* Note: There are a million ways to write a script. The three act structure isn’t the only way, but executives tend to talk in the three act paradigm, so it’s useful to writers, even if they don’t subscribe to it. If you use a different paradigm to understand story, I’d love to hear about it.
When I start work with a story coaching client, I like to start with a logline or premise test. Then I like to give this exercise. I call it THE HANDLE, because it allows you to get a handle on your story.
EXERCISE: Write a 200 word version of your outline. Write in in four parts:
50 words on act one.
50 words on act two before the midpoint.
50 words on act two after the midpoint.
50 words on act three.
Example: Groundhog Day (logline): A cynical weatherman gets trapped in a cycle where he must relive the same day over and over again. At first he exploits the situation, then he despairs of it, but he finally changes for the better and frees himself to live a real life.
The handle would go something like:
ACT ONE: Meet PHIL, a cynical jerk of a weather man. He goes to a small town for a story, has an irritating day, and antagonizes his patient producer RITA. He wakes up the next morning and realizes he’s living the same day over again.
ACT TWO A: Phil tests the limits of his powers. He uses his foreknowledge to get ladies, have fun, etc, until he realizes he’s in an existential trap. He decides to score with Rita.
ACT TWO B: Phil chases Rita. At first he gets close, but then he keeps failing – he’s too cynical to get with her. He despairs, tries to kill himself. He fails at that again and again. Finally he has a real conversation with Rita, which encourages him to make a real change.
ACT THREE: Phil decides to change. Using his powers of foreknowledge, he makes sure everyone in Punxsutawney has a perfect day. Rita sees the new caring, selfless Phil and falls in love. Because of this Phil escapes the cycle and can live a normal life as a better man.
* Note I’ve left out the subplot with the old homeless man for clarity. It a key moment in the story, and a huge deviation from the three act structure which is a teachable moment in and of itself. Again, the three act structure is just a useful paradigm (or reductive model for understanding). I’m already dreading clarifying this point to angry people with limited reading comprehension.
This exercise does two things. First, it tests if an idea can fit into the Hollywood three act paradigm, which is really good to know. Second, it’s a toehold for our understanding of the story – we can go back to it when we get lost. Examples:
Problem: My love interest isn’t interesting
Solution: Go back to the handle, rewrite it around her, make sure she’s necessary to the story.
Problem: I’m lost on my theme.
Solution: Write 25 words on what you’re trying to say. Go back to your act breaks and make sure that they communicate what you’re trying to say.
Problem: I’m trying to revise my script and I’m lost.
Solution: Go back to your three act handle.
The handle is a tiny model of your story, you can rewrite them in multiple different ways to test ideas out (save a new draft for each one, otherwise your little model will get as bloated and stressful as your script). It’s hard to rewrite a 25,000 word script in a way that buttresses your theme of “power corrupts, but corruption is awesome” is communicated, it’s much easier to track the theme on the micro level and use that understanding to clarify your thoughts on where the story is lacking connections to the theme.
We often fail at scripts and outlines because they get big and daunting. The 200-word version allows you to get your arms around the story, get a locus of control. The handle also tests your understanding of your own story – if you have a good grip on it, you can write 200 words in 25 minutes. If you’re having trouble, it’s indicative of large problems that will plague you in the days ahead. I use this trick when I get stuck on a story, and I hope you find it useful as well.