Act Three: The Final Exam (NaNoWriMo Final Week)

Psst…Are you on Twitter? If so, follow @LaraEdits! Today I tweeted the difference between formal and fiction writing.


Posts in this series so far:

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.

Last time we left Woody, his motivation changed—instead of being motivated by his desire for position (both the physical spot on Andy’s bed and as the head honcho among toys), he’s now motivated by a desire to be a good friend. The “Break into 3” is the comprehension, as you’ll remember:


Come on, Sheriff. There’s a kid
over in that house who needs us.
Now let’s get you out of this thing.

Yes Sir!

Once out of the gloom, the character needs to make a new plan, which starts Act Three.

Act Three

Act Three’s Action, Curveball, Final Battle, Culmination, and Resolution are similar to Act Two’s Preparation and Problems through its Elation period. Here’s how they match up:

Act Two Act Three
Preparation & Problems Action
(last, worst problem) Curveball
Confrontation Final Battle
 (end of confrontation) Culmination
Elation Resolution

The differences between the three acts are motivation, growth, and theme.


  1. In Act One, the immediate goal is introduced and the ultimate goal is suggested.
  2. In Act Two, the immediate goal is achieved or changed and the ultimate goal is realized.
  3. In Act Three, the ultimate goal is achieved or changed.


  1. In Act One, the protagonist starts with a sense of normalcy, which gets threatened and thrown into chaos.
  2. In Act Two, the protagonist learns how to adapt to that chaos (or “ocean”) by learning abilities and gaining allies.
  3. In Act Three, the protagonist uses everything he or she learned in Act Two to gain a new normal.


  1. In Act One, the protagonist has an established belief about the world.
  2. In Act Two, that belief is challenged (sometimes also demonstrated by a B story)
  3. In Act Three, the protagonist develops a new belief.

Sometimes the theme is demonstrated by a dilemma: The character is put in an impossible situation, needing to choose between A or B. Both are important, and the loss of either would be deeply felt. The character comes up with a new option, Choice C, which is chosen at the Culmination.

Brian McDonald, story consultant to Pixar and an expert on the subject, sums up the theme’s progression through the acts in two ways:

  • Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis
  • Proposal, Argument/Proof, Conclusion

Read his thematic analysis of The Godfather here.

 Let’s breakdown Toy Story‘s Act Three.


Woody’s in “jail,” Buzz has a rocket strapped to his back, and here a moving truck comes to take Andy away forever. A nice reminder of that ticking time bomb. We have to know—What’s next?

  • Buzz helps Woody get out of the milk crate (sequel)
  • Sid wakes up, grabs Buzz, and takes him outside to blow him to space/smithereens. (new goal)
  • Scud (the dog) sees Woody, but Woody slams the door on him. (Tiny victory for Woody, but also a pinch point / foreshadowing)
  • Woody asks Sid’s toys for help, hinting they’ll “break some rules” (character development, foreshadowing)
  • Goal/pinch point montage: Andy is shown sad to leave both Buzz and Woody, Sid is shown building a launch pad, Scud is waiting outside the door to eat Woody
  • Woody makes a plan (this is implied with a visual and three lines of direction to other characters—it’s not spelled out for the audience. They’ll have to keep watching to see what the plan is)
  • Partakers in the plan get into places
  • Achieve plan part one: get HANNAH (previous character) to get rid of SCUD (immediate threat)
  • Set-up for plan part two (keeping up mystery of this plan—not even telling Buzz)
  • Achieve plan part two: teach SID a lesson and scare him away from Buzz (immediate threat) and any other toy (greater good) by breaking the toy rule and coming to life, but not before SID gives Woody a match (foreshadowing, tool)
  • Sequel: Sid is afraid of Hannah’s dolls now, Woody & Buzz shake hands.
  • Van horn honks: Andy and his family are saying goodbye to their house.
  • Woody runs to van, but Buzz is stuck in the fence. Woody leaves the van to go save Buzz (character development)
  • Van drives away (problem), Buzz and Woody duck to avoid moving truck just in time (character development—compare to the gas station semi), they wake up Scud (antagonist)
  • Buzz and Woody both manage to catch up with the moving truck. Scud catches up with them and starts pulling Woody off.

We end with some character development…


I can’t do it! Take care of Andy for me!

…before Buzz sacrifices himself for Woody, jumping off the truck to tackle Scud. (mutual relationship development)


Woody unlocks the back of the truck and looks for something—he’s got a plan, but we don’t know what it is. He tears into a box labeled “Andy’s toys.” The toys react, but he ignores them (more development) and looks in another box. He finds the RC car and its remote, then throws RC out of the van. The other toys scream—now they have no doubt Woody is a toy murderer. Woody drives RC over to Buzz. The toys charge Woody. Woody’s being attacked by toys while trying to drive RC and Buzz toward the moving truck, away from Scud, and through traffic. It’s a chase and fight scene full of obstacles, and it ends with the Curveball:

The mob of toys lift up Woody (still holding the remote) and
head for the open back.

No wait! You don’t understand!
Buzz is out there! We’ve gotta
help him!!

Toss ‘im overboard!

No, no, no, wait!

The toys toss him out into the road. As the truck drives
off, the toys CHEER.

So long Woody!


Final Battle Exam

The “Final Battle” is the last fight in the war. However, perhaps a better way of seeing it is as a final exam. Everything that the character learned is now put to the test.

First, a sequel to the curveball: Woody gets up, is nearly run over, and then gets swooped up by Buzz and RC. Then he’s ready for his final test. Let’s see how he does:

  • Woody successfully drives RC through traffic.
  • The other toys see him with Buzz and realize they were wrong, and Woody’s been telling the truth all along.
  • Woody tells the toys to lower the ramp, and they listen to him.

Another twist! RC’s batteries start running out. The toys are seen (but only by Andy’s baby sister). RC’s batteries deplete.

  • The rocket (tool) could get them back. Woody has a match (tool).

A car drives by, extinguishing the match. Miniature gloom as all hope seems to be lost.

  • Woody uses (ally) Buzz’s helmet like a magnifying glass (tool/ability) to light the rocket, which takes them off toward the moving truck.
  • Woody deposits RC into the back, accidentally but successfully.

The rocket hurtles upward higher and higher.

Ahhh!! This is the part where we blow up!


The culmination is the end of the final battle.

Not today!

Buzz confidently presses the button on his chest. Wings jut out of Buzz, severing the tape that holds him to rocket. The toys separate from the rocket just before it blows up. The toys plummet.

Just then Buzz banks under some power lines and soars upward
again. Woody takes a peek.

They’re flying.

Hey, Buzz!! You’re flying!!

This isn’t flying. This is falling — with style!

Ha ha!! To Infinity and Beyond!!

They soar gracefully towards the moving truck, but then pass
over it.

Uh, Buzz?! We missed the truck!

We’re not aiming for the truck!

Buzz and Woody fly right over the van’s sun roof and then
drop into the car.

Buzz gets his character development, too. The B Story is tied up nicely.


Andy finds Woody and Buzz in the seat beside him. He hugs them, and the two toys wink at each other.

At Christmas (this scene could be considered a small Epilogue), Andy’s toys are anxiously waiting to hear what new toys Andy will be getting—a nice parallel to Andy’s birthday at the beginning of the movie. The toys have hit a new normal. Woody isn’t afraid of not being the best or the favorite anymore.

But Buzz might be nervous about Christmas. He asks if Woody is nervous.

WOODY (laughing)
Now Buzz, what could Andy possibly
get that is worse than you?!


Wow! A puppy!

We ZOOM BACK through the window to a CLOSE UP of Buzz and

They look at one another with a half-smile, half-grimace and
laugh weakly.

Fade out.


Theme of Toy Story

Remember Woody’s belief/goal from Act One and his experiences in Act Two:

Being the best and favorite toy (act one) + making a friend (act two) =

Being the best isn’t as important as having a best friend.

Let’s check that theory with what characters say, with what they do, and with the music.

  • When Sid is torturing Woody, he says: “Where are your rebel friends now?”
  • When Woody is trying to convince Sid’s toys to help him, he says: “There’s a good toy down there and he’s—he’s going to be blown to bits in a few minutes all
    because of me. I’ve gotta save him! But I need your help. Please. He’s my friend. He’s the only one I’ve got.”
  • Woody and Buzz both give up chances to be with Andy in order to save each other.
  • From “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”: “When the road looks rough ahead
    / And you’re miles and miles from your nice warm bed / You just remember … you’ve got a friend in me”
  • More from the theme song: “Some other folks might be a little bit smarter than I am / Bigger and stronger too, maybe / But none of them will ever love you the way I do / It’s me and you”

Writing Act Three

What does your character believe in Act One? How will her experiences in Act Two change that belief? What is the final theme or message of your story?

Did you use any tools or abilities you’ll need to later implant in the “Preparation and Problems” section? Make a note of those to include while revising—don’t go back to the beginning until you’ve finished your first draft.

Did writing your ending give you ideas for starting your story in a different place? Is there a way you can wrap up the story that would pay homage to your beginning?

The ABCs of Act Two (NaNoWriMo Week 3)


Toy Story and its characters are owned by Pixar.

Posts in this series so far:

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..

The Ocean

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:

  1. 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)
  2. Woody tricks Buzz into getting on the Pizza Planet delivery truck
  3. W & B sneak into Pizza Planet (obstacle)
  4. Woody finds Andy; Buzz finds a spaceship crane game (conflicting motivations)
  5. Sid gets an alien, Buzz and Woody out of the crane game
  6. Sid takes the toys home, gives the alien to his evil, toy-killing dog Scud (stakes, antagonist)
  7. Sid steals his sister Hannah‘s doll and performs toy surgery on it (new character; stakes)
  8. With Sid gone, his room comes to life. B&W are in toy hell—populated by mutants (situation, new characters)
  9. 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)
  10. Sid tortures Woody with a magnifying glass, starting his forehead on fire (stakes, tool)
  11. Trying to escape, Woody uses Buzz’s karate-chop action to fend off the mutant toys (B story)
  12. Woody and Buzz run into Scud. Woody’s pull-string wakes the dog up. (challenge)
  13. Buzz sees a commercial for a Buzz Lightyear toy (B story midpoint)
  14. Buzz tries to fly (B story elation)
  15. Buzz falls, and his arm pops off, confirming he’s a toy. Hannah picks him up. (challenge, B story collapse)
  16. 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)
  17. 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:

  1. Woody tries to save Buzz from the Mutants, who actually mend Buzz’s arm (allies)
  2. Sid is coming back, and Woody tries to drag Buzz out of the way, but Buzz is still depressed (B story)
  3. Woody hides, gets trapped; Sid decides to blow up Buzz, but he has to wait until the thunderstorm is gone (obstacle, stakes)
  4. Andy really misses Woody; he’s moving tomorrow (hope, stakes)
  5. Woody asks Buzz for help, but Buzz is still depressed.
  6. 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
your help.

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.

Yes Sir!

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

Act One: Threatened Characters Make Mistakes (NaNoWriMo Week 2)


Toy Story and its characters are owned by Pixar

Two weeks ago I shared my tips for Speed-Writing Your First Draft. Last week I talked about the five building blocks of a story as well as the three elements of scene. In the weeks to follow, I’ll give you some benchmarks and plot ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

If you haven’t read last week’s post about goals, conflict, the 12 types of antagonists, and sequels, go do so now. Today I’ll build upon those, so even if you have read it, you might want to skim through it again.

Overarching Goal = Passion or Fear

Another way to think of your character’s overarching goal is to consider what they’re passionate about. Remember, a character’s goal is what drives them. Something they only feel lukewarm about isn’t going to compel them to keep going to the end of the story.

This passion needs to be established early on.

If you’re not sure what your character is passionate about, consider what they’re most afraid of.

Consider Toy Story. Woody is afraid of being replaced as Andy’s favorite toy. But he’s not just passionate about being Andy’s toy, he’s passionate about his position as Head Toy. When Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, all the other toys look to him for guidance and reassurance.

Enter Buzz Lightyear, the coolest toy ever. Now Woody has a story, he has conflict, he has something that will change his current life and force him to make decisions.

The inciting incident is a Change which introduces fear or risks passion. 


When your main character experiences this initial change, he or she is going to react. In my 8 C’s of plotting, I go into more detail about the reaction, so I’ll stick to the Toy Story example here.

Buzz arrives in Woody’s spot, and Woody tells him so. Buzz meets all the other toys, who are very impressed by him and compare him to Woody:

BUZZ pushes his button. “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue!”

The toys all GASP IN AWE.

Hey, Woody’s got something like that.
His is a pullstring, only it—

Only it sounds like a car ran over it.

Buzz is delusional and thinks he’s not a toy but an actual space ranger. Woody is the only one who seems to notice this, driving a further wedge between him and the other toys. Even Woody’s girlfriend wants Buzz to be her “moving buddy.”

A montage shows Andy favoring Buzz and replacing all his cowboy-themed (Woody) decor with space-themed (Buzz) decor. Another montage shows all of the toys who once idolized Woody now enamored with Buzz.

Then Andy has to choose between the two toys, and he picks Buzz. Woody has been replaced.

Woody has had it. He confronts Buzz, calling him a phony and shoving him. Their altercation is interrupted by Sid blowing up a toy in the yard next door. (Now this scene is a Chekhov’s Gun. If you’ve planned your story ahead of time, you will include all the factors at play during the ending within your first act. If you discover your story as you write, you’ll go back during revisions and plant foreshadowing.) After Sid shows us the worst possible outcome for a toy, Bo Peep reminds everyone that they are moving away (more foreshadowing).


Next we have the Complication/Campaign. This step has a two-part name because it often starts with a complication and ends with the need for a new campaign or journey, which leads into Act Two. In a character-driven story like this, the complication:

  • is a bad decision, mistake, or accident
  • which grows out of the Reaction
  • and ends unfortunately,
  • resulting in the need to make new plans—the “campaign” of Act Two.

(See my 8 C’s post for other types and examples of reaction and complication, using the examples of The Fugitive, The Lion King, and The Hunger Games.)

In Toy Story, Woody actively but inadvertently causes his complication, which has its own mini-plot:

  1. Inciting incident: Andy’s Mom tells him he can bring one toy to the pizza restaurant—only one.
  2. Beginning: Woody is hopeful. He shakes the Magic 8 Ball asking if he’ll be picked. The 8 Ball says “Don’t count on it.” Woody throws the ball, which falls down behind the desk.
  3. Middle Part 1: Woody tells Buzz there’s a toy in trouble. He drives an RC car into Buzz to knock him behind the desk, but Buzz dives out of the way. There’s a chain reaction of bumps and knocks, which gets all the other toys’ attention, and
  4. Midpoint: Buzz is knocked out the window.
  5. Middle Part 2: Everyone reacts, including Woody, who didn’t mean for Buzz to fall out the window. The RC car tells the toys Woody did it on purpose, and the toys turn on him. Andy comes in, finding only Woody, and brings him into the van to the pizza restaurant.
  6. Ending: Buzz jumps out of a bush and onto the van. At the gas station, he confronts Woody. They fight, flying out of the car. They’re still fighting when Andy and his mom get back into the van. The van drives off, leaving Woody and Buzz at the gas station.

The Complication ends Act One and introduces the campaign or “ocean” of Act Two, which I’ll talk about next week! If you can’t wait that long, listen to this Paperwings Podcast on the subject.

Writing Act One

Ask yourself what your character’s immediate desire and greatest fear are.

In Tangled, Rapunzel’s passion is to see the floating lanterns. Her greatest fear is abandonment. If abandonment is her greatest fear, then her ultimate goal is to feel like she belongs in a loving family. See the 8 C’s of Tangled here.

Write your character’s fear and desire on a note and post it in your writing space. Refer to it every time you start writing. If you already know your character’s greatest desire or ultimate goal, write that down, too. Otherwise write it down as soon as you discover it.

Ask “What if…?”

Remember the 12 different types of antagonists. What kind of antagonist will introduce your character’s fear to the audience or reader during the inciting incident?

How can other types of antagonists drive your character to make the mistake that causes the Complication?

What impossible situation will your character find himself in—the “Ocean” of Act Two? How can you get your character there?

Moving On

Chances are, you have an idea of your character’s campaign or “ocean” when you write the Change.

The Change, or “inciting incident,” is what gives you a story. A character starts off with a sense of stability, something rocks the normalcy boat, and the protagonist is thrown into a sea of chaos. The boat gets shattered by a giant squid, the protagonist can’t swim, there are sharks in the water, and your guy floats on flotsam and jetsam until he gets to shore, where he finds a new stability. He kisses the sand, and the camera fades to black. —The 8 C’s of Plotting (underlined section suggests the “ocean” of Act Two)

If you’re already writing the ocean, consider what Preparation your character needs in order to survive the ocean and overcome her fear to achieve her greatest desire. What Problems will come her way? How can she win a small victory?

Next post: Act Two.