At the outset of my career I read a lot of books and articles on the hero’s journey and the three act structure and while I found them interesting, I had a difficult time really internalizing the information. I could objectively see what the authors were talking about, but I couldn’t apply it to my own stories. I just didn’t get it.
Then, I attended a workshop with Michael Hague and he blew my mind. His background is in movies which have a fairly rigid structure that’s fairly easily translatable to writing novels (where the structure doesn’t need to be as rigid). Something about Hague’s explanation of the 3 Act structure just made sense to me (you can find an overview of his approach here).
Except that I still struggled with one part: the stretch between the second turning point (25% of the way into the story) and the midpoint (50% of the way into the story). This is the part of the story that Hague calls “Stage Three” in which progress occurs: “your hero’s plan seems to be working as he takes action to achieve his goal…whatever obstacles your hero faces, he is able to avoid or overcome them.”
But even this explanation never really helped me. I understand the first quarter of a story where you introduce everyone/everything and start ratcheting up the tension, and I understand taking the characters from the “Point of No Return” (50%) and doubling down on the trouble to begin the furious pace toward the black moment and the end. But I’ve never really known what to do between those two points — the 25%-50% aka Stage Three. So much so, that with almost every book I’ve written I’ve gotten to around 17-20k words and then found myself stuck.
And then recently I read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat which was a huge eye-opener. Snyder’s background was also in screenwriting and I’ve found his approach — a 16 point beat sheet (link) — very useful. Under his approach, the stretch between the 25% and 50% is the “Fun and Games” beat and this is where you find the Promise of the Premise.
Snyder describes the Promise of the Premise as the “heart of the movie” and the “core and essence of the movie’s poster.” This is the part of the movie that makes the idea cool — the reason you go to see it. Think of any commercial movie premise and then think about what that premise promises — this is the part of the story where you’ll find it.
In Tootsie you have a man dressing as a woman in order to land a role on a TV show. Immediately you know some of the scenes that have to be in the movie: Dustin Hoffman struggling to dress as a woman; the comedy of him getting hit on by men, etc. In Night at the Museum you have a security guard, Ben Stiller, working at the Smithsonian where everything comes alive at night. You know right away that you’re going to have several scenes of that happening: the museum coming alive and the security guard trying to deal with it (and notice — those are the scenes that show up most in the trailer because trailers are all about delivering the premise). This is the part of the story where the new millionaire goes on a shopping spree or the new superhero plays with his powers.
Snyder calls this part of the story “fun and games” for a reason — maybe the characters aren’t enjoying it all that much, but the audience is. This is where we indulge in the premise even as we’re laying the groundwork for the conflict that will come to a head at the midpoint. And when you think about Hague’s description of the third stage — that this is where the progress occurs, where the characters are meeting obstacles but able to overcome them — it makes sense. In the above examples Dustin Hoffman is dealing with those aspects of pretending to be a woman, Ben Stiller survives the museum coming alive. We haven’t yet gotten to the point where the stakes are raised and there’s no turning back; where suddenly the character begins to struggle more and more with obstacles which throws his success into question.
So now, whenever I find myself 17-20k into a draft and stuck, I ask myself, “what’s the promise of my premise?” What are the scenes that must exist for the premise to work? What is the book or movie promising in the title, cover/poster, flap copy/trailer? Figuring that out makes the 25%-50% stretch of the book much easier to draft!