Three act structure and character arc

QUESTION:  In Big Hero 6, and I was surprised to see that the protagonist’s flaw (Hiro coping with the loss of his brother) and the antagonist’s flaw (Professor Robert Callaghan coping with the death of his wife) were essentially the same. Are a lot of movies like this?

It actually may help to pretend that all movies were written this way. They’re not, obviously, but it’ll help you model a certain archetypal structure:

Act one: Hero introduced, flaw introduced, goal introduced.

Act two: Hero struggle for goal in some genre-specific way. Learns incremental lessons from each struggle. Antagonist introduced: powerful, evil.

Midpoint: Hero begins to change.

Act two B: hero, having embodied change, begins to kick ass and take names. But he’s faking it till he makes it, and in a crucial challenge he fails. Antagonist remains powerful, evil.

Act three: Hero learns for real, embodies the change. He sees antagonist (powerful, evil) but realizes antagonist is a dark mirror of himself and by some (genre specific) way, exploits that and wins. Story becomes thematic propaganda for whatever lesson you want. By doing X, hero stops being Y and wins. By being Y, antagonist was always vulnerable, and despite the clear power advantage, was beaten by the power of change and the theme.

This is reductive, but it’ll help you nail that archetype, once you do that it’s much easier to write things that aren’t that.


If your logline makes more sense after adding “they fight zombies,” it’s not ready yet.

Most people pitch loglines that are all first act, no second act.

Here are a few anemic loglines that were all submitted on reddit at one time or another. The bolded part is where I added zombie fighting.

  1. Three Irish teenagers attempt to impress girls and make new friends whilst navigating the minefield that is 21st century adolescence… by fighting zombies.
  2. A lonely real-estate mogul rallies against a group of belligerent teens who refuse to let their youth center close down, even though it’s falling apart and is dangerously not up to code. Then the teens turn into zombies.
  3. In the late 1800’s, on a city of ships, a Civil War veteran must rescue and protect his daughter from those who run the city and those who toil beneath it… vicious zombies.
  4. A downtrodden sushi chef seeks to escape New-New-Nagasaki and the slavery of making MegaTuna-Tummy-Snacks (secretly made from the organs of drug-stuffed prisoners), but the SuperDuperYakusa will not let their addictive bestseller go so easily… so the chef must fight zombies.

They’re incomplete because I don’t see what the second act is. Hence adding some form of “they fight zombies” makes the premise, the stakes, and the second act clearer because it adds something where there once was nothing.

These loglines are more complete:

  1. A notorious food critic’s jealously-guarded anonymity is threatened when he is forced to spend the day reviewing fine dining restaurants with his stoner brother-in-law.(Given that the stakes are his anonymity and putting up with annoying family, adding zombies would trivialize the established stakes and make less sense)
  2. A lazy stoner runs for public office to keep marijuana illegal so he can continue selling weed instead of getting a real job. (This suggests an election comedy, and is pretty complete. The lazy stoner fighting zombies isn’t going to be that much different than a driven mechanic fighting zombies, so adding zombies doesn’t make it more sensible).
  3. Lisa Prescott, the last woman alive after a violent plague, is a fugitive for refusing government pressure to have children. Guarded by a handful of traitorous soldiers, all vying for her love, she searches for sanctuary. (Given that the premise is “last women alive in a world of desperate men, adding zombies muddies what’s already there).

Compare “the last woman alive” to “the man protecting his daughter.” They’re similar, but the former is more fraught because we know the world and we know what’s specific about what she’ll be facing. In the latter example, the zombies make things more specific.

A logline should suggest an answer to this simple question: “How does the character go about accomplishing what he wants to do?”

Caveman screenwriters

Caveman Screenplay
Early screenwriters attempt at a story pitch. It was rejected for not being a tentpole, which was invented later that day.

From Wikipedia: R. Dale Guthrie… hypothesizes that the main themes in the paintings and other artifacts (powerful beasts, risky hunting scenes and the representation of women in the Venus figurines) are the work of adolescent males, who constituted a large part of the human population at the time. 

Dean Snow of Pennsylvania State University has proposed that a proportion of them, including those [handprints] around the spotted horses in Pech Merle, were of female hands.

The anthropologists present a very heteronormative view of creativity. Boys drawing the equivalent of guns, cars, and babes, girls drawing horses and making stencils in the anticipation of paper and dressers being invented so they could decoupage.


Two CAVE BOYS sit around the fire.
CAVE BOY 1: I’m so tired. We hunter-gathered so much today! I want to eat and then attempt to mate. I’m not exactly sure why, but I suspect it might have something to do with passing on my genetic legacy.
CAVE BOY 2: Good options… or, and I know this sounds crazy, but what if we gathered some pigment and drew a story about how we killed a mammoth single-handed and made out with the hottest girls in the tribe.
CAVE BOY 1: But we didn’t, that would be a representation of a life that was much more awesome than the ones we… oh, I get it! Totally in.


Two cave girls paint a horse.
CAVE GIRL 1: This is bullshit! I want to do hunting scenes. Why do I always get stuck with the “female-driven” assignments?
CAVE GIRL 2: Look at those two paint. Their creative aptitude is making them as attractive as a much more talented hunter would be.

CAVE GIRL 1: Dammit, Jennifer, you’re setting back the cause of equality!

If characters are clear, they’re already relatable.

People work way too hard at making characters “relatable.” All you have to do is make them clear.

A recent study suggests that snipers are the most empathetic soldiers because they actually watch their targets. If a sniper can relate to his enemy, we can relate to anyone, so long as they’re clearly drawn.

How do you put the audience into a character? Easy. Show one. You’d have to go out of your way to keep the audience from imprinting on them. It could be a raccoon, a homeless man or the President. Just fade in on them and we are them until we have a better choice.

If there are choices, the audience picks someone to whom they relate. When in doubt, they follow their pity. Fade in on a raccoon being chased by a bear, we are the raccoon. Fade in on a room full of ambassadors. The President walks in and trips on the carpet. We are the President. When you feel sorry for someone, you’re using the same part of your brain you use to identify with them. ~ DAN HARMON

Improv for screenwriters – Yes And

Improv for screenwriters – Yes-And

The basic rule of improv is “yes and.” If someone offers information, you say “Yes…” and then add some information.

For instance:

A: “Did you hear about the logger?”

B: “Yes and it’s crazy that he went mad and killed those 16 people in that diner.”

A: “Yes, and I was lucky to escape.”

B: “Yes and I’m sorry you lost your leg… and your football scholarship.”

A: “Yes, and now I work in the mines”

B: “Yes, and you always remind us about the logger. It made national news. We all know.”

A: And scene.

You can use yes/and to accomplish any scene you want, just cut out the “yes/ands”

There are nuances to this, but this is something a screenwriter ought to know how to do, especially if they have trouble with scenes.. The better you are at improv, the better your yes and’s will be. I’m sure someone will chime in with exceptions to the rule, and you’ll get to see me wildly try to bend over backwards to justify how this generally helpful simplification is still applicable.

I tried this on reddit. /u/whoizz [2] was brave enough to play along with me, and we generated this scene[3] .

As scenes go, it’s not the best. It’s shaky and expository. But it’s actually more coherent than a lot of beginner scenes because it’s got a clear intent, and every line agrees with each other.

Improv doesn’t necessarily create “finished” scenes, but it helps to create the understanding, character empathy, and immediacy you’ll need to finish a scene.

Here’s the same scene only more polished. Yes and-ing creates the understanding that you need before you can apply more advanced technique.

If you want to test me on this, offer up any line of dialogue you want in the comments section, and I’ll yes and a scene with you. I’ll reply “Yes and ____” and you do the same after, and we’ll continue until one of us calls “scene.”