Changing the Game

Aug 24, 2017 by

Changing the Game

In any story, the problem gets worse in the middle for the main character. Or at least it gets more complicated, more difficult, more dangerous, etc.

They are generally not “winning.” They’re overmatched by whatever they’re involved in.

The difficulties of writing the second act of a screenplay — or plotting out the vast central section of any story — lie in achieving that effect.

After all, if your main character is actively focused on solving their one big problem and/or reaching their one big goal in every scene (which they should be), then real progress should be made, right?

Well, yes and no. Forward motion should happen, but with it should come all kinds of other bad stuff, so that the net effect is that things build to a big crisis, usually about 3/4 of the way in. This “All is Lost” moment doesn’t usually come out of the blue. It’s a result of “bad guys” (or problems) “closing in,” prior to that point (to quote Save the Cat).

To achieve this, a writer needs to give their main character powerful oppositional forces (not always a specific antagonist character), which are acting against them, in a “punch-counterpunch” sort of fashion. Each side is fighting back and forth, reacting to the other, adjusting and trying new things, so that the situation continuously evolves.

The “game should change” for the main character, in virtually every scene. The status of their overall problem/goal — and where they’re at in trying to reach it — keeps developing. It doesn’t just stay at one level, in an ongoing stalemate. It builds.

Sometimes writers try to keep things difficult by having the main character try an approach to the problem/goal which fails, and then another approach that fails, and then another that fails. While sometimes this can work in a quick montage sequence to show time passing, most scenes or sequences shouldn’t end with the main character right back where they started from, before the scene or sequence. If they do, it’s called a “stutter step.” And it could easily be cut from the script, and no one would miss it.

The best scenes are crucial, consequential and necessary, because something happens in them that forever changes the game from this point forward, and leads to new actions, new decisions, new circumstances for the characters, unlike what they’ve experienced before.

Even in a good mystery, where the detective is making some progress toward solving the case (the pilot of the original X-Files comes to mind), with each new clue comes new questions and new challenges. And the tension only grows — which, of course, is what you want.

So the stakes need to be high, the degree of difficulty also needs to be high, and the process of trying to solve the problem and/or reach the goal needs to keep leading to new complications, in such a way that the problematic situation builds and builds, to a breaking point.

Only in the final act, after all seemed lost, is there one last chance to confront the situation in a new way. But even that should not go totally smoothly: it should surprise the main character in some ways, throw them off their guard, and force them to improvise.

That’s ultimately what we like watching characters do: fail to get what they want, and run into new difficulties, which they have to react to, and try to figure out a way to address. Then we like to see them put those new plans into motion, and not quite succeed with them, either — but in new ways, that “change the game” from what it was before. If you read Robert McKee’s book Story, he talks about this as the basic anatomy of a scene.

When in doubt, punish the main character more, make it harder and worse, and complicate the situation. Add conflict and problems. You almost can’t have too many of those. But a lot of scripts suffer from having too few — or from having an overall story problem that doesn’t really build enough, isn’t dynamic, and kind of stays too much the same, throughout.

George M. Cohan’s old saying went something like this: “In the first act, you get your main character up a tree. In the second act, you throw rocks at them. In the third act, you get them down.” The nature of those “rocks” is really key. They should get bigger and more dangerous, and the main character should be losing, despite taking actions to try to avoid or combat them.  How you keep those “rocks” evolving — as well as their reaction to them, and plan to defeat them — is the foundation of your story.

If you haven't read them already, I also recommend my "Ten Key Principles Successful Writers Understand", and my series of audio downloads.


  1. Steven Hale

    There’s nothing inherent in storyness that requires escalating tension. Many novels use an episodic structure (e.g. Don Quixote). Short stories often lack escalating tension. I think that films need reversals, increasing conflict etc. because of the limits of audience attention span. The quest has to be significant enough to justify 90+ minutes, but a simple episodic struggle with no setbacks will become predictable and risk losing the audience. Contrary to Snyder’s “rule,” an All Is Lost moment isn’t essential (Gulino has pointed this out), but it is an effective way to keep the audience involved when there’s fatigue is at its height. A similar technique is the Premature Ending (“Oh no, the movie can’t be over yet. It’s too soon!”).

  2. blank182

    Super helpful as always!! I think of the three acts (with a 2a and 2b)like this:

    Act I Get your hero up a tree
    Act 2a throw rocks at them
    Act 2 set the tree on fire
    Act lll get the hero down

  3. Griffin

    Great article, Erik. And great examples with the X-Files pilot. Just finished reading it. Since the story is told from Scully’s point of view, we (the reader) experience the twists and turns in the case just as she does — even though Mulder is a already few steps ahead of us in the beginning. With each twist and turn, something new is uncovered and the stakes are raised.

    Act two plotting is one of the hardest things for me. I find it especially challenging in the nascent stages, when the spine of the story isn’t quite clear yet, and you feel like some of your choices are purely arbitrary. Using a template like Save the Cat beat sheet is very helpful here. You can plug in key tent pole points like the “all is lost” or “midpoint”, or main plot points you’re sure you want to use…and work backwards from there. Much like a puzzle. I always keep in mind my theme the notion that I need to create a cat and mouse game of ESCALATING CONFLICT.

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