We know Michael Arndt from some of our favourite films; Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 spring to mind. In this session and script chat, he opened up about his process when it comes to conceptualising and structuring stories. If you didn’t listen to Michael Arndt’s talk, go listen to it. If you did, do it again.
Know your endings
With Little Miss Sunshine, Michael was just looking for a great happy ending since he’d written several scripts with unhappy ones.
He only had a vague idea of the story’s end – an image of a little chubby girl walking onto a beauty pageant stage and wowing everyone.
Rather than just start writing blindly, Michael actively procrastinated until he had an image of her family joining her on stage too. It was then he realised the script was about a family learning to band together.
Michael revealed a phrase from Pixar – “The last thing we end up doing is the First Act”. When you know when you want your character to end up, you can see far more clearly where you want them to start.
Regarding that, another Pixar comment is that the character’s arc in a story is based on the value change of a single word e.g. in It’s A Wonderful Life, the character changes his view regarding “Riches” from capital riches to social ones.
- Not writing until you know the unifying concept of what the script is about; and
- Knowing the change in value that occurs in your character through the script.
Using that as the foundation of your script will make it infinitely stronger.
Link to Michael Arndt’s video on Insanely Great Endings.
The Power of Beginnings
What most of us know about the First Act is that it is there to set up the world, views and relationships of the central character so we then invest in watching them change. Michael adds another role to it: “burning down characters’ normal lives to radicalise them.” Here’s a checklist for how to do that:
- Show the main character doing what they love most: Woody loves to play with Andy as his favourite toy.
- Add a flaw which comes from their grand passion: Woody’s neurotic about not being Andy’s favourite.
- Add a storm: Andy’s Birthday – and a cool new toy, Buzz, turns up, challenging his status.
- Add insult to injury: The other toys like Buzz, and Andy begins to favour Buzz too, making Woody feel outcast.
- Make the character pick the unhealthy choice: When Woody hears Andy can only take one toy on a trip, he’s so worried it won’t be him that he tries to trap Buzz behind a desk but ends up knocking him out of a window – and all his fellow toys rebel, knowing what he’s done.
Link to Michael Arndt’s video on constructing a beginning.
The bit in between – Surviving the second act
Whilst it’s easy (relatively speaking) to identify a great beginning (which is set up well) or ending (which pays off well), it’s not quite as straightforward to pinpoint what makes for a high-quality ‘middle’.
Michael advised that a clear sense of direction and momentum is most important. He considers normally the reasons Act 2 in scripts fail is because:
- The story changes direction too many times;
- The stakes the protagonist is pursuing are not clear; or
- Act 1 failed to set up a proper rooting interest in following the character.
As examples of clear Act 2s:
- In Toy Story 3, the initial Act 2 goal is to find a new home since they don’t think Andy wants them. At the midpoint, they find Andy still needs them and now have to get home before he leaves home for university.
- In Star Wars: A new Hope, the initial Act 2 goal is to get to Alderaan. At the midpoint, they get to Alderaan to find it’s been destroyed and they’re sucked into the Death Star. Now they have to find the Princess and escape the Death Star.
So there you have your list: a super clear trajectory which characters have to follow, a decisive change of course in the middle, and a clear trajectory on the other side to get you to the Act 2 break where your character either gets there or is confronted with a new obstacle.