Crisis is the third of the five-part form. It
means decision. Characters make spontaneous decisions each time they open this
mouths to say "this" not "that." In each scene they make a
decision to take one action rather than another. But Crisis with a capital C is
the ultimate decision. The Chinese ideogram for Crisis is two terms:
Danger/Opportunity—"danger" in that the wrong decision at this moment
will lose forever what we want; "opportunity" in that the right
choice will achieve our desire.
protagonist's quest has carried him through the Progressive Complications until
he's exhausted all actions to achieve his desire, save one. He now finds
himself at the end of the line. His next action is his last. No tomorrow. No
second chance. This moment of dangerous opportunity is the point of greatest
tension in the story as both protagonist and audience sense that the question
"How will this turn out?" will be answered out of the next action.
The Crisis is the
story's Obligatory Scene. From the Inciting Incident on, the audience has been
anticipating with growing vividness the scene in which the protagonist will be
face to face with the most focused, powerful forces of antagonism in his
existence. This is the dragon, so to speak, that guards the Object of Desire:
be it the literal dragon of JAWS or the metaphorical dragon of meaning-
lessness in TENDER MERCIES. The audience leans into
the Crisis filled with expectation mingled with uncertainty.
Crisis must be true dilemma—a choice between irreconcilable goods, the lesser
of two evils, or the two at once that places the protagonist under the maximum
pressure of his life.
This dilemma confronts
the protagonist who, when face-to-face with the most powerful and focused
forces of antagonism in his life, must make a decision to take one action or
another in a last effort to achieve his Object of Desire.
How the protagonist chooses here gives us the
most penetrating view of his deep character, the ultimate expression of his
This scene reveals the story's most important
value. If there's been any doubt about which value is central, as the
protagonist makes the Crisis Decision, the primary value comes to the fore.
Crisis the protagonist's willpower is most severely tested. As we know from
life, decisions are far more difficult to make than actions are to take. We
often put off doing something for as long as possible, then as we finally make
the decision and step into the action, we're surprised by its relative ease.
We're left to wonder why we dreaded doing it until we realize that most of
life's actions are within our reach, but decisions take willpower.
WITHIN THE CLIMAX
action the protagonist chooses to take becomes the story's consummate event,
causing a positive, negative, or ironically positive/negative Story Climax.
If, however, as the protagonist takes the climactic action, we once more pry
apart the gap between expectation and result, if we can split probability from
necessity just one more time, we may create a majestic ending the audience will
treasure for a lifetime. For a Climax built around a Turning Point is the most
satisfying of all.
taken the protagonist through progressions that exhaust one action after another
until he reaches the limit and thinks he finally understands his world and
knows what he must do in a last effort. He draws on the dregs of his willpower,
chooses an action he believes will achieve his desire, but, as always, his
world won't cooperate. Reality splits and he must improvise. The protagonist
may or may not get what he wants, but it won't be the way he expects.
STAR WARS with THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: At the Crisis of STAR WARS Luke
Skywalker attacks the "Death Star," a manmade fortress as huge as a
planet. But it's not fully constructed. A vulnerable slot lies open on one
side of the sphere. Luke must not only attack into the slot, but hit a
vulnerable spot within it. He's an expert fighter pilot but tries without
success to hit the spot. As he maneuvers his craft by computer, he hears the
voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi: "Go with the Force, go with the Force."
sudden dilemma of irreconcilable goods: the computer versus the mysterious
"Force." He wrestles with the anguish of choice, then pushes his
computer aside, flies by instinct into the slot, and fires a torpedo that hits
the spot. The destruction of the Death Star climaxes the film, a straight
action out of the Crisis.
EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, by contrast, corkscrews its Climax: Face to face with
Darth Vader, Luke is met by a Crisis of courage. Irreconcilable goods: He could
attack and kill Vader, or he could flee and save his life. The lesser of two
evils: He could attack Vader and be killed, or he could flee, making him a
coward and betraying his friends. Luke musters his courage and chooses to
fight. However, when Vader suddenly steps back and says: "You can't kill
me, Luke . . . I'm your father," Luke's reality splinters. In a flash he
realizes the truth and now must make yet another Crisis Decision: whether to
kill his father.
Luke confronts the
agony of this decision and chooses to fight. But Vader cuts off his hand and
Luke drops to the deck. Still, it's not over. Vader announces that he wants
Luke to join his campaign to bring "order to things" in the universe.
A second Gap opens as Luke realizes that his father doesn't want him dead, he's
offering him a job. He must make a third Crisis Decision, a lesser-of-two-
evils dilemma: to join the "dark side" or take his own life? He makes
the heroic choice, and as these Gaps explode, the Climax delivers deep rushes
of insight uniting two films.
Placement of the Crisis
The location of the Crisis is determined by the length
of the climactic action.
Crisis and Climax happen in the last minutes and in the same scene.
& LOUISE: At Crisis the women brave the lesser of two evils: imprisonment
versus death. They look at each other and make their
Crisis Decision to "go for it," a courageous choice to take
their own lives. They immediately drive their car into the Grand Canyon—an
unusually brief Climax elongated by filming it in slow- motion and
freeze-framing on the car suspended over the abyss.
in other stories the Climax becomes an expansive action with its own
progressions. As a result, it's possible to use the Crisis Decision to turn the
Penultimate Act Climax, filling all of the final act with climactic action.
Rick pursues Ilsa until she surrenders to him in the Act Two Climax, saying
that he must make the decisions for everyone. In the next scene, Laszlo urges
Rick to rejoin the antifascist cause. This irreconcilable-goods dilemma turns
the act on Rick's selfless Crisis Decision to return Ilsa to Laszlo and put
wife and husband on the plane to America, a character-defining choice that
reverses his conscious desire for Ilsa. The third act of CASABLANCA is fifteen
minutes of climactic action that unravels Rick's surprise-filled scheme to help
the couple escape.
rarer examples the Crisis Decision immediately follows the Inciting Incident
and the entire film becomes climactic action.
BOND: Inciting Incident: Bond is offered the task of hunting down an
arch-villain. Crisis Decision: Bond takes the assignment—a right/wrong choice
and not a true dilemma, for it would never occur to him to choose otherwise.
From this point on, all
Bond films are an elaborate progression of a single action: the pursuit of the
villain. Bond never makes another decision of substance, simply choices of
which ploys to use in the pursuit.
LEAVING LAS VEGAS has the identical form. Inciting Incident:
the protagonist is fired and given a sizable severance check. He immediately
makes his Crisis Decision to go to Las Vegas and drink himself to death. From
this point on the film becomes a sad progression toward death as he follows his
IN THE REALM OF THE SENSES: Inciting Incident: Lovers meet
within the first ten minutes and decide to abandon society and normalcy for a
life of sexual obsession. The remaining hundred minutes are devoted to sexual
experimentations that eventually lead to death.
The great risk of placing the Crisis on the heels of the
Inciting Incident is repetitiousness. Whether it's high-budget action repeating
patterns of chase/fight, chase/fight, or low-budget repetitions of
drinking/drinking/drinking or lovemaking/lovemaking/ lovemaking, the problems
of variety and progression are staggering. Yet mastery of this task may
produce brilliance, as it did in the examples above.
Design of the Crisis
Although the Crisis
Decision and climactic action usually take place in continuous time within the
same location at the very end of the telling, it's not uncommon for the Crisis
decision to occur in one location, the Story Climax later in another setting.
The value of love in KRAMER VS. KRAMER turns negative at the
Act Two Climax as a judge awards custody to Kramer's ex-wife. As Act Three
opens Kramer's lawyer lays out the situation: Kramer has lost, but he could win
on appeal. To do so, however, he'll have to put his son on the witness stand
and make the child choose with whom he wants to live. The boy will probably
choose his father, and Kramer will win. But to put a child at this tender age
in public and force him to choose between his mother and his father will
psychologically scar him for life. A double dilemma of the needs of self versus
the needs of another, the suffering of the self versus the suffering of
another. Kramer looked up and said, "No, I can't do that." Cut to the
Climax: a walk in Central Park and a river of tears as the father explains to
his son how their life will be now that they'll live apart.
If the Crisis takes place in one location and the Climax
later in another, we must splice them together on a cut, fusing them in filmic
time and space. If we do not, if we cut from the Crisis to other material-—a
subplot, for example—we drain the pent-up energy of the audience into an
The Crisis decision must be a deliberately static moment.
This is the Obligatory Scene. Do not put it offscreen,
or skim over it. The audience wants to
suffer with the protagonist through the pain of this dilemma. We freeze this
moment because the rhythm of the last movement depends on it. An emotional
momentum has built to this point, but the Crisis dams its flow. As the
protagonist goes through this decision, the audience leans in, wondering:
"What's he going to do? What's he going to do?" Tension builds and
builds, then as the protagonist makes a choice of action, that compressed
energy explodes into the Climax.
THELMA & LOUISE: This Crisis is masterfully delayed as
the women stutter over the word "go." "I say, let's go."
"Go? What do you mean 'go'?" "Well. . . just go." "You
mean . . . go?" They hesitate and hesitate as tension builds and the
audience prays they won't kill themselves but at the same time is thrilled by
their courage. As they put the car in gear, the dynamite of compacted anxiety
blasts into the Climax.
THE DEER HUNTER:
Michael stalks to the top of a mountain. But with his prey in his sights, he
pauses. Tension builds and tightens as the moment extends and the audience
dreads the killing of this beautiful elk. At this Crisis point the protagonist
makes a decision that takes him through a profound change of character. He
lowers his weapon and transforms within from a man who takes life to a man who
saves life. This stunning reversal turns the Penultimate Act Climax. The
pent-up compassion in the audience pours into the story's last movement as
Michael now rushes back to Vietnam to save his friend's life, filling the final
act with rising climactic action.
Climax is the fourth of the five-part structure. This crowning Major Reversal
is not necessarily full of noise and violence. Rather, it must be full of
meaning. If I could send a telegram to the film producers of the world, it
would be these three words: "Meaning Produces Emotion." Not money; not sex; not special effects; not movie stars;
not lush photography.
MEANING: A revolution in
values from positive to negative or negative to positive with or without
irony—a value swing at maximum charge that's absolute and irreversible. The
meaning of that change moves the heart of the audience.
The action that creates this change must be "pure,"
clear, and self-evident, requiring no explanation. Dialogue or narration to
spell out it out is boring and redundant.
This action must be appropriate to the needs of the story. It
may be catastrophic: The sublime battle sequence that climaxes GLORY, or
outwardly trivial: A woman rises from a quiet talk with her husband, packs a
suitcase, and goes out the door. That action, in the context of ORDINARY
PEOPLE, is overwhelming. At Crisis, the values of family love and unity tip
toward the positive as the husband desperately exposes his family's bitter
secret. But at Climax, the moment his wife walks out, they swing to an
absolute, irreversible negative. If, on the other hand, she were to stay, her
hatred of her son might finally drive the boy to suicide. So her leaving is
then toned with a positive counterpoint that ends the film on a painful, but
overall negative, irony.
The Climax of the last act is your great imaginative leap.
Without it, you have no story. Until you have it, your characters wait like
suffering patients praying for a cure.
the Climax is in hand, stories are in a significant way rewritten backward, not
forward. The flow of life moves from cause to effect, but the flow of
creativity often flows from effect to cause. An idea for the Climax pops
unsupported into the imagination. Now we must work backward to support it in
the fictional reality, supplying the hows and whys. We work back from the
ending to make certain that by Idea and Counter-Idea every image, beat, action,
or line of dialogue somehow relates to or sets up this grand payoff. All scenes
must be thematically or structurally justified in the light of the Climax. If
they can be cut without disturbing the impact of the ending, they must be cut.
logic allows, climax subplots within the Central Plot's Climax. This is a
wonderful effect; one final action by the protagonist settles everything. When
Rick puts Laszlo and Ilsa on the plane in CASABLANCA, he settles the Love Story main plot and the Political Drama subplot, converts Captain Renault
to patriotism, kills Major Strasser, and, we feel, is the key to winning World
War II . . . now that Rick is back in the fight.
this multiplying effect is impossible, the least important subplots are best
climaxed earliest, followed by the next most important, building overall to
Climax of the Central Plot.
Goldman argues that the key to all story endings is
to give the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects. A very
provocative principle: First of all, what does the audience want? Many producers
state without blinking that the audience wants a happy ending. They say this
because up-ending films tend to make more money than down-ending films.
reason for this is that a small percentage of the audience won't go to any film
that might give it an unpleasant experience. Generally their excuse is that
they have enough tragedy in their lives. But if we were to look closely, we'd
discover that they not only avoid negative emotions in movies, they avoid them
in life. Such people think that happiness means never suffering, so they never
feel anything deeply. The depth of our joy is in direct proportion to what
we've suffered. Holocaust survivors, for example, don't avoid dark films. They
go because such stories resonate with their past and are deeply cathartic.
fact, down-ending films are often huge commercial successes: DANGEROUS
LIAISONS, eighty million dollars; THE WAR OF THE ROSES, one hundred fifty
million; THE ENGLISH PATIENT, two hundred twenty-five million. No one can count
THE GODFATHER, PART II's money. For the vast majority doesn't care if a film
ends up or down. What the audience wants is
emotional satisfaction—a Climax that
fulfills anticipation. How should THE GODFATHER, PART II end? Michael forgives
Fredo, quits the mob, and moves to Boston with his family to sell insurance?
The Climax of this magnificent film is truthful, beautiful, and very satisfying.
determines which particular emotion will satisfy an audience at the end of a
film? The writer. From the way he tells his story from the beginning, he
whispers to the audience: "Expect an up-ending" or "Expect a
down-ending" or "Expect irony." Having pledged a certain
emotion, it'd be ruinous not to deliver. So we give the audience the experience
we've promised, but not in the way it expects. This is what separates artist
Aristotle's words, an ending must be both "inevitable and unexpected."
Inevitable in the sense that as the Inciting Incident occurs, everything and
anything seems possible, but at Climax, as the audience looks back through the
telling, it should seem that the path the telling took was the only path. Given the characters and their world as
we've come to understand it, the Climax was inevitable and satisfying. But at
the same time it must be unexpected, happening in a
way the audience could not have anticipated.
can deliver a happy ending—just give the characters everything they want. Or a
downer—just kill everybody. An artist gives us the emotion he's promised . . .
but with a rush of unexpected insight that he's withheld to a Turning Point
within the Climax itself. So that as the protagonist improvises his final
effort, he may or may not achieve his desire, but the flood of insight that
pours from the gap delivers the hoped-for emotion but in a way we could never