Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Act II metaphor

One of the many 'expert' books on the subject of screenwriting is Viki King's How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method. It focuses on getting you to push through and write a first draft of a script (no matter how rough), but it also teaches a formula which is based firmly on Syd Field's 3-Act theory. I suspect her method works best for highly visual people.
The book's one original contribution to the subject of screenwriting is her reference to something she calls 'the Act II metaphor.'  "This is usually a small scene with symbolic overtones... (which) ... gives us a clue to the resolution." King is rigid about the place where this scene occurs in the script—page 45 (in a 120 page script)—"the start of your character's growth."
I spent some time recently contemplating confrontation scenes in movies. One of the films I looked at was You've Got Mail, and I was interested to see that the major confrontation scene in the movie includes an Act II metaphor. 

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are business competitors. He runs a giant discount book sellers chain; she runs a tiny specialist children's bookshop. When he opens a new store in her neighborhood, she is threatened with extinction.

Tom Hanks scoops up the caviar..

They run into one another at a P.E.N. dinner, where his actions mirror his business position—he scoops up all the caviar garnish on a salmon mousse. This symbolises the threat he poses: he is going to scoop up all of her business. Her response is to take the caviar back, which represents what she will do by the end of the movie: she will lose her shop, but will take it all back, by capturing his heart.

... and Meg Ryan takes it all back.
Watch the movie sometime, it's a good one. 

Just for the record, the event occurs 37 minutes into a 115 minute movie. That's 32%, not the 37% suggested by Viki King's page-45-out-of-120-pages, but who's to quibble?

First posted: 25 September 2011

P.S.:  There is a Bollywood movie around which contains many of the elements of You've Got Mail, but with a different ending to the story, called The Lunchbox. It's set in Mumbai and draws on practices unknown elsewhere in the world. (There are no dance scenes in it either, believe it or not.) All round, an interesting film.

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