Day 16: Come Ups - Save the Cat First Act Break
You can download the Catalyst section of Act 1 in both the original and STC versions at the links below:
Yesterday, we continued our journey through the first act of my screenplay Come Ups, comparing the Original Version (OV) with the Save the Cat (STC) draft. I explained the decision to expand the Catalyst moment into a sequence of events that culminated with the Primary Catalyst occurring on page 16 of the STC version and on page 20 in the OV version. Today I will pick up with the Primay Catalyst and continue through the Debate and Act Break.
While the Primary Catalyst begins on page 16, 9 pages before the required Act Break, it is not a singular moment, such as our hero getting word that he is terminally ill or loses his job, something of that nature. Rather, this is an extended action sequence that will literally shoot the heroes world to hell. I have to be very cognizant of this action sequence because I only have 9 pages to complete it, have the Debate where the hero will ponder his options and finally make the decision to act thereby sending our story in a new direction and into Act 2.
It is clear by looking at the OV draft that I did not take this into consideration. The action goes on and on and on. It doesn’t come to an end until page 27, two pages past the prescribed Act Break on page 25 and I haven’t even had a moment of debate yet. Applying the STC paradigm would mean cutting a significant portion or doing some major rewriting and restructuring. I also have a problem unique to this script in that we are actually following two sets of characters: Reydel and his cohorts and our trio of friends in the boat - Grady, Shep and Tyler. There is also a third character in Hiram, but we haven’t actually met him yet. That is a reveal I’m holding until the second act, but he plays a part here.
For the typical 3-act structure screenplay, we follow one hero and one villain who are in opposition to each other until their final confrontation where one must emerge victorious. Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader. Jake Gittes versus Noah Cross. Here it is more complex. Our good ol’ boys are obviously in conflict with Reydel, but Reydel is also in conflict with Hiram. Hiram is also in conflict with the good ol’ boys, but this is only hinted at currently through the seemingly corrupt cops caught in the gun battle of the earlier meet up. This is one way of playing with the 3-act structure to make your story unique and standout from the crowd. It’s also a bit of a gambit because I am setting up two different story lines that need to come together. At this point, neither story has been clearly identified as being protagonist or antagonist and I risk confusing the audience. To avoid convolution, both the good ol’ boys and Reydel will have to be established as to which is the protagonist and which is the antagonist. Each will also have to have a clear act break to launch their stories into Act 2.
I’ve already set the seeds that Reydel will be the antagonist. He is, after all, doing an illicit drug deal and working with corrupt cops. As innocents who just stumbled into a bad situation, the good ol’ boys are marked as the protagonist. This has been reinforced by Grady and Shep’s attempt to offer comfort to a dying man. Although, Tyler is painted as something of a dick. Once Reydel arrives on scene at the Primary Catalyst moment, he and his forces go on the attack; Shep and his buddies just want to get out of there, and our character types are pretty much set.
The battle of the Primary Catalyst is the pay off for the earlier Set Up and sequence of Catalyst Events that have been building tension and raising stakes. It is this payoff that allows me to push that big moment a few pages after the point at which Blake Snyder calls for it in the STC paradigm. As the battle wages, we see Tyler escape with the money and drugs. This allows Reydel to be occupied while Grady and Shep dispatch Mateo and Carlos. Just when Grady and Shep think they might be safe, Reydel returns for some more battle. Now we are down to just our primary characters – Reydel versus the good ol’ boys – which will be the basis for the remaining conflict of the story.
In the OV draft, Grady and Shep escape into the woods with Reydel in pursuit. While there can be some good slow burn tension with the creeping in the brush, what I found was that continuing the pursuit was simply wearing on the reader/audience. They needed a break from all the action in order to process it and stay engaged. It was a case of too much of a good thing. It also added a lot pages and pushed the act break will into what should have been second act pages. Tyler also disappeared for this whole section and we sort of lost track of him. Obviously, I needed to do some cutting to keep the audience engaged and get Tyler back into the story in time to make the Act Break on page 25.
The simple solution was to have Reydel run out of shots. He is forced to give up the pursuit and turn his attention elsewhere. This is actually Reydel’s Act Break. Having to rethink his options, he calls Ramon for help. The period of debate between the end of the Catalyst and that Act Break is brief, but the need for speed was necessary because of the rapid pace of events. With Reydel beginning to execute his new direction, I needed to wrap up his first act story. But first, I had to deal Grady and the injured Shep who are fleeing through the woods unaware if Reydel is following them or not. They reconnect with Tyler via cell phone and make plans to meet. When they do, their portion of the Catalyst is over. This is followed by a brief Debate Beat on what to do next. Grady wants to take Shep to the hospital; Tyler wants to go to Grady’s house and let Grady nurse his wounded brother (another toss to Grady’s military experience from the Set Up). When Grady refuses, Tyler pulls his gun. This is the Primary Act Break. The Act Break requires something to happen, an event or an action that will spin the story in a new, unexpected direction. Tyler pulling a gun on his friend certainly fits that bill. Now, the hero must make a decision as a result of the action; he moves purposefully his objective. Here is where I had a problem.
In the OV draft, Shep was unconscious at this point. Grady goes along with Tyler’s plan because Tyler has a gun on him. There are actually two problems with this. Neither Grady nor Shep make any decision on this; it is made for them by Tyler. Although it is not evident at this point, the story will come around to Shep. He will be our ultimate hero facing off with Hiram, our ultimate villain. This state of flux regarding the characters will create a dynamic and fluid story structure that will keep the audience off balance as to what will happen next. But according to Snyder and the STC paradigm, our hero must make the decision that will alter the course of the story at the Act Break. If Shep is unconscious, he can’t make that decision. He can’t simply wake up in a new world. He must choose. By allowing Shep to be conscious, he can now make the decision to side with his brother against his best friend. This also eliminates the weak story point that Grady was forced into the situation. Instead, he acquiesces to his friend's request. This reflects on our Save the Cat moment from earlier in the script. It is not necessarily in his best interest to take Shep to his own house, but it shows he is willing to stand by his friend. He doesn't let the moment pass, however, without letting Tyler know the young man had little say in the situation by quickly disarming him. Now Grady can make the ultimate decision on what to do and our heroes world will be shaped by that decision. They have all had a part in this. This then is their Act Break and it begins on page 25 as Snyder calls for in the STC paradigm.Th
e Act Break is not singular moment and it is not the end of the act. It is the moment the turns the story in a new direction and the hero gets to ponder or reflect on the moment before making a decision to act upon his options. This may take a page or two to be fully realized, but it needs to start on page 25.
Once we have passed through the Act Break, it’s simply a matter of wrapping up the loose ends so we can get into Act 2. There is a brief moment of tension as Reydel’s car and Grady’s SUV barrel toward each other, but neither party wants any further confrontation at this point. Grady and company safely zoom away, heading to Grady’s house with the hope they can remain anonymous and get out of this situation. Reydel has one last moment when he discovers Grady’s boat and the vessel’s registration number. That gives him a chance to find the three men and rectify the situation with Hiram. It is literally a ‘gotcha moment,’ and Reydel has a plan to save his own life. It’s a strong point to end the act on and it comes on page 28 of the STC draft. Syd Field, in his book Screenplay, calls for the Act Break to happen on page 25 and everything to be wrapped up by page 28. I’ve hit both points. In the OV draft, I didn’t reach the Act Out until page 36, 8 pages late.
And that’s the contrast and comparison of two different versions of the first act. One is as written and the other is conformed to the Save the Cat method. The STC draft is leaner, meaner and a much easier read. I have stayed within the paradigm of STC, but played with the structure slightly in both the style of the story and in manipulating the Catalyst Beat. These alterations will make the completed film different from other Hollywood movies. The final arbiter on whether the story successfully pulls off this fluid structure will be the paying audience. But before it can get to that point, it has to pass muster with the Hollywood readers who will come at the script with their own set of baggage.
This isn’t how a story is supposed to go! We have to know who it is about from the beginning.
The fluid nature of whose story it is will be an issue that I will have to overcome. Doing this analysis though, has allowed me to really inspect the elements of my story and keep me on track. I had to justify every decision I made, and if the justification didn’t work, I had to rework the scenes until it did.
Now, take a look at the first act of your own screenplay and analyze it beat-by-beat as I have done. Do you hit the beats as prescribed? If not, why not? Can you legitimately justify every discrepancy? And ‘because I like it this way’ is not a justification. It must provide clarity and progression to your story. It won’t be easy, but if screenwriting were easy, everyone would be doing it.