Most movies are broken up into three acts. For my purposes, let’s focus on the last two.
Generally speaking, at the end of the act two, the protagonist is at his lowest point, totally broken with seemingly no hope. Take Inception for example, when Cobb–
–wait, no. Let me do a different one: (500) Days of Summer.
Towards the end of the film, Tom goes to the MPDG Summer’s party believing his romance with her has been rekindled, only to discover that she is announcing her engagement to someone else. At this point, he is totally crushed; goes on a bender; and pretty much loses the will to live (which is only fatal in the Star Wars universe, FYI).
I talk about this because right now, I’m feeling like this part of my life’s reached the end of its second act. It’s like Lemony Snicket decided to start writing my life story with a climax involving a car accident. And while recovery from anything tends to come in waves, I’m not about to feel sorry for myself – the third act’s a-coming! So what I ask of y’all today is this:
What’s been a significant second act break in your life and what was the brilliant, redemptive third act that followed?
QUENTIN: I’d hate to look at my life as a Hollywood movie as the 3 Act Structure only works well for a Hollywood movie. If you look at Michael Haneke’s films, you can kiss the 3 Act Structure goodbye. I was having dinner with a few friends last night in Hong Kong and they were talking about things they had learned from meditation. It seems that the goal for some enlightening processes is to learn to face life without assigning negative and positive attributes to whatever happens… to simply accept what happens (no matter how painful or happy) and live. We know well that the 3 Act Structure is only effective in creating compelling drama within a couple hours’ time frame; it would seem limiting to live by it.
ALFREDO: It sounds like you’re really having a tough time, Jerome. Take heart. This, too, shall pass – the bad, and the good. Sometimes, when I’m down, I try to think of life as an incomplete book, where the final chapter is yet to be written. Readers may not know that you’re, what – 21? 22? – I’m not kidding, folks, he’s got that much of a baby face – so you’ve got many chapters left to go. If it’s of any consolation, when I was around 30 – yes, that distant, faraway place you’ve heard about – armed with my degrees in architecture and German, and working as an architect, I threw it all away. I just wasn’t that happy sweating window drainage details. I wanted to write scripts, and I wanted a safety net of income which would allow me to write without the sword of Damocles hanging over my neck – so I became a bar owner as well. My poor mother wondered what had become of her respectable son, but I decided I had to do what my heart and gut told me to do. I call this chapter “The Happy U-Turn.” It’s a chapter filled with triumph and heartache, but in the end, better to regret taking the risk than to regret not taking it. And unless I’m mistaken, you don’t have a mortgage to pay or family to support, so it’s the perfect time to get cracking on that next chapter! Ask that girl out! Perform that one man play! Backpack through Belize. Hell, take the girl to Belize with you and write the play on the trail!
IRIS: I agree with Quentin. Life is not a 3 Act Structure. It’s a never-ending rollercoaster ride. There will always be ups and downs. Like Alfredo, I will offer up some suggestions to get through the tough times. Exercise is always great. Get those endorphins up to boost your mood and if you do a group activity (like a group hike), you can make friends while you’re at it. Another way to feel really good about yourself is to do some good for others. It can be as small as holding doors open or helping random strangers on the street to find something, or it can be as big as going to volunteermatch.org and finding a cause you believe in. If you’re down on people right now, you can always volunteer to help out animals as well. I know you’ll instantly feel better. Finally, I’ve never met your family, but from what little I know, it sounds like your dad is one of the coolest. If I had your dad, I would be getting him to cook me a nice, comforting meal right about now–some of that amazing pancit or lumpia (yeah, I still remember your dad’s yummy cooking).
DHH: I agree with my fellow Offenders that the three-act structure doesn’t apply to life. If you ask me, it shouldn’t even apply to films as often as it does – formulas like this make too many studio movies feel uniform and predictable. I’ve always loved the title of James Curtis’ biography of the great screwball comedy director, Preston Sturges: BETWEEN FLOPS. Every artist worth his or her salt will have more “flops” than “hits.” If we’re not failing, we’re not working hard enough. Creating good work requires risk-taking, and risks, by definition, sometimes fail. The same holds true for life. To become our best selves, we have to take some risks, which lead to periodic “second act breaks.”
Professionally, my biggest flop (to date) was a play called FACE VALUE. It opened in Boston to terrible reviews, one headline calling it “M. Turkey.” When we got to Broadway, the show closed in previews — so hopeless that the producers decided to shut the production down before opening night, taking a $1.5 million loss. Years later, I used the debacle of FACE VALUE as the basis for a new play, YELLOW FACE, which went on to become a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A YouTube adaptation of YELLOW FACE has just been shot for the YOMYOMF network, where it will premiere this summer.
So when we find ourselves at the bottom, take heart, because the only place left to go is up — as long as we remember the words of Bruce Lee, and “Walk On.”
ROGER: Jerome, hope things are more better than less for you right now. Sounds like you’re going through a tough one right now. Keep the faith, my friend. Things will get better.
From my personal experience, I’ve learned that life doesn’t play out the way one hopes or expects. Perhaps things work the way you want for the short term. But for the long term, one’s story inevitably starts to take unexpected turns and twists – some for the good and many for the not so good. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s to temper your expectations, be gentle on yourself when things get out of whack, and, most importantly, make sure you have really close friends and family you trust to help you through the tough times. As for the last part, just make sure you always maintain those closest relationships constantly during calmer seas, so when life’s hurricanes hit, you’ll have a strong safety net there to catch you when you need it most.
PHILIP: Firstly, listen to everyone here about not comparing your life to a three-act movie. As for the topic at hand, this blog I wrote several years ago still applies. Good luck!
EMMIE: I was in a bad relationship a couple of years ago, and it, combined with other stuff, left me feeling very dark. The mood eventually lifted, and I later met someone who was the right match for me. That said, I think life is way more about mindset and attitude, and less about events (to an extent). Expectations, and the difference between those and your reality, also figure in in a major way.
Iris’s exercise suggestion is a great one – it always helps me. Also know that nothing lasts forever. You’ll feel better in time. It helps to zoom out and look at everyone’s lives – everyone is dealing with shit. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t feel bad, but just know that we’ve all been there too. You’re a smart and hilarious dude, and I’m sure you’ll work things out as they come. Good luck with sorting all the current stuff out!