Took my Grandpa to see True Grit today. It was amazing and flawless. As always happens when I watch a great film whilst in the middle of writing something of my own, it made me think about what is not working in my own project, what I'm missing, and how I can fix it.
I've realized that my protagonist is way too passive at the beginning. She just ends up swept up in the events of the film; she doesn't instigate anything, and pretty much everything that happens afterwards, no matter how action-y she might be, is her reacting. She has a strong Act One break goal - to save her son's life - but she needs a goal or a desire before that point, something to carry her through the first thirty pages.
Mattie in True Grit begins right off the bat with a clear-cut, strong goal: she wants to find the man who killed her father, and bring him to justice. That goal is something she follows throughout the course of the entire movie. Starting Mira, my protagonist, off with a specific goal could definitely work, if that's what takes her to the castle - it makes her decisive, it gives her agency. But since I'm following the hero's journey rubric, I might want to go that route. (Of course, all stories are essentially the same, it's just the way we analyze them and describe them, and the paradigms we use to do so, that change. Saying I'm following the hero's journey is just a way to clarify what I'm focusing on; every story is a hero's journey, on some level or other.) The hero usually starts off just feeling discontented and wanting more - Luke wants to get off Tattooine; Neo wants to learn more about the Matrix, but mostly just wants something more than being an office drone. Their goal at the beginning is not necessarily specific, but there's a sense of longing, a sense that they don't belong in their worlds, that they're constrained.
So I'm looking at my first act and seeing that I'm missing that, and I know a couple different ways I could go, and I'll have to sit down and choose. This is different with my problem with the third act. In fact, it's just about the opposite. I know generally the shape of it, and I know where the character needs to go and how to close out that arc, but I cannot figure out the specifics. Rather than having a lot of options and just needing to pick the best one, I have no options. And this is always my problem with third acts, especially in first drafts, and I've yet to work out a good fix for it. Sometimes I just feel like I have a hard time generating action-plot mechanics. So I haven't given up, I'm still chugging along, but at this point it feels more like I'm letting my subconscious work on it, and I'm waiting for the moment it figures it out and I'll be in the shower, or driving, or doing something at work, and I'll have my "eureka!"