DD: The inciting incident or what Michael Arndt, the writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, calls 'the bolt from the blue' happens at about page 10. Ideally, it somehow changes the status quo for the hero. It shakes things up.
AB: In the three Act Structure script, where do you usually
put Plot Point #1 and what is its purpose?
DD: I put Plot Point #1 at page 25, give or take, and have my own, admittedly rather wordy, but I think quite useful definition of it: Plot Point #1 is the ACTION the main character takes to try to solve what he perceives his problem to be, which then results in unexpected consequences.
By the way, some people consider the Inciting Incident, which happens at about page 10, to be "Plot Point #1"; but, this is just semantics. I call the plot point that happens on page 10 or so the Inciting Incident, and use the phrase "Plot Point #1" to describe what happens at the end of the first act. Regardless, these are both critical elements, and intertwined. The "problem" that the main character seeks to solve is by taking action at the first plot point, which is usually an outgrowth of the Inciting Incident.
Here's an example to illustrate those two points:
In Toy Story, the main character is Woody and the inciting incident is the arrival of Buzz Lightyear. Buzz is almost literally a 'bolt from the blue' and represents a significant change in the status quo for our hero. His arrival creates a problem for Woody who has, heretofore, always been the leader and favorite. But Buzz is stealing his thunder and Woody grows increasingly jealous, so Woody decides to 'get rid' of him. Woody's intention is simply to knock Buzz behind Andy's desk, but things go awry and Buzz is accidentally knocked out the window and into the evil neighbor kid's yard, setting the stage for all sorts of further predicaments and action in Act II. So, Inciting Incident: The arrival of Buzz. Plot Point #1: the ACTION Woody takes to try to get rid of him, which results in unexpected consequences.
Just a few more examples of Plot Point 1 to help illustrate my point: In Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman puts on the dress. In Thelma & Louise, Louise shoots the rapist. In The King's Speech, Colin Firth's King George VI & his wife hire Geoffrey Rush, the speech therapist. You get the idea. It's usually pretty drastic action, taken to solve a specific problem, which then has all sorts of unanticipated consequences and side effects in Act II.
AB: What is the 'Murphy's Law' Act?
DD: I call Act II the 'Murphy's Law' Act. Whatever can go wrong, will and usually at the worst possible time. You know, the monster's coming and the car won't start. Keep the obstacles and threats coming, pile them on, and let your lead create a way out of it. ("If I can't find a way, I'll make one.")
AB: Do you have any tips for keeping your story moving in Act II?
DD: Act II can be a slog. I think there are two things which are helpful in dealing with this challenge. First, the midpoint, which as plot points go is probably the most nebulous. There are lots of different definitions for this out there, but the one I like best is that something is different after this point; there's no going back. As Thelma in Thelma & Louise says, "something's crossed over in me".
The thing to remember about Act II is it's about twists and turns, hills and valleys, and the lead's encountering and figuring out ways to overcome unanticipated obstacles. And generally, the more obstacles a character faces on the road to achieving their goal, the more invested we become. If it's all just easy, a cakewalk, well, then who really cares? Where's the story in that? Action movies do this in very obvious, big, and loud ways. But all stories benefit from, dare I say, require it.
A great example of these principles in action in a more "quiet" movie is Sideways. There's hope for Miles, there's no hope, there's promise, and it's dashed. Up and down, up and down. I've recently realized that, from a certain angle, the reason we go to movies is to watch people struggle and, more importantly, to see them overcome their challenges and in the process somehow transcend themselves. So, Act II should be filled with moments of triumph and moments of despair, the greatest of which is Plot Point #2, at which point all should look lost and leads to Act III.
AB: What can you tell us about the 'Or Else' Act?
DD: I call Act III the "Or Else..." act. What's the 'or else' for your main character if they don't succeed at whatever it is they're after? Another way of putting this is - what's at stake? A clue to the answer lies in the fact that I believe Act III should come down to either a literal or figurative matter of life or death. So, in what way will your lead's life be over-- at least in their eyes-- if they don't manage to achieve their goal? What exactly is the 'or else'? What's to become of them? Why must they succeed or die trying?
AB: Do you try to incorporate symbolism into your scripts?
DD: No, it's not something I set out to consciously do ahead of time, maybe because I think it might wind up too precious. But if it happens organically, if something occurs along the way, then that's great.
AB: Any secrets for writing dialogue?
DD: It's helpful to have a sense of rhythm and I think to a certain extent you either have an ear for it or you don't. But you can certainly improve and train your ear. Again, I recommend reading work that is similar in tone to what it is you're trying to create, particularly if it's comedic. Get those rhythms in your head and they will bleed into your own work. Another suggestion is to allow yourself to forget trying to be clever, trying to be profound, etc. Instead, simply ask yourself, under the given circumstances-- and ideally the circumstances you've set up are inherently somewhat interesting-- what would someone actually say?
AB: Do you have any helpful editing techniques?
DD: I love editing. It's one of my favorite parts of the writing process. If I can make something better and stronger by simply cutting out what's extraneous, by eliminating the chaff, I'm a happy camper. In order to be able to do this most effectively, sometimes it's helpful to take a break from your work and/or to get fresh eyes on it.
Regarding editing the script as a whole, remember that, ideally, you want your scenes to build a cause & effect chain, one pushing into the next. The more you can do this, the better the flow and the stronger the forward momentum will feel.
As for editing within a scene itself, I tell my students it's like a party where you want to make a cool impression, "Arrive fashionably late and leave early". Get into the scene at the last possible moment, do what you need to do, and then get out at the earliest opportunity, unless you have a very good reason for sticking around. Don't wear out your welcome.
AB: Who are some of your favorite heroines or strong female lead characters in past films and what about those characters do you feel made them strong, likable, and memorable?
DD: Thelma & Louise -- there is something still so liberating, real, and potent about that movie. Thelma's line, after she robs the liquor store and jumps back in the car, "I think I've got a knack for this shit." is probably one of my all time favorite lines of dialogue. Erin Brockovich; Sigourney Weaver in Aliens; All the women in Enchanted April; Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday; Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith; Jamie Leigh Curtis in True Lies. I love that these women are willing to really FIGHT for what they want. And of course, Scarlett, in Gone with the Wind; for all her faults, she is the personification of Winston Churchill's dictum, "Never, ever give up".
AB: Can you share any current or future projects you're working on that we can look forward to?
DD: I'm currently working on a book on writing, a screenplay which is set at Christmastime, and plan to offer an online course soon. Please check my website for updates at . You can also find me on Twitter at or Facebook at