“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith; Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.” – Reinhold Niebuhr
Whether you’re writing a screenplay or a novel, every well-told story contains this crucial element: somewhere toward the end of the second act, the protagonist experiences a surrender, a death of his old identity.
The purpose of story is to reveal a transformation. We must die in order to be reborn. Most stories begin with the protagonist wanting something. The stakes are life and death; if he doesn’t achieve his goal, his life will be unimaginable. At the end of Act Two, he recognizes the impossibility of achieving his goal and he experiences a death of the meaning he’s attached to it.
Whether his goal is to leave Bedford Falls like George Bailey, or amassing enough fortune to gird himself from the vagaries of life like Citizen Kane, or to hold onto his youthful irresponsibility like Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, the end of Act Two is the moment when the protagonist becomes awake to the dilemma he’s confronting, thus realizing the impossibility of achieving his goal.
This does not mean that he no longer wishes to achieve his goal, but rather, he recognizes that his attempts at achieving it have, in fact, prevented its success. It is as a result of his surrender that he reframes his relationship to the meaning he attached to it. Perhaps he realizes that what he had taken personally was not personal. Perhaps he discovers that his idea about himself was misguided.
As James Joyce states in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, our job is “to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” He is saying that we are pioneers. This takes courage, as we are forever pressing up against our doubt. We are being asked to create something that is bigger than we are, which, on a practical level is impossible. The problem arises the moment our brain registers the potential for failure. It sounds the distress signal, wanting to protect our ego from a fatal blow.
This is what happens when our limiting ideas clash with our sense of our hero transformed. We get into our heads and try to figure out a satisfying ending to the story. I’m not sure it’s possible to figure it out. I believe that our role is as co-creators, and what we must do is become curious as to how our protagonist arrives at this new understanding. When we do this, images and ideas emerge that gradually reveal this shift in perception. We can’t do this if we’re holding so tightly to our idea of our ending that we don’t allow for a wider perspective.
Our protagonist’s self-will no longer works in Act Three, and neither does our own. Since the desire to create is connected to the desire to evolve, we are in some way the embodiment of our hero. When he recognizes the impossibility of getting what he wants, we experience that jeopardy on some level as well.
Story structure is an immutable paradigm for a spiritual transformation. If this sounds too new-agey, think of it as simply a shift in perception. Since this is not something that can be figured out, we are naturally going to experience fear and doubt. Writing is an act of faith, but not an act of blind faith. We can have faith in structure.
If you’re struggling with Act Three, be curious about how your protagonist reframes his relationship to the meaning he’s attached to his goal. Notice how he recognizes the nature of his struggle as opposed to the appearance of a struggle. Allow images to emerge. Hold them loosely and gradually you will begin to see that although his situation may not have changed, he has altered his relationship to the situation, and can then move forward from an empowered place.