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Specs & The City: Break Into Act III and 'Chinatown'

When I first come up with an idea for a script, I usually know one of two things right away: How it begins or how it ends. If I’m really lucky, maybe I’ll know both. Rarely do I ever have more than the vaguest of ideas about how my characters will get from one to the other. The first real work of writing a screenplay comes in trudging your way through the swamp that lies between the two. That’s the brick laying. The yeoman’s work. And once you’ve got that, you’re ready to start having fun.

That’s when you get to go back and add the flourishes - the architectural flair that marks a script as your own. I tend to think of a script as a series of transitions. Scene to scene, act to act. Even a single scene is filled with its own set of transitional moments. They’re everywhere if you’re looking, and taking the time to punch them up – making them stand out from the crowd – is one of the easiest and most effective ways to add those touches of flair.

We’ve looked at other transitional moments before in this column, like how to grab your audience by the throat with your opening scene, and how to move into the meat of your story as you break into Act II. So it seems like a good time to go back and address that other overwhelming transition – the break into Act III.

As Billy Wilder put it, “The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.” You’re moving into the climax of your story – effectively beginning the payoff for the past 90 minutes of set-up – so you need to hit this out of the park. This is when, if you’re doing it right, your audience is on the edge of their seat. You’ve got them.

Hook. Line. Sinker.

And when you’re looking for an example of screenwriting excellence, mastery of form and style, and a story so tight you could bounce a quarter off it, there are few better places to turn than to Robert Towne’s classic story of greed, corruption, and innocence lost.

Let’s take a look at…

Break into Act 3 and ‘Chinatown’

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Polanski’s Chinatown is the perfect example of how to break into your third act. With one scene, a monstrous and shocking reveal is made, and the Protagonist (and the audience too for that matter) has the rug pulled out from under him. Gittes is so confident that he knows the score that he calls Escobar and gives him Evelyn’s address so that he can arrest her, setting the stage for the final showdown between order and chaos in Chinatown.

 Stop it! I'll make it easy. You
 were jealous, you fought, he fell,
 hit his head. It was an accident,
 but his girl is a witness. You
 had to pay her off. You don't have
 the stomach to harm her, but you've
 got the money to shut her up. Yes or
 Who is she? And don't give me that
 crap about it being your sister. You
 don't have a sister.
 Evelyn is trembling.
 I'll tell you the truth...
 Gittes smiles.
 That's good. Now what's her name?
 Katherine?... Katherine who?
 She's my daughter.
 Gittes stares at her. He's been charged with anger and when
 Evelyn says this it explodes. He hits her full in the face.
 Evelyn stares back at him. The blow has forced tears from
 her eyes, but she makes no move, not even to defend herself.
 I said the truth!
 She's my sister.
 Gittes slaps her again.
 She's my daughter.
 Gittes slaps her again.
 My sister.
 He hits her again.
 My daughter, my sister.
 He belts her finally, knocking her into a cheap Chinese vase
 which shatters and she collapses on the sofa, sobbing.
 I said I want the truth.
 (almost screaming it)
 She's my sister and my daughter!

Now, every story doesn’t need something as dramatic as an incest revelation – that could make for some uncomfortable moments with the kiddies when sitting down to watch Toy Story 4 – but the core lesson is the same. You can’t just move into Act III.

You have to EXPLODE into it.

The next time you sit down to do some revisions, look over your transitional scene into Act III. Do you slide quietly into it, or do you blow open the barn doors and stride confidently into your final act? The answer could make all of the difference for your script.

So bandage up that cut on your nose, and get writing.

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