Stasis = Death
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!
- Cody Lyons
This is one of the reasons I moved out here. Stasis=Death. Thank you, Blake.
- Scott W. Smith
At 7 Â½ minutes into “Rain Man” the Tom Cruise character finds out his father has died and the film heads into a whole new direction. This sets up the scene at minute 13 when Cruise finds out he gets a Buick and some rosesâ€”not the millions of dollars he was hoping for. Eventually, this leads to Hoffman and the adventure hits the road.
BTW– Over the weekend I watched The “Fugitive” again and thereâ€™s a great STC moment when the Harrison Ford character risks his life to save an injured guard in the wrecked bus just before the train runs into it.
- Jacqueline Lichtenberg
I learned this principle as “Life = Change” and “story” can’t happen without Change.
The very definition of story, “moment of irrevocable change” is all about how to find the protagonist and main POV character, and where in that character’s life his/her story is happening. Find the pivotal moment when a character changes, and thus lives.
Then you backtrack along the because line, tracing the reasons for that change until you get to what you call the “catalyst moment” which in action novels is the beginning (first page; narrative hook).
From there you can create that character’s environment, the life they’ve built and ossified around themselves. And here comes the blasting powder to blow it to smitherines. In novels, you fill that background in as you tell the story — in films, you get to “lay pipe” into that moment.
The story-question is what will that main character do with the smitherines of his or her life?
And yes, Harrison Ford movies always have a STC moment to die for. He’s more than luscious to look at!
I’m working on a Fool Triumphant story and going through some of those films. The stasis=death moment is pretty clear in Elf, Tootsie , The Jerk and Being There. But what about the Kevin Kline film Dave? He seems like a pretty happy guy who helps people find jobs, then one day the secret service is in his living room to take him away. I’m not sure where his growth is in that film. Even at the end, he goes back to doing what he was doing before he “became” the president. It seems the character with the stasis=death is Sigourney Weaver’s first lady. Is there a mention at the beginning about how alone he is?
What about Forrest Gump? It feels like there’s a stasis=death but I can’t put my finger on it. Is it when he gets picked on constantly and in order to avoid getting pummeled by rocks he decides to take off running? Does that work?
- Scott W. Smith
“Run Forrest Run” works for me in “Forrest Gump.” Sure before that moment heâ€™s got a back â€œas crooked as a question mark,” has to wear leg braces and has a low I.Q. but his mom loves himâ€”and he gets to meet Elvis, and Jenny teaches him to read so life is pretty good. The fact that â€œRun Forrest Runâ€ is a part of everyone’s film vernacular shows the importance of that near death scene. (And even tough guy/screenwriter Joe Eszterhas can identify with being picked on as a kid.)
Donâ€™t remember â€œDaveâ€ but do remember â€œSeabiscuitâ€ by the same writer Gary Ross. In â€œSeabiscuitâ€ life is good for the Jeff Bridges character until his son is killed in a car crash. This turns his life upside down and he turns to the horse Seabiscuit as a way to restore his broken heart and also brings redemption to the horse, the trainer and the jockey as well.
- Ray-Anne Carr
Thank you so much for this post. It has given me an insight into my current WIP. I have also been impertinent enough to use the STC BeatSheet to analyse the screenplay for Michael Clayton on my Blog today.
I apologise in advance that I have only focused on the Action Line, but wow, I am sincerely impressed.
The Status= Death beat could well be the closure of Michael’s restaurant, just before he is called to deal with Arthur. At this point he knows that he will have to do something remarkable to avoid being in traction – or his brother.
I have, of course, credited your work. All praise.
Thank you and Regards, Ray-Anne
- Timothy Fish
It’s been a while since I’ve watched Dave, but it seems to me that the Stasis=Death is in that Dave isn’t living up to his full potential. He wants to be an agent of change by helping people find jobs, but he doesn’t have the means. He ends up mocking the President, just so he can afford to keep trying to find people jobs. Certainly, a very stressful situation that no one could keep up forever. His growth is in that he learns that he can make change within the political system, so that in the end he is running for office, rather than mocking the system.
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Just saw the new (remake) to 3:10 to Yuma, and the scene the farmer has with his wife when he tells her why he must go, how his kids look at him, how his wife does not look at him, how they will lose everything, if he doesnâ€™t go do something. Very powerful. Statues = death.
Your pal and fan,