and he’s grounded (losing his Symbol of Hope). 

In “Die Hard,” the villain finally learns the identity of the hero’s wife (the hero loses the Symbol of Hope) and the mentor is on the ground while the hero is trapped in the skyscraper.

In “Legally Blonde,” the hero feels like she has no choice but to leave law school (the loss of her Symbol of Hope) while her mentor watches helplessly as she plans to quit.

The second half of Act IIb is all about attacking the hero and driving them to complete despair so they hit the lowest point of the entire story.

Exercise: Pick a favorite two hour movie and study the movie from the 75 minute mark to the 90 minute mark. How does the hero lose the mentor? How does the hero lose the Symbol of Hope? How does the hero finally admit his or her character flaw in a visual manner?

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