I’ve written before about the first ten pages of a screenplay, and touched on the nature of the Catalyst (which the Save the Cat “beat sheet” insists should happen on exactly page 12). But I haven’t yet focused on its “Debate Section” — which was recently brought to my attention by one of my coaching clients.
So let’s talk about how the first act of a movie typically ends — and what takes us from the mid-act Catalyst (or Inciting Incident) to the Break into Act Two. (Try not to be annoyed by the inappropriate capitalization — it helps these structure “beats” stand out.)
An extremely common issue I see in scripts is that nothing really rocks the main character’s world in a big enough way until about p. 25-30. I often find myself suggesting that the current “Break into Two” event should actually be the Catalyst. While it’s true that something major should happen at the act break (the main character leaving their familiar world for an “upside down” one). But that does not mean this is where the main story problem begins. That happens earlier.
The point of the Catalyst is that it completely upsets the status quo and demands attention, now. It literally begins the story, which a quest for resolution of whatever it has brought. So if the first thing that really rocks the main character’s world is that they find themselves in an “challenging new world” of some kind, that event should be the Catalyst. In such stories, the Break into Two is not the first entrance into that world, but more of a forced commitment to dealing with it, for the foreseeable future, in a particular way.
What happens in between these two things is the Debate section.
Contrary to its name, it’s not just a bunch of talk about what to do and how to do it. And it’s not a single scene where such “talk” happens. Beat sheet examples online or in Save the Cat Goes to the Movies might focus on the big “questions” of the Debate, which makes sense. But the section is not just about asking them. It’s about exploring the available options, through action and conflict. The Debate is the entire second half of Act One, essentially (depending on how long it takes for the Catalyst to play out). So it’s usually a series of scenes in which the main character is actually taking steps to try to figure out, solve or reverse that Catalyst event. All of these efforts typically fail, and only one option remains — which is the path that Act Two will take.
My go-to illustration of this is the Jim Carrey comedy Liar Liar (which is also great for talking about unsympathetic characters and their arcs, as well as its “Out of the Bottle” genre). In a magical movie like this, one might assume the Break into Two is the entrance into the “upside down world” of being suddenly unable to tell a lie, for this smarmy lawyer. But it’s not! That happens at the Catalyst.
On p. 12-ish, Jim Carrey realizes he can’t lie. What happens next? He doesn’t just “Debate” what to do. He tests and experiments with the problem, trying to solve it any way he can. He is active, and this leads to conflict and complications. That’s what we want for this section — and pretty much every section of a script. He figures out that his son caused this with a birthday wish, and tries to get the son to wish him back to being lie-capable with a new cake and candle. Which doesn’t work. Then he experiments with the limits to this curse. Is there a way around this? Can he write a lie? No. Finally, he tries to get a continuance on the big case he’s about to try (which has huge career/life stakes for him). But that fails, too.
The Break into Two is this character having to begin to argue this case — where lying is typically his main weapon — while only telling the truth. That’s his personal nightmare, and his “upside down world.” As with most “Out of the Bottles,” the character gives up trying to “solve the magic” as Act Two begins (because he’s learned in the Debate that he can’t), and instead focuses on how to get through a personal life challenge with the magic firmly in place, which isn’t easy. In fact, it seems impossible.
The Debate section, then, is a series of scenes where the main character actively tries to solve the massive challenge that has emerged as the Catalyst, usually in the simplest, smallest, most direct ways (which never work). They do the same things that you or I might do, if we were in their situation. This is part of what makes them relatable, and keeps the audience subjectively experiencing the story from their point-of-view. They don’t just leap into a scary “upside down world” willingly. They usually try to go back to what’s comfortable, as quickly as possible. Only when they are out of options does that change. So the Debate is often a “Refusal of the Call to Adventure.” Sometimes the main character does want to go on the adventure of Act Two, whatever it is, and the Debate is more of a quest to try to make that happen, which has its own difficulties.
Either way, it’s a transitional period between getting one’s world rocked, and later leaping into the void to take on whatever challenge is involved in trying to address that. During this crucial in-between section, they have time to deal with and reel from the Catalyst, consider the options ahead, and try those options out — starting with the one that requires the least from them. But the option they will be stuck with — at the Break into Two — will require the most.
A couple other examples:
The Sting – following his friend Luther’s death at the hands of Doyle Lonnegan (the Catalyst), Robert Redford’s character looks for a way get back at Doyle, which leads him to Paul Newman, and possible “big cons” they could play on Doyle. The Break into Two is the beginning of their particular big con.
The Wizard of Oz — after being transported to Oz (the Catalyst), Dorothy tries to get the lay of the land and figure out who is for her and against her, and how to get back. She talks to Glinda the Good Witch, and ultimately decides to set out on the path to find the wizard (the Break into Two).
Has this section proven difficult for you? Do some of these challenges ring true? Do you see it a different way, or have question? Leave a comment and we’ll discuss…
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