Here you are, with your hero in Act 4, a series of choices.
What are they going to choose?
Quit or keep going? Stay true to themselves or keep up the lie?
Are they going to live or die?
Your hero has had their moment of realisation in Act 3, and now they are ready to integrate the knowledge.
There are many different names for this section. Some call it a crisis point or rising conflict, something like that. It’s too esoteric for me. So instead, I call it a series of choices because the hero or even characters around them will have to make decisions.
Giving up is going to become a real option for your hero. Packing it in is going to look so tempting. But, a last-minute lifeline will give them the strength to see things through to the end.
Life is like that, right?
You’re doing the hard thing. At any moment, you could just say, “Nah, I’m out,” and no one would think any less of you. They would understand completely. In fact, there will be friends and family who’re secretly surprised you made it this far in the first place.
Here’s the thing, if you give up, you’ll know. You are beyond your ego. No longer is it about how others perceive you. You’re not doing it for others. You’re doing it for yourself. You have taken everything you know, and you have made your decision. So for your own sense of self-worth, you have to see the project through to completion. You know it will be challenging, but this is the only way if you want to grow.
Success or failure does not matter. What does is seeing it through to the end.
If you’re a writer, this probably sounds familiar to you. Finally, you get to a point with your story where you’re not questioning why you decided to write. But questioning why you were even born in the first place.
Am I right?
Your hero is going through the same.
They spent the first two acts in blissful ignorance, then they learned the truth. So now the question is, what are they going to do with this newfound knowledge?
They’re out of the woods. It must get more manageable for them.
How much worse can it get for them?
Death of the mentor
Your hero is going to be knocked for six right here.
The hero integrates all of the new information they have to deal with, and they are getting the hang of things.
Then something they don’t expect happens.
The hero’s mentor is taken out of the frame.
Think about some of the classic movies
-Don Corleone dies
-Gandalf falls down the pit
-Morpheus is captured by Agent Smith
The hero is without their guide. They are all alone.
It will feel like things will get worse for them.
It does not even have to be a literal death or incapacitation.
In Ghostbusters, the grid gets shut down. The containment unit blows up, releasing the ghosts onto New York. The Ghostbusters are arrested.
In LaLa Land, Sebastian misses Mia’s show, no one turns up, and she leaves town, maybe for good.
In 21 Jump Street, the two heroes fall out and are taken off the case.
What’s funny is after doing a bit of research, these moments tend to happen around 70-80% of the story.
This is even true of multi-entry spanning series. For example, Dumbledore (SPOILER ALERT) dies in the sixth of seven books.
Is this deliberate by the storytellers? Maybe but it seems like it is more like something subconscious. There’s something zen about the whole thing. For the hero to become fully actualised, they have to cast off the shackles of the parental figure.
I’m watching the Sopranos for the first time. I’m am wondering what is going to happen to the Uncle Junior character.
In the Phantom Menace, they leave it to the end of the film to kill off the mentor (Qui-Gon). Now there are many problems with that film. But what if they killed off Liam Neeson’s character earlier? Say in his first encounter with Darth Maul leaving Anakin with Obi-Wan to get to know each other. It may not have saved the film, but it would have upped the stakes going into the finale.
Are you struggling to kill your mentor?
What’s lower than rock bottom?
Your hero has just found the floor to rock bottom.
They cannot sink any lower.
What’s going to happen now?
Now your hero is going to realise that there is nowhere to go but up. So this is how they start their climb.
They’re given a hand up. But, again, it might be a literal or symbolic one.
Let’s go back to some of the favourites.
In Ghostbusters, the guys have been arrested when the mayor suddenly wants to speak with them.
In Lord of The Rings: Fellowship of the Ring, the group find themselves in Lothlorien. A safe haven where Galadriel lives.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, Han asks Luke for help with some pesky TIE Fighters.
With Robocop- Lewis shows up to save Murphy from the onslaught of bullets from fellow officers.
In La La Land, an agent saw Mia’s one-woman show and wants her to come in for an audition.
This section of your story reminds the hero that there is still some good in the world. It acts like a pick me up.
What is important is there are choices made in this section. Choices that will lead to the final confrontation.
Here’s the beauty of this section. The hero does not have to be the one making a choice. Someone else can make a choice as long as there is one being made.
It is up to the mayor to choose between our intrepid heroes or the odious Walter Peck in Ghostbusters. So who’s he going to call (on)?
In LOTR-FOTR Frodo offers Galadriel the ring. After considering it, she declines.
In A New Hope, Luke turns down Han’s offer to go with him. Instead, Luke chooses to stay and join in on the assault on the Death Star. Some things are worth fighting for.
In Robocop, Murphy chooses to take off the helmet. He has fully embraced his human side.
In LaLa Land, Mia goes back to LA to audition.
Remember, when all hope is lost, your hero gets a lifeline. If it’s a tragedy, an out, the last chance at redemption, they are given an opportunity. What is important is they have to put themselves forward. They have to ask for the chance, for help.
Who can help your hero? Who will your hero ask?
Choose and perish
The Ghostbusters have gone through a lot. They have had their base blown up. Been arrested, released, almost killed in a mini earthquake, ascended all the steps. They thought they had fried Gozer, but she is now in the ether.
And there is one thing she wants them to do.
Choose the form of the destructor.
It’s not a great choice, but it is theirs to make.
This is a big moment for your hero. They have to make the ultimate choice. Usually, with many stories, it is one of self-sacrifice.
The hero must be prepared to die to a certain extent.
It is not always a literal death. It can be a symbolic or spiritual death.
After what your hero has been through, they realise that they are ready to die. Not in the sense that they have given up all hope but that they have found something, a cause, a purpose in their life.
Another vital thing to keep in mind is your hero has to choose between two bad options. In Ghostbusters, the choice is between letting themselves be killed by Mr Stay Puft. Or risk blowing themselves up to save the day.
Let’s look at the Original Star Wars Trilogy.
In a New, Hope Luke has to choose between trusting the Force or trusting his targeting computer.
In Empire Strikes Back, Luke has to pick between joining Darth Vader on the dark side. Or throwing himself down a pit.
In Return of the Jedi, Luke chooses between killing his father or being killed by his father.
You can see how in each case, they are neither great choices.
What’s funny is that when editing people’s work, they do one of two things, either;
A-Take the choice out of the hero’s hands
B-Give the hero a fake choice
(In fact, you’re going to be getting a secret bonus post where I talk about a story that has a false choice)
Give your hero a hard choice and make them stick to it.
What will your hero choose?
After the series of choices
After your hero has made their choice comes the aftermath.
You know what?
I’m not going to labour the point of this too much.
To be reductive in the extreme, this is where your big explosion happens.
The guys cross the streams, and the top of Spook Central blows up.
The Death Star blows up.
Hans Gruber takes the shortcut to the ground floor.
Amy, covered in blood, makes a dramatic return.
Mia nails her audition, she and Sebastian talk about what happens next.
Keep this part short.
You can recognise these sections in films because they are usually accompanied by a fade.
In fact, you could end your story here, and it would be acceptable. The plot is finished.
But as we’ll find out next week, just because the plot is finished, that doesn’t mean your story is too. There’s a bit more to go.
(I had a lot of fun explaining as best as I can. I figured out through these posts that the lifeline has to come from outside the story. That is a bit of a revelation. Thank you for giving this a read)
Would you like a bonus?
Super Secret Bounus Section on the series of Choices
Fake choices are killing your story, and here’s an example.
Towards the end of Interstellar, protagonist Coop ends up in the fourth dimension. More specifically, he ends up behind his daughter’s bookcase. He has to send the formula for gravity in Morse code to his daughter through a watch. As has happened to us all at one point.
Here’s the problem, what happens if he does not send the code?
Nothing, he appears to be outside time and space. There is no time limit. He is there until he sends the code.
Coop can either send the code now or later.
When Coop reunites with his daughter, now an old lady on her deathbed, she is surrounded by family. We know that she lived a whole, happy life and is surrounded by her family. He gets to save humanity and see his daughter. He gets to choose both.
A choice with no cost is not a choice.
Every choice you make in this life comes at a cost. You know that I know that.
Could the storytellers have made it work? Absolutely. There are no bad ideas, just good ideas expressed inefficiently.
If they hired me as an editor, I would make their story sing.
As usual, the clues to creating a final practical choice are already there. Wait till ya see.
As Coop watches himself leave his daughter to go on the mission, he says, “Don’t let me go, Murph”. This is the choice to fully presenting itself to the writer.
What makes the line interesting?
It implies there was something Murph could have said that would make Coop stay.
What is the moral question (more on that soon) at the heart of Interstellar; What’s more important? A-The survival of the individual humans or B-the survival of humanity.
Logically we know it’s B, but emotionally it’s A.
That’s what the choice is. He has to choose between sending the formula or sending a message that makes him stay. They could even have it be some phrase the dead mother say.
It’s tempting to not want to give your hero tough decisions. Because really, who wants to make tough decisions?
But that’s where the drama is. That’s where your story comes to life.
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