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By V. Prasad · June 27, 2011
Character and story are the chicken and egg of screenwriting. Do you start by figuring out your characters and letting them plot their own course? Or do you figure out all the exciting twists and turns and then plug in characters that will make your plot believable? Usually, it’s a combination of both.
Nowhere is the intersection of character and story more important than the Final Act of your movie. A movie is driven by a character in pursuit of a goal. And, at the climax, we find out definitely whether they succeed or fail. But, before this can happen, the story must build to a crisis.
The crisis is the moment where everything hangs in the balance; where one decision is the difference between complete success and complete failure. In sports, this is when a game comes down to the final play. Score and you win. Miss and you lose.
The crisis is the defining moment of your character’s life. Their emotional (and, perhaps, physical) well-being should be entirely dependent on the choice they make here. So you can’t design this part of your story without knowing who the character is at his/her core.
Two fundamental elements of character are want and need. The want is what the character consciously pursues in the story. The need can be one of two things: (1) A quality he/she must gain in order to get what they want (courage, selflessness, maturity, etc.) or (2) The need can be in direct conflict with what the character wants. In the latter scenario, the character’s well-being depends on their realizing that what they want is taking them away from what they need.
Either way, the character has to grow. And the crisis is the final test of whether that growth has truly occurred. At the crisis, the character should have to (1) Demonstrate that there’s absolutely no doubt they’ve gained the quality they needed or (2) They should be forced to choose once and for all between what they want and what they need.
Let’s say that the quality your character needs to gain throughout the story is faith. Working backwards, you know that at the beginning of the movie, your character should be the exact opposite of a person of faith. That way he/she has room to grow.
Now you have a character arc to shoot for. And you can start developing your story with character in mind. You know that the story should force your character to make progressively greater acts of faith in pursuit of what they want. And that these acts of faith should build and build until the final crisis where your character should be forced to make a total and unequivocal act of faith. Because only then is his/her transformation truly complete.
Or let’s say your character’s need directly conflicts with what they want? Then you can design your story so that your character is forced to choose between them at the final crisis. They can have one or the other, but they can’t have both.
In The Apartment, C.C. Baxter was forced to choose between a long sought after promotion and the woman he loves (who happens to be his boss’s mistress). Want or need. He had to choose.
The Act Three Crisis is the most important part of your story. It won’t come to you right away, but once you figure out that moment, everything will start to fall into place. Character. Story. Theme. The crisis is where they all come together.