The Protagonist’s Worst Nightmare Starts in the Debate


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in screenplay structure, screenwriting

There’s a low point near the end of Act 2 that’s sometimes described as where the protagonist’s “worst nightmare comes true.”

But did you know the seeds of that low point are planted much earlier – in the Debate section of Act 1?

If you’re not making the most of the connection between the Debate section and the Low Point, you may be missing out on some powerful storytelling stuff. That connection helps give the low point a real emotional punch. And understanding the relationship can help you brainstorm what happens in both parts of the screenplay.

Good story structure doesn’t happen in a vacuum

One definition of structure is: “the arrangement of and relations between the parts or elements of something complex,” and this feels fitting when it comes to stories.

Yes, we may talk about this plot point or that plot event, but structure is more than a collection of independent pieces. Good structure – and effective story – happens when those pieces become greater than the sum of their parts.

And that happens because of the way the pieces relate to each other, compound and inform each other.

So today let’s focus in on one of the relationships you can find among the pieces. Specifically, the relationship between the Debate section and the Act 2 Low Point. For your visual reference:

What the Debate section does

The Debate section is that span of story between the Inciting Incident and the Break into Act 2. So it’s approximately the latter half of Act 1.

If you’ve read Save the Cat, you may think of the Debate section as the part where the protagonist “debates” whether or not to embark on Act 2. That can be part of it, but some stories don’t require much debate on the part of the protagonist. And if you’re working on a story where that’s the case, you’d then end up feeling frustrated. (And with a very short Act 1.)

What really happens in the Debate section is you, the writer, show the audience what the protagonist has to do in Act 2, and why. It’s where you convince us of what must be done and make us root for the character to succeed at it.

In this section the audience gains an understanding of how important achieving the story goal is to the protagonist, why he must embark on this specific Act 2 Adventure and not any of his other options, as well as why it’s so risky, what it would mean if he fails, but why it’s worth it or necessary to do it anyway.

What the low point does

The Act 2 Low Point is that section of the story near the end of Act 2 where things seem hopeless for the protagonist. If you’re a Save the Cat fan, it’s the All is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul beats – I just prefer to think of it as one thing, the Low Point.

The Low Point is often described as where the protagonist feels furthest from achieving his story goal, or where all hope is lost, or as the protagonist’s worst nightmare.

And that last description really gets at the relationship between the Debate section and the Low Point.

The Low Point very often is the protagonist’s biggest fear coming true. But it’s only effective if we know that’s what is happening.

And we only know that’s what is happening if you let us know what the protagonist’s worst nightmare is. Probably well in advance of it playing out.

The Debate – Low Point relationship

The Debate section is a great place to plant those seeds that will later come to life in the Low Point. Because the Debate section is where the protagonist is considering embarking on the Act 2 Adventure, and everything that comes along with it. He’s weighing the reasons to do it as well as the worst possible outcomes. So the audience is learning what the protagonist thinks are the worst possible outcomes – essentially, his greatest fears and worst nightmares.

Then, when those plants pay off, we feel the impact because we’ve already been primed to understand what the protagonist fears and what it means to him.

How to Train Your Dragon

In the Debate section of How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup tries to tell his father that he doesn’t want to fight dragons. But dad insists that learning to fight dragons will help make Hiccup “part of the tribe.” Dad is the tribe’s chief, so having a son that represents the tribe well is important. But Hiccup is a misfit, which he desperately wants to change so he can make dad proud.

Then, in the Low Point at the end of Act 2, dad learns of Hiccup’s “betrayal” – Hiccup has befriended a dragon, and that relationship has endangered the tribe’s safety. It’s here that dad disowns Hiccup, saying “You’re not a Viking. You’re not my son.”

And we know just how much of a low point that is — it’s the worst thing to Hiccup, the one thing he was trying to avoid, because it was set up in the Debate section.

Top Gun: Maverick

The movie Top Gun: Maverick shows us another variation on what this connection can look like. The Debate section shows us that Maverick wants nothing to do with training young pilots to fly a mission he knows “someone isn’t coming back from.” To him, that’s a fate worse than being kicked out of the Navy or grounded for the rest of his life. Especially if that younger pilot is Rooster, the son of Mav’s old flying partner… who died while flying with Maverick.

Mav’s worst nightmare? Being responsible for the death of another pilot.

By the end of Act 2, Maverick’s in the position of flying with the team of younger pilots — leading them as they fly this deadly mission. The team includes Rooster, and all of their lives are on Mav’s shoulders. It’s his worst nightmare but it’s also the only way Maverick will let this mission happen because he feels such a sense of responsibility for the other pilots. We know exactly how important this is to him, and how desperately he wants to earn his redemption because it was established in the Debate section and then revisited throughout Act 2 leading up to the Low Point.

Use the relationship to brainstorm possibilities

What happens in the Act 2 Low Point forces the protagonist to confront what’s at stake, and establishing those stakes happens in large part in the Debate section.

And you can use that connection to brainstorm possibilities for both sections of your script. When you’re thinking about why the protagonist must pursue the story goal or go on the Act 2 Adventure, you’re probably thinking about stakes. With that in mind, brainstorm ways the protagonist could be confronted with those stakes coming to bear — being confronted with the possibility of his worst nightmare coming true.

The reverse can work, too: if you know what your protagonist’s worst nightmare or greatest fear is, try brainstorming from there to find his motivation for pursuing the story goal.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.