“It all depends on how we look at things and not how they are in themselves.”
~ Carl Jung
Most screenwriters are familiar with the term “character arc.” It describes the way in which the protagonist changes, (assuming the story is not a tragedy, and that they actually do), over the course of the story. This evolution typically happens somewhat gradually, primarily in Act II, and as a result of the hero’s having to change, adapt and evolve in order to try to overcome the various obstacles they face en route to their goal.
Then, at the end of the second act, they are typically put to their “greatest test of all.” It is here that they are forced to truly “arc”; to sink or to swim, and somehow prove what they’ve learned and how they’ve changed over the course of the story. The “epiphany,” again if there is one, is most often found here, in the beginning of Act III. Still, it can sometimes be difficult to convincingly justify and convey what truly drives this change and this seemingly sudden 180 degree turnaround and rise from the ashes.
A brief digression: I recently happened across a book called Let Your Mind Run; A Memoir of Thinking My Way to Victory by Olympic champion long-distance runner Deena Kastor. In it, she describes some of the tools and techniques she credits for her extraordinary success. While she was certainly blessed with significant amount of innate talent, early on in her running career she realized that relying on that talent alone to carry her to success was not going to be sufficient in the big leagues. That in addition to talent, steady discipline, and rigorous training, something more was necessary.
She discovered that the real key to victory was what she termed "a shift in perspective." Something as seemingly simple as mentally shifting from "I'm feeling fatigued," to "I'm gaining strength where I need it" proved immensely, even measurably, effective. As she puts it, "Competitors can know your times and places. They can learn and guess at your race tactics. But your inner strength is where you gain a real advantage."
So—to segue back to writing screenplays—I believe this is precisely where your hero's ability to rise from that critical lowest point at the end of Act II truly lies: in their inner strength and their ability to shift perspective. And that makes sense, right? Because in the end, we can't, either as humans or characters, or especially as screenwriters, rely on that deus ex machina to swoop in and save us. We have to save ourselves.
Writer Dara Marks in her excellent book, Inside Story calls this critical moment where the hero or heroine decides their own fate the "transformational moment," and considers it the pivotal event of the entire story. It is this internal shift in attitude or perspective which then in turn enables the hero to somehow change and often conquer their external circumstances and foes.
Here are a few examples of this principle in action from some classic hit movies:
In Toy Story, after Woody and Buzz have been taken captive by Sid, the diabolical kid next door, Woody struggles over the course of Act II to try to free them, all to no avail. By the end of the second act, both of them are completely dejected, and even Woody seems to have finally fully thrown in the towel. It’s their lowest point of all, where all hope truly seems lost.
Until… Buzz has an internal shift in perspective, an epiphany, and, thanks to the animators, we can literally see the light go on in his eyes when it happens. In that moment, Buzz goes from being devastated that he's not actually a Space Ranger to the realization that being Andy's toy is actually a pretty great thing after all. And it is this change in perspective, this mental turnaround, which then helps to fuel his and Woody's rise from the ashes, allows them to truly join forces and become a team, and thereby defeat Sid, free themselves, and ultimately make their way back home to Andy.
In Little Miss Sunshine, once the family finally arrive at the beauty pageant, they are devastated to discover what Olive is really up against, their lowest point. They go from seeing that Olive stands no chance whatsoever of winning the crown and, in fact, may well be utterly humiliated, to recognizing that the whole thing is completely ridiculous and who cares, really? As a result, they come together to celebrate her and her participation anyway. So, the internal shift, which begins with the father, Richard, the one who all along had been so desperately focused on “winning,” leads to the external shift of everyone in the family joyously up on stage, defying the judges, dancing and exuberantly celebrating together.
In The King's Speech, despite all his efforts to control his stutter, after failing yet again to be able to speak in public, Bertie, is desperate. He argues with his speech therapist Lionel Logue who dismisses him, goads him about why he ought to listen to Bertie at all, until finally an angry Bertie yells that he has a right to be heard, that as a man he has inherent dignity, he has a voice. And it is this realization, again this internal/psychological shift, which in the end ultimately enables Bertie to finally be able to step up to the microphone and speak with strength and clarity to the country.
So, as you end your second act, leaving your hero at their absolute nadir, and then begin your third act where they typically manage some sort of turnaround and begin their comeback, see if you can allow them a true shift in perspective to catalyze and create this “arc” convincingly.
Even if it's not a full-blown, bona-fide epiphany, can they adopt some sort of new way of looking at their plight/themselves/the world that then allows them their "transformational moment?" Can you grant them a moment of genuine internal/attitudinal change, a moment of new clarity, of eyes wide open to something they’d never fully realized before, which then helps enable them to create change in their external circumstances and thereby truly become the master of their own fate? And, perhaps even more importantly, when faced with a struggle in your own life, is it possible that an internal shift in perspective or attitude might enable you to change something in your external circumstances; might open the door to a new solution, help you to overcome a struggle, or lead to even greater success?