Applying the Hollywood Formula: The Protagonist and Act Two

As I explained in my post before last, I’m practicing the writing of an outline using the Hollywood Formula as a template. In order to get a feel for how the Hollywood Formula plays out, I decided to divide one of my favourite movies into its individual scenes and organise them into the Hollywood Formula’s acts.

While that exercise has given me a better idea of story structure, I’m still having trouble actually creating an outline. I’ve been making notes and scribbling bullet points but it just doesn’t seem to be hanging together. So I’m trying something different: I’m going to blog about the process, see how it all comes together.

As practice, I’m working on a short story. I have no real idea how long it’s going to go for, but I’ll shoot for 20,000-30,000 words, something I can knock over the first draft of in a couple of weeks at the most. If I take the average, 25,000 words, and break it down in Hollywood Formula terms, I’m looking at 6,250 words per quarter of the story – Act 1, Act 2 pre-Twist, Act 2 pre-Low Point and Act 3.

So far, I have some solid ideas as to what happens at each major point. My Protagonist is a soldier who’s just survived an encounter with an enemy. A government group catches up with him en route back home with a handful of civilians, directing him to brief an operative in the field who is about to engage the same enemy. This operative is the soldier’s Relationship Character.

In Act 1, the soldier arrives and encounters both the enemy and the operative. He tells the operative what he knows; the operative offers the soldier a place on the mission. The soldier turns him down, but decides – part out of a desire for revenge for the deaths of his unit-mates, part because he can’t face his fellow survivors without seeing the enemy destroyed himself – to stay.

In Act 3, the soldier has hours left to live and knows it. His goal to send the data he’d gathered on the enemy home before he dies, but the operative doesn’t want him to. I want the choice to be tough. Once he’s made it he has to face the enemy once again in order to prevent it from invading home.

Act 2 is tricky to nail down. I have a Mid-Point Twist – the soldier discovers that the vessel carrying the civiilians was destroyed before it got home, so the only person able and willing to warn home about the enemy is now him – and a low point – the soldier discovers he only has hours to live. But I keep struggling with just what’s meant to happen in the rest of Act 2 – I want an action scene before and after the Twist, but what kicks them off and how they go is eluding me right now.

So how about I go back to Aliens and take another look at its Act 2?

Broadly, before the fight scene on sublevel 3, Act 2 is broadly about Ripley the outsider as she finds her feet amongst the Marines. We see Ripley:

  • Tell Bishop in no uncertain terms to keep his distance.
  • Falter when reliving the original encounter, but recover and respond when Vasquez disrespects her.
  • Show her practical worth by driving the powerloader.
  • Display strong instincts when she dives straight down the vent after Newt.
  • Show sensitivity and compassion when bringing Newt around.
  • Display her technical knowledge and intelligence when she picks up on the threat posed by the Marines’ armour-piercing ammo to the processor, but also a lack of people skills when pointing it out to Gorman.

Character-wise, we know Ripley is still affected by both the alien and the rogue android, but she’s got smarts, guts and a strong heart, even when no one else seems to. She also won’t suffer fools, which is something that can go both ways. It’s a good set-up to her taking charge of the survivors after the fight. Some of this – her intelligence, her ability to give a shit for the broader human race while it doesn’t for her, her inability to suffer fools – Ripley’s already shown us in Act 1, but it’s reinforced in new ways (fault-finding with Gorman, bringing Newt out of her mental fortress, running the ‘loader) in this act.

In terms of the broader narrative, we’re also shown the Marines as both tough and flawed. It’s an Aliens movie, after all, so no matter what the good guys are not going to kick arse, but unless it wants to descend into farce the movie can’t show them as utterly incompetent – they must still seem an authentic military force.

The fight itself serves as a brutal reminder of the aliens’ fearsomeness, and it’s the logical extension of the plot thus far – the Marines walk into the hive because they’re looking for civilians.

So in my Act 2, I need to be able to tell my reader the important things about my soldier and the situation he’s in. Let’s address the first obvious question: What is important about my soldier?

  • He’s on his own, but he’s not a loner. He won’t just be missing his dead comrades as friends; he’ll be missing being part of his unit, having people watch his back, people who compliment his skills while he compliments theirs.
  • Speaking of those complimentary skills, he’s more a motivator than a leader; someone else’s right-hand-man. Give him a team with a tactical set of orders and he’ll make sure he and his people get the job done; put him In Charge and… he’s probably going to talk it out until someone else makes a big decision.
  • He’s kind of quiet; a good listener and a pretty good judge of character. He’ll only let his guard down around people he trusts. That said, if someone gets pissy around him he’s more likely to argue back or shut them down rather than steering them toward something productive.
  • He’s definitely a competent soldier, a veteran of several engagements. Yet he’s still more comfortable in his niche than being flexible.

What does that tell me?

  • At some point I need to put him in a group situation and try and put some pressure on him to make some kind of big call; there should be a contest of wills involved. Maybe he lets someone else get his / her way on an unwise decision.
  • Have him sit back and observe while someone else speaks / acts and let him draw some incisive conclusions which he can later act on.
  • Put him in a situation where he needs to communicate, but with people he doesn’t trust.
  • Put him in a situation where tempers are short and see whether he can rein in his own frayed nerves.
  • Let him compare his current situation to past encounters, remember his squadmates – maybe even mention them when something they could fix comes up.

Now what about the situation, then?

  • The enemy enclave is located in the middle of a civilian town that supports a mining operation – so far, no one seems to have noticed the enemy’s presence.
  • A nearby baron has set up his offices in town recently; both the soldier and the operative suspect that he has something to do with the enemy being here.
  • The town is a long way from civilisation – if the soldier is to do something about the enemy, he’s going to have to do it himself, with or without the operative’s aid.
  • The enemy is actually incidental to the operative’s mission: he has another goal that he needs to achieve.

That gives me a few things to work with:

  • The soldier attempts to stop a group of miners from going into where the enemy enclave is.
  • The soldier watches as the baron discusses the situation with the leader of the group of miners.
  • The soldier and the operative argue over the operative’s unwillingness to divulge any information on his objectives.

Now all I need to do is arrange them in some sort of order – and start turning them into actual scenes!