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M. Night Shyamalan is the Cocaine of Screenwriting

By: Jess Canty

As promised - we are going to dive into the third act of a screenplay.

Why? Because Act III is actually the most important part of the movie.

Ever been to a movie and left feeling meh? It was "ok" but you can't quite put your finger on why you didn't like it? Chances are the problems were in Act III.

Don't believe me?

Ever been a person named M Knight Shyamalan and written such an incredible Act III to ONE FILM that audiences around the world keep going to your movies hoping to just have a glimpse of that feeling again?

As we all learned in our D.A.R.E. classes, M. Knight Shyamalan is the cocaine of screenwriting. Why? Because we are all just chasing the high we got that time he wrote the best Act III since The Sting.

But I digress...

The bottom line is, if you are evaluating a script and the Act I & II don't seem that stellar, but Act III completely blows you away - that is a project you want to sign up for. Because the audience will forgive almost ANYTHING as long as the ending is satisfying.

But it works the other way too - leave things unresolved and it doesn't matter if you laughed and cried along the way - they'll never forgive you.

So what is the structure of a great Act III? Again I turn to Blake:


THE FIVE-POINT FINALE (note that this is significantly truncated, for his full writing on this check out Save The Cat Strikes Back).

  1. Gathering the Team - The first step, once the hero has decided to proactively cross into Act Three, is the "Gathering of the Team" those he'll need to "storm the castle." The castle can be anything, from an actual fortress (the 'Death Star' in Star Wars), to getting on stage at a local rock club (School of Rock), to helping your girl reach the airport (Casablanca).

  2. Executing the Plan - The second step is the actual "storming the castle" with a plan that FEELS foolproof. It's all looking good here. And yet there is a sense as the goal nears that this is too easy. Sure we've lost some nameless soldiers, who demonstrate their loyalty by taking a bullet for the team, but the crew is together and the High Tower is in sight.

  3. The High Tower Surprise - This is the part where the hero reaches the High Tower where the princess is being kept and finds something shocking: no princess! (For a twist on the "Princess" check out the Five-Point-Finale of Enchanted, which proves Princesses can save their own damn selves, thank you very much). It looks like all is lost again! However smart our hero thought he was up to this point, its not enough. The shock of the High Tower Surprise is learning that's not what this effort has been about. And the real challenge of the Final Exam the hero must pass is about to become clear.

  4. Dig Deep Down - The whole point of the finale now is revealed - and its not what we expected. This is the part where the hero has to find that last ounce of strength to win, but can't use normal means to do so. And lest you think this is a goofy "formula" thing, in fact, it is the whole point of storytelling. For this is the part we've waited for, the 'touched by the divine' beat where the hero lets go of his old logic and does something he would never do when this movie began. This is the part in Star Wars where we hear Obi-Wan say: "Use the Force, Luke!"

  5. The Execution of the New Plan - Awakened to the true lesson of this story, the hero puts this last-ditch plan into action and it works! It was only by stepping into the unknown and trusting that the hero could find the way to triumph. THIS is the test. Can you give up belief in your old ways and have faith in the dark, quiet place inside? Rewards go to those who seek this moment in fiction and in life. It's the reason we tell stories and honor those who understand. This is why, when we go to the Final Image of a movie - such as the ceremony at the end of Star Wars -we feel like we won as well. Because we did!

This way of looking at the ending of any story also works when the hero or heroes are 'Defending the Castle' (Saving Private Ryan, Shawn of the Dead, Blazing Saddles) or in 'Escaping the Castle' (Alien, Free Willy, Defiance). Whether your team is on offense or defense the lessons of friendship, teamwork, selflessness and nobility are the same and the Dig-Deep-Down moment is key. No matter what permutation of your tale, its the dynamic we seek, for the need of any story boils down to being touched by powers unseen.

Special effects are fine, great set pieces are wonderful, funny jokes and unique characters are vital. But if you take me to the divine in your story, I will tell all my friends about it.

That is what storytelling is really about. And that kind of magic is as far from formula as it gets.


There are roughly 75,000 scripts registered per year with the WGA. Somewhere around 600 films in this country get some form of theatrical release, and another 500 TV shows. Statistically, it is more difficult to be a produced screenwriter than it is to get into the NFL (this is true, look it up).

And that is NOT because there are 73,900 incredible pieces of dramatic writing that are simply being "missed" by the powers that be.

No matter if you are in front or behind the camera the majority of your career will be spent reviewing material. Making choices about which projects to be a part of.

If you look at the numbers above, 98.6% of it will be terrible, awful, why-the hell-did-they-write-this-material?!?! Or at best, mediocre. So what is an actor, or a cinematographer or a sound designer to do?

I read a script for a client the other day and I couldn't get past page six. PAGE SIX. Because there were already so many formatting, spelling and grammar mistakes I was angry at whoever thinks my time is so invaluable that they don't have to proofread their screenplay. And yet, this project is casting. But that don't mean they get to have YOU in it.

Your job, as an artist is to have taste.

The further you get in your career, the more you get to execute on that taste. You MUST learn how to identify what is great before you get sucked into a project that is not worth the paper it was printed on.

And don't be under any illusions - this DOES NOT get easier as you get bigger and more famous. Imagine how many scripts are now landing on Vanessa Kirby's agent's desk. There are a finite number of projects in which she can be in each year. She MUST learn how to evaluate material or this "breakout" moment is going to be short-lived.

Start learning this now - so that when you are in the position of having to say no to 98.6% of what you read, you will also be able to recognize the 1.4% that is worth your time and talent.

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