Act it out.
Traditionally, stories are broken into three acts. Some people break them into five, eight and even twelve, but traditionally it’s three. So, what are the three acts?
At its core, Act I is normal life, before your High Concept, Act II is crazy, bizarro, High Concept life, and Act III is a blend of the first two acts and the resolution.
This is the first 20 minutes of your movie where you introduce the “normal world” before the High Concept is realized in the story.
In The Hunger Games, the first act is where Katniss struggles day-to- day living in a coal mining district. She hunts and takes care of her sister and her sick mom. It’s a meager, bleak existence. Peeta, a boy in love with Katniss, is selected for the Hunger Games and Katniss volunteers to fight in oder to save her sister.
This is the middle 80 minutes of your movie that shows the “bizarro world” where the High Concept is thriving and ultimately creates an adventure for the protagonist(s). Act II is where most of your “trailer moments” come from as well as your key art for marketing.
In The Hunger Games, the second act is where Katniss trains in the capital with other contestants. She fights in the Hunger Games, making and alliance with a young girl and is actually saved by a Peeta. The young girl dies and Katniss seems despondent.
This is the last 20 minutes of your movie that shows the “resolution” of the story. The hero usually takes the natural strengths from Act I, adds the lessons he learned in Act II and then is able to accomplish the “need” of the story toward the end of Act III.
In The Hunger Games, the third act is where Katniss is forced to choose between death and Peeta, but defies the Gamemaker and Peeta and Katniss both survive.
Broadly, capture each act of your story in a few lines.
What’s the normal world of the protagonist? What’s the journey or adventure the protagonist goes on in the crux of the story? How does the story resolve with the protagonist getting what they need?
Set the stage.
Now that you have broken your one story into three acts and broadly understand what's going to happen in them, let's break those three acts down even further.
Each act will be split into two "stages" a piece. These stages are simply more specific sequences that helps break the story into more granular detail, but without having to be think of individual beats yet.
Hover over the stages for explanation.
Stage 2 — Life Out of Balance
This stage is meant to show how the normal life of the hero has been disrupted and how the hero responds accordingly.
Stage 3 — Getting My Sea Legs
This stage shows just how much the hero needs to grow and how, at first, the hero struggles to adjust to the upside down world of Act II.
Stage 4 — Not So Fast
Just when the hero thinks she gets a hang of the bizarro world of Act II, things come crashing down on her.
Stage 5 — The Comeback
In this stage, the hero needs to pick herself up, dust herself off, and go after the villain and “the need” like never before.
Stage 6 — The Main Event
This is the resolution of the story and will finally show whether the hero achieves the need of the story and how much the hero has actually changed.
Stage 1 — The Routine
This stage is meant to show normal, everyday life, as well as the hero’s personal routine.
Broadly, capture each stage of your story in a few lines.
As you do, you should see your story starting to take form.
Prep the beat.
We're almost ready begin the process of turning your Stages into Beats. However, before we jump into creating the individual Beats, let's talk about the process for outlining your story.
Let's talk about an index card.
In a digital world, it is a decidedly analog thing. But for most screenwriters and TV writers, it is one of the most indispensable tools of the trade.
Here's what Academy Award winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) said about index cards:
"Then what I do is find the scenes that speak to that, and I put them on note cards. I have this table in my kitchen that’s of a certain size that I think is about two hours. And I start laying out these note cards and if they start to spill over the table, I know I’ve got to cut stuff. I keep doing and doing and doing it, going through it and through it and through it, combining things, telescoping time, combining characters if I have to until these cards fit on this table, then I think, will this collection of cards communicate the reason for this film? And hopefully do so in a dramatic and entertaining way."
Preferably, you can use physical index cards or Post-It Notes.
You can feel them in your hands.
You can cram tons of information on each card — dialogue, scene description, theme, questions, reminders, all in ink, your words, another
tactile experience. You know, actual writing.
When you have your stack of cards, holding it in your lap, there’s actual heft to it, substance.
This is your story… and these cards represent it actually having come into being.
Then when you lay it out on a table or tack it up on a wall, you can step back in actual physical space and stare at it, let your eyes roam back and forth.
But, if you need to use a digital platform (such as when you're in the midst of a pandemic), you can set up a Google Jamboard. That way, you and your team can collaborate remotely, using the digital sticky notes to outline the Beats.
Here's a video of Dustin Lance Black's index card process. Skip ahead to 1:35 and check it out.