How To Series
Prom Date story illustration
Prom Date story illustration
Every story has three parts. This is called the three act structure. Stories develop better if you have the three act structure in the back of your mind. Studying story structure is exciting… I cannot tell a lie - actually it can be mind numbing. So let’s not study structure. Instead, see if you can pick out the important elements in a sample story, Prom Date, a story of personal triumph. (Prom Date is a half-hour to one-hour story.)
The drama in the first few minutes must be powerful enough to captivate the viewer. So some conflict, or problem, builds and builds until the good guy (protagonist) decides he has to solve it. The synopsis that follows tells the dramatic action, but not the settings. Try to see a conflict developing in Act I.
The Prom is days away. Shaun doesn’t have a date and his sister Elizabeth teases him mercilessly about it. He wishes he could get a date with Laura for the prom. But just as he is about to ask Elizabeth if she thinks Laura would go with him, Shaun sees Laura ride away with a bunch of girls. They are waving to Dave the Geek. Shaun wonders what Laura could possibly see in a geek.
Shaun is shy, so he asks his best friend Tim to fix him up with Laura. Tim pretends to ask Laura to date Shaun, but instead he tells Laura lies about Shaun. Laura is sorry to hear the negative stories - she likes Shaun. She thanks Tim for being such a friend.
Shaun and Tim are preparing for an experimental model plane match. Shaun can't get his model plane wings the right size so it will fly, but Tim's plane flies like a jet. Discouraged, Shaun lets his "race car" plane drive into a wall where it breaks into pieces. He declares to everyone that the prom is the only meaningful event for the entire year for him. He isn’t going to study or work on his plane - he is going to finish the year by getting a date with Laura.
Some points about Act I
The point where characters make major decisions and shove the story in a new direction is called a "turning point." What was Shaun's turning point?
So, what is the conflict? A bad plane? A bad year in school? Shaun wants to date Laura? Shaun’s best friend Tim is a rat? There are many conflicts in this story, but only one main conflict. The big conflict for Shaun’s year is getting a date with Laura. The audience knows by the end of part one what the story is about, and what the main conflict is.
No problems get fixed in Act I Or Act II. Act II is the main part of the play - over half of the story. It’s also the part where the story can sag, and the audience can leave the theater cursing all the names in the opening credits. But in a well plotted Act II, the tension rises as the conflict gets bigger and bigger. The good guy finds the problem gets harder and harder to solve. With each try he fails, while the bad guy (antagonist) laughs at him. The audience sits spellbound while the good guy (protagonist) struggles to get what he wants. Try to spot the things in Act II that make the problem bigger.
Shaun tries to impress Laura and ask her for the date, but Dave the Geek is always with her and always getting in the way. Shaun thinks Dave is his rival, so Shaun tries to outdo Dave in math class. Dave makes Shaun look like a kindergarten mathematician.
Tim tries to convince Shaun that Laura is out of his league - she only dates the really smart guys who are headed for college. Trying to get a date with her is hopeless.
Shaun shows up at her door one afternoon in his old car. He tries again to ask for a date and she humors him. Before Shaun finishes, a wealthy college guy, Colin, shows up in a cool new car and leaves with Laura. Shaun learns that Laura is now dating this guy, destroying Shaun's hopes.
Tim tells a friend that Colin is secretly seeing someone else, is using Laura, and is going to dump her just before the prom. Tim expects to catch her on the rebound.
Shaun broods in his room. His father fixed a part that Shaun thought was broken forever and gives it to him. Together they put the plane back together. But that evening, Shaun gets hopelessly stuck on a math problem that would help him correct the lift ratio on his experimental model plane. He leaves a message on an Internet newsgroup, but an answer might not come for days.
The next day Shaun gets stuck waiting with Dave in a car in the rain at a ball game. He can hardly bring himself to ask Dave for help, but finally tells Dave he knows of a problem Dave couldn’t solve, and they start to work on the math problem. Dave shows Shaun that he almost has the answer, all he had to do was keep working on it. Shaun says, "I wish everything in life was that way." They get into a conversation about wanting things, and Shaun finally tells that he wants something he can’t have - Laura. Dave reveals he had no interest in Laura, he was just tutoring her in math - Dave's girl friend goes to a private school. Shaun asks Dave how to talk to Laura. Dave says, "Just like you talk to me, like a person." Then Dave tells him a secret: Colin's real girl friend also goes to the private school, and Colin is dating Laura to make his real girl friend jealous.
Some points about Act II
What happens in Act II? Does the tension build? First Dave is in Shaun’s way when he tries to ask for a date, then Shaun tries to outdo Dave but makes himself look stupid instead. Tim then tries to convince Shaun that Laura is just out of reach for him. That advice had to hurt, coming from his best friend. Shaun tries one more time to ask for a date, but his worst fears are realized - Colin is there and is dating Laura. How big is the problem - how demoralized is Shaun? Shaun broods in his room and goes back to working on his model plane. He has lost - it’s hopeless. This is usually what happens in Act II.
But another thing also usually happens in Act II. Just when things look darkest, there is a glimmer of hope, and the good guy decides he is going to fight for all he is worth to get what he wants. This puts us into Act III.
In Act III the good guy confronts his worst fears, fights his biggest battle, and wins. That’s life - some day, some way, we win what we want. Or we learn something from the battle and change direction. The victories are what we write stories about. The other battles just continue another day maybe years in the future, or we change direction - we never lose except when we’re the bad guy. See how hard Shaun has to fight for what he wants in Act III.
Shaun races to Laura's home, but Colin's car is parked in the drive and they are sitting on the front porch. Shaun circles the block, working up courage, then goes to Laura. Shaun asks Colin when he is going to stop seeing this other girl. Colin angrily denies he is seeing the other girl. Colin goes on the attach and begins spouting the same lies Tim had told Laura. Shaun denies them, but Colin says that Shaun’s best friend Tim is the one who revealed all this dirt about him - so they know it is true.
Shaun is badly shaken. His best friend has lied about him, and the girl he cares about believes it. He knows he looks bad and begins to back away. Then he remembers his conversation with Dave about being so close to solving a problem if he would just work a little longer on it - and he remembers what good thing happened when he talked to Dave instead of hating him. He realizes backing away isn’t the thing he should do. He turns back and refutes all the lies, then says again that Colin is just using Laura "according to Dave." Laura knows Dave wouldn’t lie. Colin sees he has been destroyed and flees. Shaun asks Laura to the prom. Without hesitation she says, "Yes."
Prom night, Laura tells Shaun that Tim and Colin are friends. Shaun confronts Tim with the lies on the dance floor, and Tim exits, so embarrassed he leaves his date standing by herself on the dance floor. The next day at the model plane match, Shaun's and Tim's planes compete. Shaun's wins the match. Shaun leaves with Laura, Dave, and the trophy.
Some points about Act III
Did Shaun have his biggest battle that brought out his inner strength? Confronting Colin and the pack of lies took a lot of courage, and Shaun had to overcome his fear of talking to people to do it. Did he get what he wanted?
What else went into making this story?
Stories have a lot of things in them that make them work. Understanding your characters’ hopes and fears is a major step in creating the drama. The drama in a play results from the conflict between the characters, and from each character's struggles. (Conflict is the heart of drama.) Each character adds a bit of conflict: Shaun's sister teases him. Tim betrays Shaun. Laura likes Shaun, but Tim dashes her hopes as well as Shaun's. Shaun is jealous of Dave the Geek. Shaun's plane won't fly.
During Act I the major characters are introduced. If they just walk on and chat for a moment, no one will remember them. The best way to introduce them is to show them involved in some problem or conflict during Act I, and the sooner the better. By the end of Act I, all the main characters show us what they want to do, and launch themselves on a collision course. But the most important moment is the turning point when the main character becomes determined he is going to get what he wants.
In Act II, the real problem is disguised. It is Shaun's fear of communicating (actually fear of rejection or failure). His fear prevents him from talking to people. If he had asked Laura instead of using his sister and best friend, he would have gotten the date immediately. If he had talked to Dave, he would have solved his model plane problem much earlier, and also never have thought that Dave was his rival for Laura.
Sometimes the situation changes into something else. For example the antagonist (bad guy) turns out to be a good guy and someone else is the bad guy. In Prom Date, Tim turns out to be the bad guy and Dave turns out to be the good guy. This is called a plot twist. The viewer sometimes knows what is really going on, and other times is completely surprised. Whether to let the viewer in on everything is part of strategy. If it is a surprise, it has to look real, not like something added at the last minute to make a surprise.
Act III typically is short. The story comes to a climax, resolution and "denouement." The climax is the highest point of tension - the big battle. The resolution means the conflict is resolved - over forever.
The denouement (French, pronounced: day noo má, - I pronounced this denewment in my first college theater class and was very embarrassed) ties up loose ends and satisfies the viewer's emotions. In this story, the subplot of the model airplane contest concludes the story. Shaun wins the race, rubbing Villain Tim's face in the dirt. Shaun has a new friend, Dave, and then walks away with Laura. Often stories have no denouement, ending at the resolution (especially thrillers and other action movies). When it's over, it's over.
Optional Review Questions (Do these! These are fun.)
Hey! You're trying to skip these and I put a lot of work into making these fun. You probably think you haven't learned a thing, but see what you know already - this isn't a test, it's reinforcement, and it will make you feel good and maybe get you a date... Maybe not if you're wearing loose fitting clothes with large vegetable patterns.
1) The three act structure:
2) The protagonist is:
3) The antagonist:
4) Act I:
5) Act II:
6) Act III:
7) A turning point is:
8) The denouement is:
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