“If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”
– Billy Wilder
The purpose of story is to reveal a transformation. This shift in perception means a sort of death of the familiar as we delineate the journey from fear to love, from innocence to wisdom, or from victim to victor. Transformation is a scary process, because frankly, as human beings, we don’t like change — not even positive change. In fact, we often fear that we don’t deserve what we desire, and so, any change forces us to confront long-held beliefs that threaten our status quo.
On some level, our story may have begun with the breathless thought, “What if?” What if it were possible to have true love, to escape this dusty old town, to run a global social media company, to find inner peace . . .
Yet, as storytellers we understand that if all that happens by the end is that our protagonist achieves their goal, our reader or audience will be profoundly disappointed. Because ultimately they don’t really care if the protagonist gets what they want (that is just the plot). What they really care about is whether or not they will get what they need.
So, how do we get to the end and resolve this dilemma in a satisfying way? We get there by setting up our story properly. As Stephen R. Covey says in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, we must “Begin with the end in mind.”
We simply imagine our hero transformed. In imagining this, we are led to the shift in perception rather than trying to solve it as if it were some riddle. Everything you need to know is within. The problem cannot be solved because your hero’s real problem is their unwillingness to accept the true reality of their situation. As you imagine your hero transformed, and develop a more specific relationship to who they are at the end of the story, you begin to understand what needs to be set up in order to get them there.