Thursday, July 23, 2009

Act Three - Collateral

John Moore, host of Book Television's Mystery Ink, interviewed Philip Margolin this week. Mr. Margolin is the author of TIES THAT BIND. During the interview, John asked him if he thought endings were often the make-or-break all of a story's success. Mr. Margolin replied most adamantly that indeed the ending was.

I agree. I can't count how many times a friend has recommended a mediocre movie or book because the ending was so outstanding? Eventhough the story itself fell short.

I'm not actually here to discuss the merits of that, only that everyone is in agreement over one absolute truth: There is no story without Act Three. In the case of Collateral, Act Three is the final battle. It's where our hero, Max confronts his fears and fights to save Annie. It's where the suspense, drama, action and nightmare build, then end.

With that thought in mind, here's Collateral's third act broken down. (BTW Act Two's climax occurs when Vincent kills the only detective who believes Max is not the shooter.)

Notice how the time picks up now and sequences occur at a rapid pace. You can almost hear the clock ticking.

* my DVD player is wearing out, so I'm not 100% sure of the accuracy of these times.

89:00 - Back in Max's cab, Max and Vincent drive away and Max asks Vincent why he picked him.

90:30 - Vincent summarizes Max's life and forces Max to take a close look at himself. Max doesn't like what he sees. He speeds up and drives through a red-light.

90:45 - Vincent says to slow down. Max speeds up. "What does it matter?" he says.

91:47 - They crash.

92:42 - Sirens in the distance. Vincent spots the cop car, but he can't find his gun. He scrambles out from beneath the cab and runs.

93:38 - A cop arrives. Max believes he's now safe. The policeman see the body in the trunk.

94:39 - Max spots Annie's face on Vincent's computer and realizes she's his 5th hit. He grabs Vincent's gun, cuffs the cop to the frame and escapes.

95:00 - Max steals a cellphone.

96:15 - Max finally reaches Annie on the phone and warns her. He looks up at the building and sees Vincent moving about on the floor below Annie.

100:00 - Vincent cuts the phone lines.

109:00 - Max finds Annie and they run to the subway.

108:44 - Vincent follows them into the car.

109:08 - Almost on top of them, Vincent yells, "Max, I do this for a living!"

109:18 - Max gathers his courage, steps into the line of fire and shoots at Vincent as Vincent is shooting at him.

110:38 - Act Three Climax - Vincent sits down on a bench. Max sits opposite him. The story comes full circle as Vincent asks Max ... If somebody dies on the subway, will anyone notice?

110:55 - Vincent dies.

113:00 - Max and Annie walk out to daylight breaking on the horizon. Picture fades to black and subtitles begin rolling in.

And thus ends Collateral, a three-act movie that sticks closely to the time allotted to each act. Act One introduces the protagonist, the love-interest, and the antagonist. Act Two sets the stage for Act Three, the final confrontation between the hero and the bad guy.

Generally, the third act is twenty to thirty minutes long in a movie and takes place in the last 70 - 100 pages of a novel, the last quarter. Collateral's third act is twenty-four minutes long. And most importantly, it depicts the final confrontation between protagonist and antagonist, thus fulfilling the criteria of the three act formula.

If you're still wondering why you should bother breaking down your three act novel and taking a close look at its components, consider giving it a try before you dismiss it entirely. Especially if you're stuck on your story. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that by breaking down the acts, you'll be able to see where the problems are. And maybe you'll learn something in the process.

Check to see ...

Does Act One introduce a compelling character, someone we can cheer for and care about?

Does Act Two have all the set pieces in place? Does it shows us everything we need to know so we understand what's at risk and what needs to be overcome? Does it build suspense and give your readers a reason to read on? It's only after the book's finish that the ending can be gauged.

And finally, does your Act Three show the big showdown? Does our hero battle the forces of evil while experiencing something of a character arc? Do we witness the ends to which the antagonist will go to win? Are we witness to just how heroic our protagonist will go to save the day?

If not for the sake of our profession, try breaking down your story or any story for that matter, for the sheer pleasure of doing it. After all, we're writers. It's common knowledge that we're a strange lot. Who else would spend their days alone with fictitious characters rather then venture out into the "real" world?

Notice emphasis on REAL. A tongue in cheek response.


  1. I've actually been in the real world a little too much this week. Life may settle down after the weekend so that I can once again get back to spending my days "alone with fictitious characters"!

    This has been a good series. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for reading my posts, Carol. You're a dear. I had fun writing them. I watched the movie and was able to tell people I was working.

  3. I read once that an ending is what a person is left with, so that's what stays in the memory. If the first half of a movie is excellent, but the second half a letdown, people will say the movie is bad. If the first half is only mediocre, but the second half good, people will recommend it.

    Interesting idea to do movie plotting exercises. How ambitious of you! I hope it helps.


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