If you look at any structure paradigm – Save the Cat, hero’s journey, three-act structure, whatever – you’ll see that each paradigm provides a road map for how to begin a feature film story (act one) and how to end the story (act three) but they provide very little on how to navigate through the heart of the story (act two). For this reason, many new writers who use one of these paradigms as their guide stumble when they hit page 25 or 30.
Act one is where a writer must introduce the main character, the world they inhabit, the main character’s flaw, and what their wants and needs are. Structure paradigms recommend that a writer accomplish all of this within the first 10 pages. Then at the page 10-12 mark, the main character is called to adventure, or their world is blown apart… an event happens that sets the character on the journey that is the rest of the story.
Of course, the character is comfortable in their old world and resists the change that the call to adventure embodies. But then somewhere within pages 12-25, something else happens that forces the main character to commit to the journey that is the rest of the movie. Ripley refuses to go back to the planet where she first encountered the Alien. Then she has a nightmare and realises she can’t move on until she faces and overcome the thing she fears most. And then we’re in act two.
If you know the story you want to tell, that’s an easy guide to follow. But going into act two, the structure paradigm turning points become more vaguely defined.
“Fun & Games,” “Tests, Allies, & Enemies.” Descriptions like that are broader than the ones found in act one, and sometimes writers can miss how these beats serve as a guide to propel their narratives forward.
For me, the answer to how to write a kick-ass, propulsive act two lies within how writers are instructed to design their first act. In the bold sections in text above, you can see that the first act is roughly divided into two 12-page sections that each set out to achieve two things:
- Set up & Inciting Incident (1-12)
- Resistance & Commitment (13-25)
The rest of your screenplay should follow suit. The major turning points in your script should occur every 10-12 pages, and each 10-12 page section should have two story beats.
A few years ago, I took part in an Emerging Artists Trust writers and actors workshop where each writer wrote a feature screenplay over the course of 19 weeks (and has evolved into the equally rewarding Sandpit Workshops). Instead of workshopping a full length screenplay, writers were instructed to present 25 pages of their script every six weeks. For those of us who were writing a new script, this meant we were writing each 25 page section of our screenplay in a vacuum. Instead of grappling with a 100+ page document, we were focusing on a more manageable 25-page chunk at a time. The first 25 pages being the first act, the second being act 2A (up until the midpoint reversal), pages 50-75 being act 2B, and the last 25 pages being the conclusion of the script.
Doing this was immensely helpful to my writing process. I was able to focus exclusively on making each section of the script the best that it could be standing on its own, and then I would incorporate it into the larger narrative. This made the two halves of act two significantly more manageable.
Since then, I have made my writing process even more manageable by focusing on 10-12 page sections at a time. My goal is to make the 10-12 pages I am working on as engaging and propulsive as I possibly can and build up to the next turning point.
Of course, doing this means nothing if I haven’t already set up the right foundation in act one to propel me forward into act two. Again, the answer to writing a kick-ass, propulsive act two lies within how a writer designs their first act.
Here are a few common act two stumbling blocks that can be found in how a writer designs their first act:
A weak main dramatic question
The audience must know what needs to happen for the story to reach a satisfying conclusion. If they don’t, they will feel lost and/or bored.
In Little Miss Sunshine, the question posed at the end of the first act is, will Olive make it to the competition and will she win? In a body-swap comedy (pick one), it is, what will it take for the two people who’ve swapped bodies to swap back into their own bodies? In Star Wars, it is will Luke/Rey defeat The Empire/whatever The Empire is called in the new movies?
Without a clear path forward in the form of a narrative question, the audience has no reason to engage.
The main dramatic question and main character’s goal aren’t aligned
In most cases, the central dramatic should be exactly the same thing as the main character’s goal. In Little Miss Sunshine, the family’s primary goal is to get to the competition. In a body swap comedy, the characters want to return to their own bodies. In Star Wars, Luke and Rey both want to defeat their respective evil empires.
One could argue that the reason the Star Wars prequels don’t work is because they lack a compelling central question that is tied to the main character’s goal. How will Anakin become Darth Vader? does not make us invest in the main character’s journey. And the main character’s journey shapes the story.
Lack of an immediate goal
Michael Arndt, writer of Little Miss Sunshine, suggests that the second act should contain an immediate goal that complements the clearly defined larger goal. The example from Star Wars that he uses is that the global goal is to ensure galactic safety (by destroying the Death Star), and that the more immediate second act goal is for Luke and co. to deliver the Death Star plans to Alderaan. In Michael Arndt’s own script, the immediate second act goal is for the family to drive to the competition, and the global goal is tied to whether Olive wins or loses the competition and how the family reacts to the result. In body swap comedies, the immediate goal is always to swap back, but in order to do that, each person must learn a valuable lesson from being in the other person’s body.
It is that immediate goal that first propels us in act two. The midpoint is often a setback to that immediate goal. Alderaan is blown up, the grandpa who trained Olive for the competition dies, the characters have to adjust their plan of attack, etc. Often, the immediate goal is resolved by the end of act two, and the third act becomes about resolving the global goal. As is the case in Little Miss Sunshine when the family reach the competition by the end of act two but Olive winning or losing the competition remains unresolved. And in Star Wars, the third act is about restoring galactic order by destroying the Death Star (or the new Death Star, or Starkiller Base).
So before I set out to write my second act, I must first be able to answer:
What is my central dramatic question and is it the same as my main character’s goal?
What is my main character’s immediate goal, and what is the global goal?
Once I am able to answer these questions, I am able to proceed to breaking my script down into manageable, 10-12 page turning points. And when it comes to scripting, I narrow my focus to one 10-12 page section at a time.