One of my favorite ideas that came out of writing Save the Cat! is “Stasis = Death.” I talk about it a lot in class because it’s such a cool thing in my opinion. And the more I do, the more I see how vital it is.
We know what death means. Stasis means “things staying the same.” And we identify at a very primal level. Since “all stories are about transformation,” the process of that change can be charted — and should be if we want to tell a compelling tale. Change, as we all know, is difficult. It’s painful. Most stories are all about the sloughing off of old ideas to make way for the new. Look at how Steve Martin loses even his fancy cashmere coat and little leather shoes in Planes, Trains and Automobiles; look at how Russell Crowe is stripped of everything in Gladiator — all to make the point that change is a fact of life.
Well, I don’t know about your experience with change, but it makes me think only one thought: Ouch! No one wants to change, which is why stories help us address this in our lives — by seeing others live through it and even thrive. That idea is at the heart of Stasis = Death.
The Stasis = Death beat is that little moment right before the “call to adventure,” as Hero With A Thousand Faces author Joseph Campbell refers to it, just preceding the telegram, the knock on the door, or the unexpected firing, usually just prior to what I call the “Catalyst” beat roughly on page 12 of a well-structured 110-page screenplay.
It’s that moment when the hero gets a hint that change may be necessary in his life, and even though he isn’t ready for it yet, he can sense that it has to happen.
In class, I talk about some favorite Stasis = Death beats. In Romancing the Stone, it comes at the end of the “set-up” of Joan Wilder’s world. Joan (Kathleen Turner) is a successful romance novelist with a powerful imagination that includes a vision of a shadowy but perfect man she longs to meet. But at the end of the set-up, after seeing the best-selling writer have drinks with her agent, and only friend, and going home to her nice but lonely apartment, there is a sense that this can not stand. Things staying the same will kill Joan Wilder, spiritually if not actually. And though she will still be dragging her feet as she takes on the adventure of going to South America to rescue her sister, we have also been set up to see that some interior change is desperately needed.
In the free download from our Tools section, you will see the Stasis = Death moment in my beat sheet of Wedding Crashers. After the set-up of meeting our two knucklehead protaganists, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, and their avocation — picking up girls at weddings with elaborate lies — we see something of a down moment: Owen forgets the name of the girl he just met. And in the next scene, sitting on the steps of the Washington Monument, it’s what leads Owen to say to Vince words to the effect of “we’re too old to be doing this.”
Change isn’t here yet. But we know it has to come. And just like in life, our heroes can only accept needed change kicking and screaming. Yet we all know it is part of the adventure of being human.
Putting that moment in your script announces that even though your hero may not realize what must happen, he knows something has to.
It declares: Change is coming.
In viewing movies now, I see this beat all the time. What are examples of Stasis=Death in your script or in movies you’ve seen lately? I’d really like to build a list of even better examples of this vital story beat.
And if you’d like to hear me talk more about this, check out my interview with Paula Berinstein on The Writing Show — or if you’re in the L.A. area, join our Beat Sheet workshop this weekend!