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Seriously, What Happens in the Debate Section of a Screenplay?

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In the workshop I taught this weekend, one writer announced, “If I leave with an understanding of what happens in the Debate section, I’ll have more than gotten my money’s worth.”

The other writers in the workshop agreed. And it’s not the first time I’ve heard something similar. So if you dread the Debate section, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Now let’s clear it up.

First, what is the Debate section?

We’re talking about that section of script that falls between the Inciting Incident and the Break into Act 2. It’s famously called the Debate section in Save the Cat! terms, though I don’t know if that’s where the label originated. If you’re familiar with Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, it’s where the Refusal of the Call happens. I’m sure there are other names for that section of script, too.

Why the Debate section is confusing

What I’ve realized after many discussions on the topic is that when writers struggle with the Debate section, it’s almost always because they’re struggling to understand the purpose of the Debate section.

The question goes something like this: If the inciting incident creates a problem for the protagonist and they know pretty quickly what must be done to solve that problem, then what is there to debate? And if there’s nothing to debate, then how do you fill those 10 or 15 pages before the protagonist actually starts doing what they need to do at the Break into Act 2?

But that confusion comes with the assumption that the Debate section is a debate the protagonist is having.

As I told the writers in this weekend’s workshop, before we can write a strong Debate section, we need to reframe our understanding of what it does. Once you understand what it does, you can figure out how that shows up in your particular story.

The Debate section isn’t just a debate

The Debate section is not, as is commonly assumed, where the protagonist debates whether or not to go on the Act 2 Adventure.

That’s not all that happens, anyway. That is one component of the Debate section. But there’s much more that part of the story needs to accomplish too.

So the re-frame is this:

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.

That can include:

  • how tough the problem is and/or what the protagonist will be up against by taking on the Act 2 Adventure,
  • what the character believes to be the best or only option for addressing the problem the Inciting Incident created (and the reasoning to come to that conclusion, such as eliminating other options),
  • what happens if he doesn’t attempt to solve the problem at all,
  • what the protagonist is risking by taking on this huge task,
  • what he’ll gain if he succeeds,
  • what’s at stake and why those stakes matter enough to the protagonist to embark on the crazy Act 2 Adventure anyway,
  • plus any additional plot-logistical stuff that needs to happen for us to understand how the protagonist moves from the new problem of the Inciting Incident, to embarking on what they think will be the solution to that problem at the Break into Act 2.

Some of these things begin to be established earlier than the Inciting Incident. But this is where you lock those elements in and make sure they’re doing what they need to do, which is having the desired effect on the audience.

Very simply, the Debate section is where you convince us of what must be done and make us root for the character to succeed.

If Act 2 is a big, daunting, crazy, even seemingly stupid, adventure, we need to root for the protagonist to take it on and to achieve success. The rooting interest is vital. Otherwise we won’t care enough to keep reading or watching.

A closer look at two movies’ Debate sections

In Die Hard, the Inciting Incident is when the terrorists breach Nakatomi Plaza. The Break into 2 is when John McClane embarks on his Act 2 Adventure – to save the hostages from the terrorists.

What happens between these two events?

  • The terrorists put their plan into motion, cut off communication to the building, and take hostages, including McClane’s wife Holly. (Shows us the strength of the antagonist, why McClane can’t just call for help, and what’s at stake.)
  • McClane does some recon around the building and watches the terrorists. (Shows us how few options McClane has for dealing with this problem.)
  • The terrorists kill the most valuable hostage and then go after McClane when alerted to his presence. (Locks in what McClane stands to lose if he fails. These guys are killers. McClane, Holly, and all the hostages are in real danger.)

Before the terrorists showed up, we saw the dynamic between McClane and Holly. We know he wants to save their marriage but he’s struggling to figure out how. So we already have a sense of what’s important to him and when those stakes are threatened by the terrorists’ arrival, and we see just how outmatched he is, we’re rooting for him to succeed at saving Holly and the others.

In A Quiet Place, the Inciting Incident is when the family’s youngest child is snatched and killed by a creature. The Break into Act 2 is a subtle one; we move into Act 2 once the Act 1 context has been created. Here, that context shows us the family is trying to survive intact in a dangerous world, and there are cracks in the family’s relationships (thanks to the Inciting Incident) that are essentially threatening the family unit’s existence.

What happens between the two?

  • It’s been well over a year and Dad has had no luck making contact with other survivors. Mom is pregnant and due any day. (Shows us what they’re up against and their limited options. All they can do is keep surviving.)
  • The family is still grieving the loss of their brother/son, we can see the guilt and blame, but they’re not communicating with each other about it. (Shows another aspect of what they’re up against and helps us root for them because we want them to come together as a family.)
  • Family time is interrupted by accidental noise that sends all of them into a panic. They don’t see it, but we see a creature kill a raccoon nearby. (Reiterates what they’re up against and what happens if they fail.)
  • Late at night, Dad tries to build a hearing aid for his daughter. Mom and Dad have a tender moment slow-dancing together. (They love each other and their family. They want to survive. This is why the struggle is worth it.)

We know what will happen if they give up – they’ll die. We know what they stand to gain if they succeed – they’ll live. And we know how difficult the task is.

Does that reframe the Debate section for you? In this weekend’s workshop we also decided to call it “the Debate (to convince the audience) section” as a constant reminder of what it should do.

If ever you feel stuck on figuring out this section of a story, use the list above to brainstorm. Start with what needs to be shown, and then find creative solutions for how to show it in your story.

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