Posts in this series so far:
- Speed-Writing Your First Draft
- How to get story ideas
- Three elements of scene: Goals, conflict, the 12 types of antagonists, and sequels
- Act One: Threatened Characters Make Mistakes
I talk about the second act in my series on plot. Here I’ll continue examining how these 8 C’s of Plotting combine with Theme in Toy Story‘s second act..
Act One gave us a character with a desire that’s threatened. Woody wants to be the favorite toy, and Buzz’s appearance threatened Woody’s position.
The character’s mistakes (or, in a passive protagonist, his inaction or avoidance) put her into an impossible situation or foreign location. This is the “ocean” of Act Two. (The term “ocean” comes from the Paper Wings Podcast.)
Toy Story’s Act One is character-driven. After the inciting incident (Buzz’s arrival), everything that happens in Act One is a result of Woody’s decisions.
Act Two serves three purposes—ABC:
1) provide the protagonist with Allies and Abilities (or, in a tragedy, Enemies and Flaws)
2) develop the B story or Belief (theme), and
3) Challenge the protagonist with different kinds of Conflict
Complication, the Break into Act Two
When we last left Woody and Buzz:
Sheriff, this is no time to panic.
This is the perfect time to panic!
I’m lost, Andy is gone, they’re going
to move from their house in two days,
and it’s all your fault!!
My fault? If you hadn’t pushed me
out of the window in the first place–
Woody and Buzz are stranded at the gas station. Woody nearly got ran over by a semi truck, and he is freaking out. Being lost is the worst possible situation for a toy desperate to be favorite.
Preparation and Problems
The Preparation and Problems section of the plot is the longest section. It’s also the part where most movie trailers gather material from. Blake Snyder calls this section “fun and games”—and that is how the audience will view it, but all of the ABCs listed above need to be introduced and built up during this section. After the Preparation and Problems, the main character should every thing he needs to succeed during the confrontation and the climax.
Note the B story is optional and flexible. When you frame your story with theme, your B story is going to give another opinion or point of view on that theme. If your story is a romance or buddy story, the B story will be the arc of that secondary protagonist.
In Toy Story, here’s the beat sheet:
- Introduce Buzz’s delusions as the B Story (He thinks he’s supposed to save the galaxy from Emperor Zurg—Woody knows he’s just a toy)
- Woody tricks Buzz into getting on the Pizza Planet delivery truck
- W & B sneak into Pizza Planet (obstacle)
- Woody finds Andy; Buzz finds a spaceship crane game (conflicting motivations)
- Sid gets an alien, Buzz and Woody out of the crane game
- Sid takes the toys home, gives the alien to his evil, toy-killing dog Scud (stakes, antagonist)
- Sid steals his sister Hannah‘s doll and performs toy surgery on it (new character; stakes)
- With Sid gone, his room comes to life. B&W are in toy hell—populated by mutants (situation, new characters)
- At Andy’s House, the toys are still looking for Buzz. Andy comes home without Woody. Toys consider it a sign of Woody’s guilt. (pinch point)
- Sid tortures Woody with a magnifying glass, starting his forehead on fire (stakes, tool)
- Trying to escape, Woody uses Buzz’s karate-chop action to fend off the mutant toys (B story)
- Woody and Buzz run into Scud. Woody’s pull-string wakes the dog up. (challenge)
- Buzz sees a commercial for a Buzz Lightyear toy (B story midpoint)
- Buzz tries to fly (B story elation)
- Buzz falls, and his arm pops off, confirming he’s a toy. Hannah picks him up. (challenge, B story collapse)
- Woody falls out of the closet entangled in Christmas lights and finds Buzz at a tea party with Hannah. Woody imitates Hannah’s mom’s voice to get her to leave (tool, obstacle, belief)
- Buzz is Mrs. Nesbit (B story gloom); gives Woody idea to fly out window (obstacle)
Through this section, Woody gains allies (Buzz, the mutant toys) and abilities (the magnifying glass, talking to humans). Buzz’s B story, which was suggested in Act One, gets its own arc here. Woody’s beliefs start changing—earlier he’d be destroyed by truck or magnifying glass before breaking his “toy” character. Woody and Buzz are both challenged, revealing their weaknesses. We also get a “pinch point” reminder of the antagonists Woody will have to face next:his fellow toys at Andy’s house.
Confrontation, Elation, Collapse
Woody throws the Christmas lights to Andy’s toys, and some are happy to see him (elation), but Mr. Potato Head still doesn’t trust him, and reminds the other toys what he did to Buzz. Woody tries to get Buzz to prove to the toys that he’s okay, but Buzz, still depressed, throws his arm at Woody. Woody pretends to be Buzz with just his hand. The toys might just believe him … until he slips up and shows them the severed arm. Now they’re positive he’s a toy killer, and they close the window.
Pixar movies tend to have lengthy gloom periods because they follow big, emotional collapses. Compare this to Dreamworks movies, which tend to have less intense gloom periods. In many stories, especially visual fantasies, the environment or weather conditions will reflect the gloom period.
Here’s a beat sheet for Toy Story‘s gloom:
- Woody tries to save Buzz from the Mutants, who actually mend Buzz’s arm (allies)
- Sid is coming back, and Woody tries to drag Buzz out of the way, but Buzz is still depressed (B story)
- Woody hides, gets trapped; Sid decides to blow up Buzz, but he has to wait until the thunderstorm is gone (obstacle, stakes)
- Andy really misses Woody; he’s moving tomorrow (hope, stakes)
- Woody asks Buzz for help, but Buzz is still depressed.
- Woody explains why being a toy is great. He says Buzz deserves to be the favorite.
As I’ve said before, the Midpoint can happen any time between the Confrontation and the Comprehension. The Midpoint occurs at about 50% and is a shift in thinking or purpose. In Toy Story, Woody’s Confrontation and Collapse happen in the same scene, right after Buzz’s. The Midpoint often occurs during a sequel—when the character has a moment to think. For Buzz, the midpoint is when he’s lying on the ground. He’s not going to keep trying to get back to Star Command anymore—his motivation has changed. For Woody, the plot midpoint starts when Slinky drops the blinds. Woody isn’t going to be the favorite among toys anymore. But Woody’s emotional, character midpoint starts when he says this:
Oh, come on, Buzz. I…Buzz, I
can’t do this without you. I need
and ends when he says this:
Why would Andy ever want to play
with me, when he’s got you?
I’m the one that should be strapped
to that rocket.
Listen Buzz, forget about me. You
should get out of here while you can.
Woody stops focusing on himself being Andy’s favorite toy and starts to realize that he needs others to help him. He starts thinking of Buzz and Andy rather than his own position.
The plot midpoint is the scene, and the emotional midpoint is the sequel. All together, you’ve got a big Scene at the middle of the story that shows a change in direction or motivation.
The comprehension is whatever drags the character out of the gloom.
Come on, Sheriff. There’s a kid
over in that house who needs us.
Now let’s get you out of this thing.
Once out of the gloom, the character needs to make a new plan, which starts Act Three.
Writing Act Two
Have you figured out what your character’s deepest, unconscious desire is?
What does your character believe in Act One? How will that belief change or evolve? What shift will your character experience during the midpoint?
What kind of people, places, and obstacles will help your character arrive at the midpoint?
Remember the 12 different types of antagonists. Brainstorm problems your character might face while en route to the midpoint.
I’m donating some edits for an auction benefitting Summer Heacock. The top 5 bidders will win their choice of a full plot critique or an intense line edit of their first ten pages. Bid here before Monday November 23rd.
Next: Act Three