The actual work of screenwriting, of telling a story in fiction or in screenwriting, is figuring out how it happens. Not the what, but the how. And so all of those how questions are what you end up staring at the giant whiteboard and figuring out, well, who knows this piece of information and what would be the scene or the moment where they learn this thing, and how is this thing going to happen?
Second acts are where good stories come to die.
Write Screenplays That Sell: The Ackerman Way
By now I had a pretty good idea of the world I wanted to set my story in. I also had a pretty good sense of who populated this world. I also had a sense of the emotional tone I wanted to convey. Now I needed to plot it out beat by beat.
For a five minute pitch? Absolutely. I felt that to pitch Repatriation well, I had to see the entire pilot episode in my head as well as where the subsequent episodes were going. If I couldn’t answer those questions, then I risked letting someone else less invested in the story and characters make those decisions.
Set after the events in ‘Terminator 2′ Sarah Connor and her son John, trying to stay under-the-radar from the government as they plot to destroy the computer network Skynet in hopes of preventing Armageddon.
Some choices I made to deliberately set Repatriation apart from Sarah Connor Chronicles:
- I set most of the action in the mountains and forest emphasizing survivalism over urban warfare.
- I highlighted Henry’s knowledge of chemistry to make the story feel less militaristic.
- I chose not to create an antagonist character hoping that there was more suspense if they didn’t know where the danger was.
In hindsight, I realize I didn’t have to worry too much about comparisons because Repatriation and Sarah Connor Chronicles differed in one very fundamental way. Unlike Sarah Connor. Henry could not hide in plain sight. He would have to remain off the grid as much as possible because he wears his ethnicity openly. Henry and his family are Chinese.
What I did like about Sarah Connor Chronicles was that they were on a mission to destroy Skynet. At this point, Henry didn’t have a mission except to escape with his family.
I really enjoyed watching Sarah Connor Chronicles. I was a fan of the show. By now, the pilot script was floating around the internet. I downloaded it and dissected it.
The first thing I wanted to see was if my Third Act Theme Theory held up.
I watched and rewatched the pilot and didn’t find it around the 30 minute mark. That’s because Josh Friedman put it somewhere else.
Two other places to be exact.
The first in Act One. After Sarah has had a premonition of a Terminator attack, coupled with realization that they’ve been in this unnamed town too long, she determines it’s time to move. Her son John resists.
The cops’ll never find us. We’re safe!
And now she’s in his face, intense.
Don’t you ever think that, John. Don’t you ever think that. No one is EVER safe.
Half an hour. One bag. Plus the guns. I’ll make pancakes.
The next time is in Act Five, near the end of the story. Sarah, John and Cameron have escaped a Terminator by jumping into the future… our present day.
EXT./INT. THE ROADSIDE DITCH – NIGHT
Our threesome pull on the frat boys’ clothes... John looks to the L.A. Skyline...
So this is where it all starts? This is where Skynet begins?
Somewhere in there.
And no one knows we’re here? We can stay?
Get a house. Go to school. You’re as safe.
No one is ever safe.
They look at each other--the apple really doesn’t fall far. Sarah pulls him close, not noticing as he steals a glance at Cameron...
This was an astounding revelation to me. I thought that I had found a hard and fast rule about story structure. This proved to me that while there may be patterns, there are no rules. Josh Friedman chose to bookend his story with the theme. The benefit was that the story didn’t need to slow down to make this revelation. It was a theme that was stated, proven and then restated.
And it felt organic to the story.
I always wondered if Josh Friedman chose to do this from the start or it just came naturally as part of his process.
I still didn’t have a theme yet but I decided to plow ahead and plot out the story with the faith that I’ll discover it during my writing process.
The one hour TV structure that comes most naturally to me uses a teaser and four acts. The way I visualize it in my head is that Act One sets up the story. Act Two is the push. Act Three is the pull. Act Four is the resolution.
“Push” and “pull” are my own shorthand meaning that whatever “push” is, “pull” will be the opposite. Some people use the jargon “rising” and “falling” action; “active” and “reactive”; and, “running toward” and “running away.”
At this point, this is what I had.
ACT ONE – Setting up the story.
Government agents arrive without any explanation to take Henry into custody. As he is escorted away, he notices both colleagues and students also being detained. What sends a chill down his spine is the fact that everyone in custody is Chinese.
ACT TWO – The “Push”
Henry decides he needs to round up his family for their own safety. They escape to the Angeles National Forest. There they find a group of Chinese American refugees who have also fled.
ACT THREE – The “Pull”
But Henry has bigger problems. His wife needs her medication and they won’t find it hiding out in the Angeles National Forest. Henry with Oliver and Jason return to LA and rob a pharmacy. Despite their plans, Elizabeth dies from complications from her surgery/injury.
For the first three acts I have answered the question “What happened?” I still needed to flesh out beat by beat “How does it happen?”
“They escape to the Angeles National Forest” is easy enough to write. How do they do it? How do they do in a way that’s unique to them? How do they do it in a way that’s unique to them that’s dramatic and full of conflict?
And how do they feel about it?