Why every script needs a cracking Crisis.
In a satisfying film, the hero grows and learns along the way. They may stubbornly pursue the wrong path, but there comes a point when they hit rock bottom, and realise things have to change. Usually, this means digging deep – both physically and spiritually. What they find, when they look inside and see themselves as they really are, enables that change. It also gives them the power to succeed.
Maybe what they discover is some long-neglected aspect of themselves, a sense of humour and spontaneity about life. Maybe it’s some skill or hobby they once pursued, but never took seriously enough. If the movie is a fantasy, it’s likely to be a talisman or magic weapon which, until now, they’ve not known how to use.
But is this change skin-deep, or to the core? To answer that question, you need a cracking third-act crisis, one that will test the new-found resolve of your character.
In The Constant Gardener, career diplomat Justin Quayle is given countless opportunities to drop his personal investigation into his wife’s murder. With each refusal to do so, his determination hardens, and the true steel beneath the gentle surface of his character emerges.
When the going gets tough, the choices facing your hero get even tougher. Every dilemma your character faces, and the decisions they make, tells us what they’re made of. Some they get right, some wrong – but they carry on regardless. How much do they want what they’re struggling for? How far will they go to get it? When your script reaches its Crisis, that’s when we’ll know for sure.
At the Crisis point, there is no turning back, no compromise. There’s everything to play for – and everything to lose. The right decision will give them everything they’ve dreamed of, and the wrong one will make it slip away for good.
How your hero acts at this moment will be their deepest revelation of character, the moment when the mask falls.
In The Aviator, Leonardo di Caprio’s Howard Hughes has become a recluse, crippled by his obsessive compulsive disorder. When the Government threaten to expose embarrassing details about his personal life if he doesn’t go along with new restrictions on his business, he rallies himself to testify in court. At any moment we expect this daring aviator to fall to earth, dragged down by the weight of his neurotic compulsions. Instead, he delivers a barnstorming speech in favour of the entrepreneurial spirit, lays into the Government’s blackmailing tactics, and carries all before him.
In Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman’s character has come a long way since his wife walked out on him and their son a year before. He’s become a more responsible father, and as a result his advertising career has suffered. When he loses his job two weeks before his custody battle with his wife, he’s thrown into a Crisis: if he’s unemployed when the case comes to court, he has no chance of getting custody. To make matters worse, it’s the last working day before Christmas, and employers are more interested in office parties than in interviewing prospective employees. His determined pursuit of a job, even at the cost of a drop in salary and status, becomes the great set-piece of the final act and is the proof of his new-found love for his son.
The Crisis doesn’t guarantee your hero victory, it only gives them the means to succeed. Sometimes the price is too high. They cannot sustain the effort, or bear the cost.
In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon the hero, a warrior monk, is dying of poison. He announces to the heroine, the woman he has always loved, that he has one breath left. She urges him to use it to attain enlightenment, as he has been taught. But he refuses. He would rather be a spirit wandering by her side forever, than enter the Kingdom of Heaven without her. Has there ever been a more romantic sacrifice?
Near the end of Schindler’s List, the women who work in Schindler’s factory get shipped to Auschwitz. By this point, Schindler has spent a fortune in bribes to keep his Jewish workers alive. He travels to Auschwitz in one last, desperate attempt to save their lives. The Kommandant, upset at the extra paperwork, offers him ‘fresh’ workers. “I want these,” insists Schindler, laying down the last of his portable wealth – diamonds. In this final roll of the dice, he proves his commitment to his workers is absolute. He will no longer ‘play the system’. From now on, he will actively sabotage the war effort.
The Crisis demands everything we’ve got – and more. But with the Crisis comes an understanding of what what we stand to gain – or lose.
In the final act of American Beauty Lester Burnham, in the throes of a mid-life crisis, gets a long-awaited opportunity to seduce the foxy teenager he’s been flirting with. When he discovers she’s not the experienced sexual voyager she’s made herself out to be – that she’s a virgin, in fact – he makes the right decision, and wins his self-respect back. For the first time in ages, he is happy. And then someone blows his brains out.
As you can see, the Crisis sets us up for an explosive ending, one final devastating twist. But more on that in my next – and final – article in this series.