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Conflict Management in Story: The Five-Point Finale

In 1979, Syd Field published a book that would establish screenplay structure once and for all (Price, 2013, p. 201). Ever since, multiple theorists such as Robert McKee (1997), David Trottier (2014) and Christopher Vogler (2007) argued their own conceptions of structure. However, as these authors point out, these theories are merely guidelines, not rules (McKee, 1997, p. 212; Vogler, 2007, p. 231; Trottier, 2014, p. 29). The Screenwriting 101 series tackles the varying nature of story structures. Theorists concluded that the basis of all stories is conflict (McKee, 1997, p. 37; Field, 2005, p. 26; Trottier, 2014, pp. 66-67; Chamberlain, 2016, p. 50). Additionally, Field (2005) and McKee (1997) identify the character as central to story progression (Field, p. 26; McKee, p. 101). To represent the idea of character progression through structure, Field (2005) used two beats, Plot Point I and Plot Point II as scenes that end an act and begins another (p. 27). As for McKee (1997), it is the idea of a protagonist reacting and adapting to a variety of conflicts (gaps) that structures the story (p. 148). Author of the famous Save the Cat! (2005) book, Blake Snyder also discusses these ideas, proposing a character’s progression through structure. Save the Cat! (2005) was analyzed in-depth in Screenwriting 101: Three-Act Structure III - Rigidity. The article exposes the structure’s strengths and weaknesses. Among these flaws is a lackluster third act. Indeed, Snyder (2005) only included two vague beats to the final act (p. 90). His solution: The “Five-Point Finale” (Snyder, 2009, p. 58). The five points, established in the sequel Save the Cat! Strikes Back (2009), can be applied to more than the finale. In fact, it works for most conflicts and is a tool for conflict management in screenplays.

Firstly, the five points should be clearly defined. Snyder (2009) calls his Five-Point Finale “Storming the Castle” (p. 59). Film finales do not always depict a castle being stormed, the term is mostly analogical. This metaphorical castle could be a fortress, just like it may be getting on a local rock stage or rushing to the airport to catch the love interest in time (Snyder, 2009, p. 59). Snyder (2009) notes that Storming the Castle or the Five-Point Finale, used as synonyms, is a method that works for every story (p. 59). The first step is “Gathering the Team” (Snyder, 2009, p. 59). This is the moment the hero gathers everything they need to storm the castle. They may need allies and also tools. For instance, in The Matrix (1999), Neo brings his ally Trinity on a mission to save their friend Morpheus from the clutches of evil machines (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999). Neo and Trinity gather the tools they need to storm the castle, such as guns. The next step is “Executing the Plan” (Snyder, 2009, p. 60). This is when the hero executes the plan, or when they storm the castle. In The Matrix (1999), Neo fights his way through security. Snyder (2009) notes that secondary character arcs often pay off at this moment, although not every time (p. 60). The following step is “The High Tower Surprise” (Snyder, 2009, p. 60). In the castle analogy, the hero fights their way through the fortress, but their progress is halted by a high tower blocking the path. It is a twist where the antagonists stop the main character’s progression: “It looks like all is lost again!” (Snyder, 2009, p. 61). For reference, all is lost corresponds to the Save the Cat! (2005) story beat where the hero is pushed to rock bottom (Brody, 2018, p. 26). Thus, the High Tower Surprise is a repeat of a previous story beat. In The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999) this moment occurs when Neo is shot by Agent Smith, the main antagonist. The fourth step is called “Dig, Deep Down” (Snyder, 2009, p. 61). Snyder (2009) describes this scene as follows:

Devoid of a human solution, the hero returns to the blackness he succumbed to during the cocoon stage of his transformation [Dark Night of the Soul] to prove he's mastered that part of himself that is beyond human to find faith, inner strength, a last-ditch idea, love, grace. (p. 61).

Pushed to their limit, the hero must dig deep down to find a solution to the issue brought about by the High Tower Surprise. It is a repeat of the Dark Night of the Soul beat where the hero finally figures out a solution to the problem spawned in the All is Lost moment (Brody, 2018, p. 26). In The Matrix (1999), Neo, on the brink of death, finds faith in himself and in the idea that he is “the One” (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999). Reborn with this strength, Neo comes back to life (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999). The final step of the Five-Point Finale showcases the hero putting the solution to the test: “Execution of the New Plan” (Snyder, 2009, p. 62). The hero understands the true lesson of the story and wins with a last-ditch effort or with a newfound strength. In the case of The Matrix (1999), Neo awakens to his true potential and handily defeats Agent Smith and his lackeys (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999).

Figure 1: Neo discovers he is the One and stops bullets mid-air. Still from "The Matrix" (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999)

Secondly, despite Snyder’s (2009) claim that the Five-Point Finale is present in every story (p. 62), this method does not always apply to each screenplay. For example, Speed (De Bont, 1994) presents two endings. However, the Five-Point Finale method does reveal a significant element of storytelling: conflict. McKee (1997) established the idea that story gaps create conflict (p. 144). A gap is created by opposing a character’s subjective expectation of an event with the objective fiction reality event (McKee, 1997, p. 145). This gap easily applies to the Five-Point Finale. In steps one and two, the hero prepares for an event before executing it. In The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999), Neo straps on guns before attacking a secure building. Neo’s subjective expectation is that there will be a big fight requiring many weapons (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999). His expectation was correct until he is shot by Agent Smith. Faced with objective reality, the character must adapt (McKee, 1997, p. 146). Neo adapts by believing in himself and becoming the One (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999). From this perspective, the Five-Point Finale ends up being a method to write gaps such as a character preparing and executing an event (Snyder, 2009). However, an unexpected problem arises, referred to as the “High Tower Surprise”, where the hero adapts by finding a solution (Snyder, 2009, p. 60). Storming the Castle (Snyder, 2009, p. 59) is extremely similar to McKee’s (1997) gap: expecting an event, facing an unexpected problem, and adapting with a solution.

Figure 2: McKee's (1997) gap. From "Story" (p. 144).

The Five-Point Finale is so universal in conflict creation that it appears in some form or another in every story (Snyder, 2009, p. 62). This also applies to the screenplay structure as a whole. In Field’s (2006) updated screenplay paradigm, The Screenwriter’s Workbook (2006), act one features the inciting incident, also called a catalyst, and plot point I. In the inciting incident, a character reacts to an unexpected event which leads them to act two (Field, 2005, p. 44). Before the inciting incident, the protagonist has their own subjective expectation of events (Field, 2005). They prepare for a certain event and execute it, but the unexpected occurs (Field, 2005). The unexpected is the inciting incident that the character adapts to by reacting to it (Field, 2005, p. 44). Trottier (2014) and McKee (1997) both note that the inciting incident throws the main character’s life out of balance (Trottier, p. 16; McKee, p. 187), just like the High Tower Surprise disturbs the balance of the hero’s expectations. On a larger scale, act one is the character preparing for a quest and gathering allies (Snyder, 2009). Preparation and allies are so prevalent that Vogler (2007) included an act one beat based around it: “Meeting with the Mentor is the stage of the Hero's Journey in which the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to overcome fear and commence the adventure” (p. 117). During this section of a screenplay, the hero gains an ally, or a mentor, who gives them the necessary wisdom to start their adventure (Vogler 2007). In fact, Snyder (2005) himself proposes an act one beat with a similar function of preparation called “Debate” (pp. 77-78). During the Debate, the hero mentally prepares to accept the quest (Snyder, 2005). During Act Two in a screenplay, the High Tower Surprise where the hero is in the “antithesis” world occurs (Snyder, 2005, p. 80); this is the opposite of their familiar environment from Act One (Harmon, 2003). In Act Three, known as the “synthesis” (Snyder, 2005, p. 193), the protagonist adapts and executes a solution.

Figure 3: High Tower Surprise: Agent Smith destroys the phone booth, preventing Neo from exiting the Matrix (Wachowski & Wachoski, 1999).

The Five-Point Finale works because it is simply a method to manage conflict, regardless of whether it is on the scale of a single scene, a single act, or an entire story. The Five-Point Finale shows a character adapting to an unexpected event (Snyder, 2009, p. 62). In essence, it is a gap, although Snyder (2009) never references McKee’s (1997) concept. Trottier (2014) explains how the method is so effective by using the idea of character growth: “How does growth come about? Only through adversity and opposition, and through striving for some kind of goal. Only through conflict, making decisions, and taking actions” (p.93). In short, conflict produces growth through adaptation. This is exactly why Snyder (2005) based his entire 15-beat sheet on character transformation (p. 193). Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis directly refer to the character’s perception of story events (Snyder, 2005, p. 193). The thesis is the character’s familiar status-quo world, antithesis is the opposite of the status-quo and synthesis is the combination of the familiar thesis world and unfamiliar antithesis world (Snyder, 2005, p. 193). The protagonist grows through Act Two and returns to a familiar environment in Act Three having changed (Harmon, 2003). Adventure into an unknown world and return to a familiar one is at the very core of screenwriter and producer, Dan Harmon (2003), and professor of literature, Joseph Campbell’s (1949), circular story structures. By starting in a familiar world (thesis) and then adventuring into an unknown one (antithesis), the protagonist experiences a transformation that leads them back to a familiar world with a lesson learned (synthesis) (Harmon, 2003). Transformation is key to storytelling (Chamberlain, 2016, p. 192).

The Five-Point Finale (Snyder, 2009), like story structures and many screenwriting principles, end up being mere guidelines. However, disregarding the Five-Point Finale or modern screenwriting principles would be a mistake, as they prove to be in wide use throughout the film industry (Field, 2005, p. 12). The Five-Point Finale is built around the idea of storming a castle, but may be applicable to any finale (Snyder, 2009, p. 62). In fact, it may work for nearly any conflict, big or small. There is a good reason why steps in the method are repeats of preexisting beats within Snyder’s (2005) structure. This is simply because it is a tool to create and manage conflict in a story. For instance, McKee (1997) explains that stories are made of gaps that keep them progressing forward in addition to being entertaining (p. 149). The Five-Point Finale is essentially a type of gap. The simple reason why so many screenwriting theorists agree on the importance of conflict is that it is the essence of a story (McKee, 1997, p. 144; Field, 2005 p. 246; Akers, 2008, p. 85; Chamberlain, 2016, p. 50). A story could be seen as nesting dolls of conflict with the overarching structure being one large conflict composed of many smaller ones.

Bibliographical References

Akers, W. M. (2008). Your Screenplay Suck! 100 Ways to Make it Great. Michael Wiese Productions.

Brody, J. (2018). Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. Ten Speed Press.

Campbell, J. (2004). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books. (Original work published 1949).

Chamberlain, J. (2016). The Nutshell Technique: Crack the Secret of Successful Screenwriting. University of Texas Press.

De Bont, J. D. (Director). (1994). Speed. 20th Century Fox.

Field, S. (2005). Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (revised edition). Delta.

Field, S. (2006). The Screenwriter’s Workbook (revised edition). Delta.

Harmon, D. (2003). Story Structure 101. Channel 101.

McKee, R. (1997). Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Harper Collins.

Price, S. (2013). A History of the Screenplay. Palgrave Macmillan.

Snyder, B. (2005). Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. Michael Wiese Productions.

Snyder, B. (2009). Save the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into... and Out Of. Save the Cat! Press.

Trottier, D. (2014). The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. (6th ed.). Silman-James Press.

Vogler, C. (2007). The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (3rd. ed.). Michael Wiese Productions.

Wachowski, L. & L. Wachowski. (Directors). (1999). The Matrix. Warner Bros.

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Yoran Praet

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