Screenwriters know that every single scene or decision has its particular weight on the story as a whole, and as soon as you move or change something, you have to recalibrate the whole script again. But still, some scenes are more important than others and those are major turning points that shape your whole (act) structure. The first act turning point is, in a special way, the most important among major turning points. Why? Because this is exactly what is your story all about, that special something that makes your story unique, that crazy beautiful idea that is worth pursuing, that magical ‘WHAT IF?’
Sonoma County, California - approaching Bodega Bay where The Birds take place
What if two male musicians dressed up as ladies join a female band?
What if a daughter falls in love with her mom’s boyfriend?
What if a husband abandons his family during an avalanche, and his wife later decided to confront him about it in front of their friends.
What if birds start attacking a town on the day a woman comes in to see her future lover?
What if, after a woman goes missing while on vacation, her future husband and her best friend go on a mission to find her together?
What if a small boy decides to save his favorite sister, whom parents just sold to a much older man?
What if your (gangster) boss’s girlfriend who you’ve taken out to dinner while he is out of town, mistakenly takes your heroin (believing it’s cocaine) and overdoses?
What if a high school chemistry teacher who’s diagnosed with cancer decides to cook drugs to make some money for his family while he is still alive? (You notice I didn’t say, what if a high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with cancer??? That’s the inciting incident, but that’s not what Breaking Bad is all about, nor would that be enough to build a whole story. What makes it unique, is a crazy decision to do something completely opposite of what would be expected of that character - what actually makes him a character or a hero, to begin with. Basically, everyone can lose a job, but not everyone will recognize that that happened for a reason, and the reason is always to expand or broaden our perspective and our lives, to try and learn something new… to become someone new.
Your first concern as a writer is to be sure of what your story is actually all about, what makes it worth telling which is the first act turning point. Once you have that, you can go back to find what would be a good way to start a story: the inciting incident. The first act turning point is also the most important information for your pitch or logline; this is what is going to sell your film.
The first act turning point usually occurs between 25-30 page of the 110 minutes film. It breaks the first act into the second.
It doesn’t really matter how many acts you have, the first act will always end with the point that Intuitive Screenwriting Wheel suggests is the Explorer – Magician archetypal stage. In earlier posts I explained it as: The Hero decides to go on a quest, the story he is born to live starts/Suddenly a brave new but weird world opens up in front of him.
Let’s now explore what or who the Explorer in us is, and what is important to know about this archetype so that we can help our Hero to do his/her best. Also, let’s explore what the Explorer means for the story, itself, at this stage?
Let me also remind you that C. Vogler says that this point in the Hero’s journey is “Meeting with the mentor” and the point that follows is “Crossing the first threshold,” which is precisely the first act turning point.
The Explorer is about this hunger within us for expansion, for new knowledge, for new philosophy. The Hero wants to reach far beyond what is known, he wants to see different cultures, he wants to explore different lifestyles, different religions… The Explorer wants to try new food, to speak a different language, he wants to live as a free man and taste freedom, not for the sake of it – but as a step towards his renewal. To speak a different language means to understand people who speak it, to eat their food means to become part of their culture, to love as they love or to connect with their God, can really make us “bigger” and therefore better…. To listen to or watch their stories – can teach us empathy, first of all, but can maybe even make us stop fighting.
To name this point “Meeting with the mentor” is accurate, but what is really important is to understand is that, in fact, we all have that wise voice inside of us – it’s just that we have to listen to it and dare to act on it. And even though in mythic structures we really do sometimes encounter a wise man or woman who will guide us on our journey, this is not always the case: usually, we have to recognize the need to go on an adventure without anyone’s help or guidance.
The single most important tip at this point in your story is that going on a quest is the Hero’s own decision. You have to remember this, if nothing else, the Hero has to take the risk even though he doesn’t know what is going to happen next. It is a vision, an idea, but also an action.
The Hero just feels he has to go – something bigger is calling him. Imagine a really beautiful woman or a man of your dreams on the phone – telling you, there is a rainbow over there, come meet me for a drink. And the Hero thinks, yes, but I don’t have a car, the roads are blocked, and usually, when I do stupid things, I just end up alone… But a small voice inside of you says: “Believe me you can do it. This time is going to be different, this time is important… You are going to experience what you came here to experience.”
Would you go?
If someone tells you: you are the one who is going to save the world, would you follow your gut?
If someone kills someone dear to you, would you like to know the truth about how it happened?
This stage is really also about the basic belief that life can offer more. That optimistic being inside of us is alive at this point, and is the one who can label the most painful experiences as lessons because they make us richer.
The Explorer considers himself rich with experiences or full with stories. The Explorer is actually the ruler of the story as an archetype, he is the embodiment of a storyteller. It is really interesting that, from the dramaturgy perspective, we also use this point to tell our audience what our story is about. So, this point is the heart, the nucleus from where everything really begins – the decision to go on a quest – no matter what, the decision to believe that every life can be a story one day.
The Hero has a vision that one night he is going to sit next to a fire with his grandchildren, and he will share his wisdom, he, himself, will become a mentor for the next generations. This is what it’s all about, to use this opportunity that we have here on Earth, to use our time, to live fully, to believe. This is the Explorer within us.
Of course, for different heroes different things need to be explored: being brave and standing up for yourself as a woman (Force Majeure), also being brave and standing up for yourself as a man (Breaking Bad), exploring the feminine side closely while being a man (Some like it hot), exploring the feeling of being a daughter but also a lover (Fish Tank)…
Also have in mind, that in a weird way this point in the story is about TRUTH. It can be a reversal in the sense of what’s moral, but it is definitely the truth that we are finally not afraid to speak or pursue. Once you have seen the truth, how can you “un-see” it?
And what is the Magician then?
Remember that what we need structurally here is actually the shadow of the opposing archetype? In its positive version, it is the real act of breaking free from societal rules and regulations. It is a revolutionary force within us; the force that is unique and can transform any situation into the one we really belong to. Shadow Magician is the archetype that doesn’t want to fit in, but also doesn’t know how to fit in or how to belong – the part of us that is weird.
You want to think of it as the aftermath of the Hero’s decision to go on a quest. Suddenly, the Hero finds himself in a strange world where absolutely everything is possible, literally everything. Take the boundaries and rules of your story, crush them and create a state of anarchy in this part of the film!
The Hero should ask himself, ‘Do I belong here?’ And again, the Hero is facing the fear of ending up all alone. This time, alone is meant in a broader sense, not just alone in the sense of relationships, but excommunicated from society: if you dare to break the rules, you can either change them or end up ‘in jail.’ And the first feeling after we breathe the fresh air of freedom can really be ‘oh my god, is this just a different kind of prison or what?’
Think about Sunset Boulevard once again, after Joe Gillies decides to take Norma’s offer to rewrite her script? It is an adventure, yes, but suddenly he is locked up in this crazy house, Norma’s butler takes his stuff from his apartment without asking him – everything looks like a bad dream actually. She is crazy, the script is crazy, the whole world is upside down all of a sudden. Remember the monkey funeral?
This is it – the Magician archetype is a ‘monkey funeral,’ metaphorically speaking. The Hero thinks that by taking the risk, he is going crazy, or someone in the story calls him crazy. This is what happens in Force majeure, to the protagonist, Ebba. After she speaks up, she has to face everyone else looking at her like she is the one who is not ‘normal.’ What she instinctively does in response is protect herself by creating some kind of emotional prison, as she just voluntarily turns inwards and observes everything from a different perspective. Mia in Fish Tank decides to go on a trip with Connor and her mom and sister, and recall how she gets into the river even though she doesn’t know how to swim.
And what about the train sequence in Some like it hot? Crazy, funny, women all around, no rules, feminine anarchy – a pure dream state for those two who are pretending that they are women.
Remember protagonist Melanie Daniels from Hitchcock’s Birds? In Explorer stage in the story, she brings two love birds as a gift to Mitch who is visiting his family for the weekend in Bodega Bay. But what is the response to that? Bodega Bay is really strange – as soon as she arrives, she learns that Annie, Mitch’s ex, is a school teacher there and is still in love with him. Then a seagull attacks Melanie and injures her head. She also learns that his mother is quite protective and possessive.
Remember Thelma & Louise? The ‘killing of a rapist scene’ is an example of the Explorer stage in the story, and recall how weird their world suddenly becomes afterwards.
Think of the Magician stage in the story structure as lightning that strikes and creates anarchy out of the protagonist’s world. After the Hero decides to go on a quest, he suddenly ends up in the new world with no rules to follow.
To really break free we need truth, a piece of knowledge in the form of a law, a quantum shift really. In essence, it is something that can be seen from two angles at once. That is a real power that can be spread and shared to everyone, a single truth that we can all benefit from. No hero can be free among people who are not free. This archetype we can find in the Positive Magician part of the story, which is much, much later. At this moment, the Hero is afraid of his own decision, so the shadow side can sneak in a form of manipulation by lying to others, not giving all the information, hiding real knowledge… pretending to be the one who knows it all. Joe Gillis is doing exactly that at this moment in the story, he is pretending and lying to Norma so that he can buy himself time to earn that much-needed money.
So, what is your story about? What is actually important for your protagonist and for you to explore? What is the unique truth that you want to share?
And even though it is probably going to be complicated to come up with in just one sentence, have in mind that for a good story idea, it is actually enough, and it should be presented in action.
To conclude, an idea in action equals exploration. But as soon as the Hero decides to go on a quest, his world gets turned upside down. Combine those two archetypes and you’ll have your ‘WHAT IF?’