In screenwriting there is what is known as an act break. Movie structure generally has 3 acts, the set up, the fun and games, and the final act. (Technically there are 4 but I won’t go into that here.) Depending on how well the script is written some act breaks are clearer than others, but the point is something has fundamentally shifted in the story. Other indicators of an act break involves change in setting, tonal shifts, a major character dying, etc. However, the best indicators of an act break are when they hinge on the main character making a major decision. Though Megillas Esther doesn’t match up with the traditional movie structure so much, one of the most profound moments comes down to Esther’s biggest decision.
King Ahasuerus, after a bit of a marriage spat, (i.e. getting super drunk and having his wife executed) holds the original Cinderella ball and chooses his new queen. Of course he selects the one woman who has no interest in the opportunity, Esther, the ultimate girl next door. She gets taken from her guardian Mordechai’s house and is brought to the palace. Now as queen, she rejects the King’s many advances and refuses to play the roll. After a while, King Ahasuerus gives up trying to have any kind of relationship with her and they both pretty much are content to keep to their own wings of the palace.
But when King Ahasuerus is persuaded by his right hand man Haman (think if Hitler and the guy who invented mustache twirling had a baby) to decree that all Jews will be murdered in a few months, Morderchai makes it his business to contact the one person he knows in high places.
The back and forth is as follows (I’m paraphrasing);
Mordechai (communicating via messenger) sends Esther a copy of the decree and implores Esther to appeal to the King to plead with him to save the Jews. Esther isn’t so hot on the idea, replying that it is well known that according to law, if anyone approaches the King without being summoned, that person is instantly put to death. And it’s unlikely Esther’s going to be summoned anytime soon considering that she hasn’t seen or talked to the King in over a month.
From here Mordechai doesn’t give up, but instead imparts some heavy words.
Do not imagine that you will be able to escape in the King’s palace any more than the rest of the Jews. For if you persist in keeping silent at a time like this, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from some other place, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position!(Megillas Esther: 4:13-14)
Why is Mordechai so confrontational? Esther has clearly said that she and the King aren’t on speaking terms and if she tries to talk to him, she’ll likely die. It’s a perfectly reasonable excuse. But what Esther has lost sight of is that despite her difficult situation, there is always a purpose to our circumstances.
Granted Esther is queen, but it is a miserable existence. While the rest of the Jewish people think she’s living it up, in reality Esther is alone, isolated from everyone she loves and is trapped in a situation where anytime the King wants to have his way with her, she has to comply. When someone is in a place of despair, it is easy to become blind to recognizing possibilities.
It takes Mordechai’s hard words to get Esther to wake up to the fact that she is a Jew who happens to be the Queen of Shushan. Granted she may not have the King wrapped around her finger, but she’s in a better place than anyone else.
Passive to Active
One of the easiest traps a screenwriter can fall into is to make their hero passive. When things happen to the hero, as if they are being taken along for a ride, that’s a sure fire way to make a weak character and an uninvolving story. However, as long as the character is fighting and trying to change the course of their destiny, even if they are failing, then you have an active character and almost certainly a stronger script.
Up until this point Esther is very passive, either being swept along with her circumstances or at best, shutting down and trying her best not to engage. Not so exciting. But when Mordechai hits her with this challenge, Esther’s character makes the switch and not only becomes an active character, but devises a truly brilliant plan to mystify King Ahasuerus, ruin Haman, and ultimately save the Jewish people. It’s a character decision clearly worthy of an act break. From here on out Esther becomes the main character of the Megillah and then a prophetess paramount to Jewish history.
From a screenwriting standpoint, I probably wouldn’t have written the Megillah this way. However, as a way of relating to life, I can see the point. When we are passive, either being a puppet to the choices of others or the choices of ourselves from years ago, it’s almost as if we stop becoming the main character in our own lives.
But when we make the decision to become active participants, we take the narrative back and once again make the story about us. Whether it is our local community, the world at large, or the direction of the Jewish people, it is all too easy to sit back and think we have no ability to affect change. If we decide to remain passive, those things will continue on without us. However if we decide to be active participants, realizing the gifts and opportunities God has given us, we can be a part of history, possibly even in a critical role.
Changing the Story
When we know that God is involved in our lives, that means that there is a purpose to our situation. From that we can see that no matter what predicament we are in, no matter how bleak, there is something to learn and some way to overcome. And if we are mindful and lucky enough, we just might come to understand the reason why we were put in that very circumstance.
From our limited outlook, we may feel tremendously insignificant. But if we realize we are living in the wealthiest countries in the wealthiest period of history thus far, it’s almost impossible to accept futility. Even if we think we’re powerless to help ourselves, there is certainly someone within our sphere we can make a difference to. Whether it is helping a friend find a job, giving someone struggling $20 to have a meal, or spending time with someone who is lonely, you don’t have to be a King or Queen to be a major player in the story. But if you look around for a moment, you just might realize you might be. And when you do, it’ll be a turning point worthy of an act break.