The second act is the hardest thing to write in the world. Let's tackle it together.
I love writing so much but that stretch from page 30 to 80 makes me wish I was born good at anything else. It crushes me every time I cross the threshold. I want to be good at writing act two. I think that every time I write a script I get better at it, but man, it's so hard.
Act two is hard because it's an escalation. We are tracking growth on an emotional level as well as tracking physical actions.
It's hard to write because it's the "because" phase. We are tracking the cause and effect of what each action leads to.
Yesterday we went over act one, but today I wanted to be hyperfocused on act two and see what we can do to make writing these pages easier. Let's take a look at this video from Campfire Technology and get started.
How to Write Act Two
Act two is the “confrontation” portion of the three-act structure. Many writers, including myself, have the most trouble writing act two of their screenplays. We've set up the world and the characters, now we need to see what happens when they tackle their issues head-on.
We created this outline for what act two needs. Check it out.
This is not an absolute list, but I hope it helps get you on your way. I’m generally good at coming up with a concept for a screenplay and sometimes I can see the ending in my head, but act two is the map for how to get there.
And that map doesn’t always line up easily.
So what do readers, and viewers, expect from act two of your screenplay?
Act two is when the meat of your story happens. We’re thrust into the forward motion of the story, and our characters have to start trying and failing to achieve what they want.
In my opinion, act two ends the moment your character suffers the worst loss imaginable. Blake Snyder calls it “the dark night of the soul,” but I prefer to just classify it as the “oh crap” moment.
For the “oh crap” to land, you need act two to continue to raise the stakes, and make us fall in love with the characters so that when you punch us in the gut... it hurts. Your characters spend act two going deeper into the mystery, learning more about why they love each other, and getting pretty far into their road trip.
I like to deal with act two by sussing out what each character wants and having them fail over and over again to get it.
The other crazy thing about the second act is that it’s also where you’ll explore your B story (and C, D, and E if you’re a Lord of the Rings movie). The second act is super important and does your script’s heavy lifting. It’s where you get answers that you pose in act one, and get to ask more questions that can pay off in act three.
Act two always frustrates me, so I take it out on my characters.
Let’s take a look at a few act two examples to see how these ideas play out on the page.
Act Two Examples
So act one just ended, and you’re moving the story forward. Your characters have a mission, but you’re not sure how to get them to complete it. Let's look at a few movie examples that show you some excellent moments in act two.
One of my favorite under-appreciated movies in the last few years was Jeff Nichol's Mud.
In the second act of the movie, the boys are helping the titular character refurbish a boat so he can leave town. Our lead kid is also dealing with the b-story of his parents going through a nasty divorce. Juxtapose that against Mud looking for love in all the wrong places while being chased by the Southern Mafia and you have a second act that never lags.
How about a movie like Midsommer?
From my experience, horror movies have the most fun second acts because that's generally when most of the people are dying and we get all the exciting clues.
For Midsommer, we learn about the culture of the people they are visiting, including the pivotal self-sacrifice scene as well as the falling apart of a relationship. We even get a scene of a drink that definitely has something laced in it...watch the movie to find out what!
The point is, act two puts them deeper into trouble both physically and emotionally.
Comedy: Crazy Rich Asians
Lastly, I want to look at Crazy Rich Asians, which I think had an excellent second act. It was my favorite part of the movie. In a comedy, the second act increases the hijinks and the stakes. In this movie, we learn about what the crazy rich are actually like. We see the separation of wealth in the country and we learn about the strict mother-in-law. Will a marriage happen? What will be sacrificed for the engagement?
We also expand the world of the b-characters in the story.
Act Two Checklist
Okay, now that you've seen the overall thesis and examples, take a peek at our checklist to get you through the rest.
Summing up Act Two
I know this was a lot but I truly think studying structure leads to better writing. What are some of your major worries and fears about act two?
Anything we didn't cover or that you have questions about?
Let me know in the comments.
As always, happy writing.
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