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THE CRAFT: Wandering in the Desert of Act Two

Etched in our brains are memorable beginnings and endings to films, but who really remembers the middle? The poor, forgotten Act Two often remains shrouded in mystery.

Originally published in Script magazine July/August 2002

By George R. Wolfe

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Etched in our brains are memorable beginnings and endings to films. James Bond and Indiana Jones movies, Pulp Fiction, and Scream are just a few beginnings that really stick. For endings, there’s E.T. going home, the demise of the shark in Jaws, and the final airport scene of Casablanca. Some films, like Seven, have equally strong beginnings and endings.

But who really remembers the middle? Whether the issue is viewing or working on it, the poor, forgotten Act Two often remains shrouded in mystery (in terms of its mechanisms) and can seem impenetrable for writers at all levels of the craft.

Ask a screenwriter about that tender-yetsubstantial underbelly of his/her latest screenplay and you’ll usually hear a painful groan (even via e-mail), followed by a comment such as: “I dunno, I’m mired in it right now.” One writer has likened it to wandering in a desert and being lost, without water, supplies, or companionship for months. So if you are wandering through that desert—either for the first time around, or revisiting a script—keep these points in mind.

Don’t Panic: Get Your Bearings

You may find that you have lost all sense of direction. Chances are, your Act Two isn’t as bad as you think. Or maybe it is, but there are things you can do about it. Or perhaps your Second Act is virtually non-existent at this point. Regardless, your attitude may affect your chances of survival.

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Think about your ultimate goal—your own north star—for a moment. If you’re doing a re-write, you owe it to yourself and to future readers to do a true re-write whether you’re getting paid a ridiculous sum to do so or whether you’re working on a spec script. Don’t mince words and split dramatic hairs—unless you’re specifically doing a polish—and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater either (especially in the desert. You may need to drink it).

Develop an exit strategy. One way to start is by not staring directly at the problem(s) at all. Stop gazing into that crystal-ball computer screen, wishing for answers to fall out onto your desk. Bolster yourself with some fresh life and gather energy from reliable sources. Whether you’re talking about the whole script or Act Two, the same fundamental principles apply.

Look back at where you came from.

Go way back to the twin pillars of storytelling craft: Aristotle’s Poetics and Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. If you’ve read them, re-read select sections that speak to your particular predicament; if you haven’t read them, that’s probably a clue as to why you’re wandering around. If you believe your problem’s with structure, Aristotle is your man; for character, consult Egri. This will help you see the larger picture and inject you with much-needed inspiration.

Or try the mythic angle. Robert P., an anonymous screenwriting mentor with the Writer’s Guild, says that “Pure and simple, [Act Two] is your Hero’s Journey. If you haven’t read Joseph Campbell’s or Christopher Vogler’s books, DO IT! They’ll really help you with your second act, the make-or-break act in every screenplay. At some point in Act Two, you MUST have your hero cross the threshold or pass the point of no return.”

Still lacking energy? Look to a masterful storyteller who knows how to integrate story and character. Take your pick—but shoot high. Raymond Chandler’s adaptation of Double Indemnity is practically one long, twisted Act Two that’s bookended by the protagonist starting to record his tragic tale on a dictating machine and ending when he finishes telling that tale. Shakespeare is great because he really knows how to keep you in your seat. His beginnings and endings aren’t always the most memorable, but the storied guts are where he shows his true abilities: the myriad twists and turns, the undaunted progression of escalating action and stakes, the complete exploration of a theme, and the specifics of compelling characters. Looking at such writers brings us to the next few survival tips.

Take Stock of Your Physical Resources

Shakespeare, like any good writer nowadays, had a sense of the necessary tools. Fortunately, you’ll find that the necessary physical tools are there for the taking. In short, think of Conflict as your Swiss Army knife since it’s the crux of drama. Many writers are afraid to force their characters into meaty confrontations. Act Two is no time for niceties. Look over your script: Does it wreak of conflict? If not, that’s a big issue. And conflict doesn’t mean big action—it can be as subtle as Sense and Sensibility, but there’s still no way around conflict. In Rear Window, the static POV doesn’t matter because the story is loaded with conflict on the room-side of the window as well as the world-side of the window. Even in Memento, with its ass-backwards structure (and I mean that in a good way) there’s no way around it. Forwards, backwards, upside down—it better be there in healthy doses.

If conflict is your main tool, then on one side of it you’ve got at least four structural gadgets that you can pull out and use: Barriers, Complications, Turning Points, and Reversals. Barriers present a challenge that begs the question: How will the protagonist get around this? Complications are story elements, sometimes tiny, that don’t pay off immediately but will present future challenges for the protagonist. In Toy Story 2, when Buzz and his pals knock over a box of toys to get out of Al’s Toybarn, it allows evil emperor Zurg to chase them—setting up a fight sequence later on. Turning points represent major changes of direction in a story. When Woody is stolen at the yard sale, that upsets the ordinary world and necessitates Act Two. Reversals are similar, but change the story in a 180-degree direction. When Woody realizes he’s made a mistake in wanting to go to Japan to be a museum piece instead of returning to his owner, Andy—that’s the reversal (and turning point) which leads into the climactic chase sequence of Act Three.

Looking at your Act Two more closely, you’re setting up a series of moment-tomoment actions and reactions. But if you’re really making good use of those four gadgets, then it will follow that the minutia of dramatic action (e.g. set-ups/pay-offs) will fall into place along the way. The Shining breaks down to a string of such moments: father acts in one way, mother/kid react to him accordingly, father acts in a different, more horrible way, wife/kid react to him differently— all in order to survive. It’s mostly Act Two with Act Three being just the last climactic scene in which the kid outsmarts his father in the topiary labyrinth.

Screenwriter Max Adams (Excess Baggage) believes that “there have to be at least three escalating situations in the Second Act or you are out of there. Because what do you do if you are just using 60 pages to connect the beginning and ending with no ultimate rising point, resolution, and new rising point? Well, you are just killing time. And killing time is what kills scripts. Bottom line.”

Now look at the skeleton there beside you—the one in the sand. Identify the spine. Hopefully there’s a spine in your script somewhere. It’s whatever made you sit down in the first place and want to say something to somebody else through characters. Grab it. Show me the marrow. That’s the essential stuff. Use it to find your way out. How? Simply by being conscious of it, then bring your planning and writing to bear with it close at hand.

While you’re in an observational mode, identify a few other things. Find a few landmarks that provide you with something solid. Bookend Act Two with a turning point leading into it and another one leading out of it. Halfway between the bookends, find or fashion a juicy turning point. Toward the end of Act Two, look for a “dark moment” or a “scene of suffering” for your protagonist. Also hunt for a major “recognition” of some sort or a “moral decision” on the part of the protagonist. Find a “new impetus” that will whisk you out of Act Two and into the sunset of Act Three.

George Wing, a screenwriter with three studio deals and several independent projects, emphasizes the importance of subplots in Act Two, “they get you through the second act ... but you should resolve most

What works for Dr. Seuss works for Spielberg—and if you apply it, it’ll work for you, too.

of them before Act Three begins. Act Three is about resolving your A-plot.”

Now, going back over your worksheet or step outline or whatever you use as a sacrosanct guide, reconsider the structural links. Think in terms of phrases like, “As a result of gambling away his money, Milo robs a bank ...” or, “In order to win her true love, Miriam starts to stalk him.” Use such contingent phrases, and keep your verbs active. When you draw a continuity blank, chances are you’ve got a hole in Act Two that’ll require insertion of a “necessary or probable” scene. That’s Aristotle’s biggie. You want to avoid being the episodic writer who has extraneous scenes littering his or her script. Be prepared, as they say, to kill off some darlings—favorite scenes that don’t serve the spine of your story.


Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by the size of Act Two. In the end, any way you slice it, it’ll always be the middle (you know what I mean). If fact, if you like, don’t even think of it as Act Two. Sure, that’s the current paradigm, but don’t get hung up on it. Whatever method helps you break down the middle of your story and think about your particular script problems in a way that makes sense to you, then stick with that method.

Aristotle thought of story in two parts: “By the Complication, I mean all that extends from the beginning of the action to the part which marks the turning point to good or bad fortune. The Unraveling is that which extends from the beginning of the change to the end.” We’ve already talked about the three-part structure—evolved from the intuitive shape of beginning-middle-end.

In Kristin Thompson’s Storytelling in the New Hollywood, she argues for a four-part approach—supposedly dictated by the length of spools used during the silent era. Shakespeare typically wrote in five acts. Some contemporary screenwriters swear by a seven-part method. Somewhere out there, you can be sure there are six, eight, nine, and ten-act methods. None is the absolute truth any more than there must be a fixed number of chapters for a novel.

Personally, I like thinking in terms of four parts—in screenplays, that gives roughly equal length (and thereby importance) to each section. Otherwise, it’s true: That 60- page chunk becomes too unwieldy to handle. Grab your tool and break Act Two in half with a mid-act turning point. Call the remaining chunks whatever you like: section, Act IIa and IIb, or maybe just Thing One and Thing Two.

If you ever get stuck, Dr. Seuss is another great master of middles. Consider The Cat in the Hat as a four-part example.

act two

1. Mom’s away, the cat barges in (inciting incident), and the two kids are in a heap of trouble after the fish’s warnings about strangers are ignored.

2. The cat (a barrier) wreaks a ton of progressively complicating havoc by his singular presence (conflict) as the kids and the fish freak out.

3. To make matters worse, Thing One and Thing Two (new barriers) are let loose from a box (the midpoint/ turning point), and they run amok (more conflict). Mom comes walking up the block (the crisis), so the kids catch the Things and send the cat away but are left with a huge mess (the dark moment).

4. The cat’s triumphant return with his cleaning machine (the new impetus) ends up saving the day (reversal of the action) and it’s a timely scramble until mom’s entrance (the climax and ending) when the house is magically restored to purity. What works for Dr. Seuss works for Spielberg—and if you apply it, it’ll work for you, too.

How Many People in Your Party?

Now take out your main tool, unfold that big character blade, and use it to dig deep into your characters. These are your human resources. Consult Egri or your favorite resource book on character. Do or re-visit profile sheets of your characters— especially your protagonist(s). Spend some quality time with them. You owe it to them—after all, you gave them life. Maybe it’s been awhile since you’ve seen them. Wine and dine them if need be. But develop a dialogue, maybe even a fullblown relationship.

But don’t neglect your antagonist. This is his or hers time to shine. According to Robert P., “One key to making Act Two work is to have a great, well-defined antagonist. The reason? You have to put hurdles, roadblocks, mine fields, potholes, and everything else you can think of in your hero’s path as he or she moves the story forward to conclusion. When your protagonist has succeeded or failed on his or her mission, Act Two is over.”

And don’t forget to extract those few smaller blades—the Stakes. George Wing again: “For me, stakes rise to the midpoint of Act Two. Then they either broaden out or stay the same (but become bigger). In the latter, they could go from survival of a single person to survival of that person’s whole family. But no single stakes can carry you for the whole of Act Two. It’s just too long.”

If you find yourself lagging with Act Two character issues, get out of the house and go observe people. Develop a furtive habit of carrying around a small notepad and pen. Take copious notes. Get obsessed. Become an acute observer. Don’t worry what your friends say. Simply jot: “Why should Joe Friend be so threatened? What’s he got to hide anyway? Hmm. ...” You may stumble upon something of value that’ll help you flesh out a key aspect of one of your characters right when you need it most.

If you’ve boxed yourself into a tight spot, try humbling yourself and really thinking about your protagonist: What Would [Protagonist] Do? If you open yourself up to this small leap of faith, he or she might just lead you to valuable insights (then again, if you’re writing Norman Bates or Hannibal Lecter, use caution with this approach).

Write Your Way Out

Like any part of the writing process, if you’ve done the necessary prep work, it’ll more or less write itself. So if you’re ready, congratulations. With your head squarely on your shoulders, tackling Act Two (and how it connects to any other aspect of the script) should now be a relative pleasure. What are you waiting for? Happy trails.

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Beginning Feature Film Writing: Act II & III

Beginning Feature Film Writing: Act II & III