In life, we never know when we might suddenly feel LOST or misdirected. Our moments of deepest sorrow or greatest humility usually arrive unannounced, when we least expect them—and sometimes JUST when everything seemed to be going so well. You might be clicking along, happy in love, and pretty much have life all figured out, when—BAM! You’re dumped, fired, or hit by bus. And that’s life! It’s a total mystery, and for most people most of the time, our paths forward are fully unpredictable experiences.
Not so in the movies! In screenplays, we know EXACTLY when the lowest, most miserable point in our protagonist’s life is going to happen: THE END OF ACT 2. (Or the end of ACT 2B for those of you who have read The Four-Act Screenplay.)
After MIDPOINT, a movie hero should take charge of his situation, and for 15-20 pages everything should be going WONDERFULLY—perhaps for the first time in the film. As he races toward the end of Act 2, your protagonist should be getting very, very close to his goal, and everything should be falling in to place. He’s almost found the treasure, won back the woman of his dreams, or defeated the aliens—life is good! And what’s more—the hero REALLY DESERVES the good fortune he is now experiencing. He’s WORKED for it, connected the dots, taken charge—and now the glory will certainly be his!
And that’s when it happens: the ALL IS LOST MOMENT. Oh, does it hurt. Just when he’s come within arm’s reach of his ultimate goal—everything is taken away from him. And it’s not just bad—it’s literally the WORST thing that could possibly happen. This is the moment when Liam Neeson finally discovers his kidnapped daughter in Taken—then gets smashed on the head and wakes up chained to a pipe. It’s the moment when Indiana Jones arrives at the final resting place of the Holy Grail, only to have his father shot in the chest by the Nazis who’ve arrived there first. It’s the sequence in Cool Hand Luke when Paul Newman is finally beaten into submission and becomes a whipping boy for Boss Godfrey. ALL IS LOST means just that: The hero has NO WAY OUT. He is stuck. The adventure is ALL OVER.
But, oh—what is this? Apparently, the show must go on. After the ALL IS LOST MOMENT, Act 3 begins when the hero DISCOVERS NEW INFORMATION, or in some cases REVEALS new information to the audience. E.T.’s heart starts glowing and Elliott realizes that he is alive! Specters have invaded New York City, and the Ghostbusters are sprung from jail by the Mayor! Cool Hand Luke has been FAKING IT—and he’s not the Boss’ lackey after all! Suddenly, what seemed so DIRE and FINAL just a moment ago is brushed aside as the hero charges forth into Act 3—on a clean trajectory to the film’s CLIMAX.