Of all the difficulties in writing screenplays, writing the 2nd Act is always the hardest. It is for me, anyway. 1st Acts are simple. You set up your location, characters, situations. Create a inciting incident that gets the story going and drives the protagonist to take action. Then, move that action to a first act turning point where the protagonist has to cross a point of no return. 3rd Acts are even easier. Events drive the protagonist to a final encounter with the source of the conflict. There is a climactic event that resolves the story problem and answers the major dramatic question. Then there is a quick resolution.
But 2nd Acts are a mystery. You know where the story starts. You know where you want the story to end up. But how do you get there? How do you navigate all this dead space while trying to connect Point A to Point B? This 50-60 page No Man's Land between setup and resolution is, of course, where most attempts at screen structure fail. Action begins to sag, the story loses focus, momentum slows down, events become convoluted or confusing. If you would look at all the various screenwriting books out there, written by so-called script “gurus” you will find that they are all pretty much delightfully unhelpful. They talk of keeping the action going with “obstacles” and “complications” and “reversals.” Yes, but WHERE? And WHEN? Ultimately, these books usually skirt the whole issue by falling back on that old excuse, “There is no set formula to it.”
Bullocks. I don't think they were looking hard enough. There is a structure to the Second Act. And it's easy.
Two months ago, I hit a sticking point while outlining the plot for my latest script attempt. There I sat in front of my corkboard, my scene ideas on index cards in front of me, and I was once again bewildered by the big gap of blank space between the end of my First Act and the start of my Third. Sure, I had plenty of scene ideas on the index cards in my hands, but HOW to arrange them in some sort of order that could make this narrative work? The script I wanted to write could by no means be called a traditional plot-driven piece. How do I put things in order so the storyline continually develops with momentum and moves forward in a clear, linear
So, I decided to find out how other writers had done it before me. I would pick four study films from my movie collection, films similar in tone and content to the one I wished to write, and I would map out their 2nd Acts scene-by-scene. Hopefully I could succeed in finding some sort of pattern. The films I chose were Rushmore, About Schmidt, Trainspotting, and Office Space.
After watching the first two study films, I noticed something astounding. After the third, I couldn't believe it. The fourth film confirmed everything. All four of these films, regardless of their genre or the content of their stories, had 2nd Acts that were EXACTLY THE SAME!
All four films had 2nd Acts that consisted solely of five to six separate SCENE SEQUENCES, each followed by a turning point scene that brought the action of the previous sequence to an end and pushed the character into the action that would make up the next. The 2nd Act is not one long continuous line of action, but in fact a series of mini-acts!
To illustrate, here is how the 2nd Act of Rushmore breaks down into sequences.
First Act Turning Point: Max is expelled from Rushmore Academy after an attempt to impress his love interest, the teacher Ms. Cross.
Sequence 1: Max struggles with his new life and public school while attempting to patch things up with Ms. Cross.
Turning Point: Max gets Ms. Cross to agree to be his tutor.
Sequence 2: Max gets back into form with the help of Mr. Blum and Ms. Cross.
Turning Point: Blum shows up at Ms. Cross's home to make a romantic advance towards her. Max's best friend Dirk sees it.
Sequence 3: Dirk and Blum over the secret.
Turning Point: Dirk tells Max the secret in an exaggerated letter out of spite.
Sequence 4: Max and Blum at war.
Turning Point: After being bailed out of jail, Max decides to shift his attention to ruining Ms. Cross.
Sequence 5: Max's plans backfire and he gets what he deserves.
Turning Point: Max gives up hope and tells Blum that he can have her.
END OF SECOND ACT
These sequences on their own are completely autonomous. They are in fact mini-narratives, revolving around their own, separate, individual character goals. Each sequence has its own separate Major Dramatic Question. Each has its own 3-Act structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Although they have the traits of a single story, they also simultaneously work to develop the main plot as a whole. Each sequence goal works to move the protagonist closer to the character's ultimate goal, and each sequence MDQ works to move the story closer and closer to answering the MDQ of the “super-narrative”. Every achievement or setback suffered by Max while trying to achieve his sequence goal works to either get Max closer to or further away from his ultimate goal, to have the love of Ms. Cross for himself and no one else.
You will notice that each second act sequence can be given a simple title that accurately paraphrases all the action within. This is because these sequence are truly autonomous. There are NO lines of action inside these sequences that come from outside its boundaries. The second act is not a mishmash of intersecting plotlines, but rather a series of interconnected ones. (Please keep in mind that I am speaking about the action line of the MAIN PLOT only. Any separate subplots that deal with action outside of the main plot, or separate subplots revolving around characters other than the protagonist should be analyzed as completely separate plotlines.)
Take a look at how this singularity of focus works in a film that is driven more by character than plot, About Schmidt. Schmidt is a film about a man trying to find some meaning in the life he has lived now that he is retired and his wife is dead.
1st Act Turning Point: Schmidt's wife passes away, leaving him all alone to take care of himself in his big empty house.
Sequence 1: Schmidt rotting away in misery without his wife.
Turning Point: Schmidt finds love letters written to his wife from an old friend.
Sequence 2: Schmidt rejecting his wife. (Schmidt throws out all her things, confronts the old lover, urinates all over the bathroom.)
Turning Point: Schmidt awakes in the middle of the night, suddenly motivated to leave it all behind.
Sequence 3: Schmidt on the road, wanting to live with his daughter.
Turning Point: His daughter tells Schmidt over the phone to stay away until her wedding.
Sequence 4: Schmidt re-finding himself on the road.
Turning Point: A too-friendly fellow Winnebago owner interrupts Schmidt's solitude to insist he join them for dinner.
Sequence 5: Schmidt making a fool of himself with the man's wife/making amends with his wife.
Turning Point: Schmidt awakens the next day as a new man, motivated to stop his daughter's wedding.
END OF SECOND ACT
Here is how the sequence breakdown works in a harder-edged drama like Trainspotting.
First Act Turning Point: Renton and his mates decide to go back on heroin.
Sequence 1: Life on heroin.
Turning Point: Renton and Spud are arrested. Renton is ordered into a methadone program.
Sequence 2: Renton needs one last hit, overdoses.
Turning Point: Renton's parents lock him in his room to detox.
Sequence 3: Renton is forced clean and onto the straight and narrow.
Turning Point: Renton's young girlfriend Diana tells him he needs to do something new with his life.
Sequence 4: Renton making a new life for himself in London.
(This sequence is very short, really nothing more than an extended montage. It could be argued that sequence 4 and 5 are in fact a single sequence.)
Turning Point: Renton's old mate Begby abruptly shows up and forces himself back into Renton's life.
Sequence 5: Renton's old mates continue to ruin his new life, Renton grows to hate them.
Turning Point: They are all called back to Scotland with the news of Tommy's funeral.
Sequence 6: Tommy' funeral.
Turning Point: After the funeral, Renton's mates ask him to join in on a heroin deal they have planned.
END OF SECOND ACT
The formula again repeats itself in the traditional broad comedy, Office Space.
First Act Turning Point: Peter, an office drone completely unhappy with his job, accidentally receives permanent hypnosis to not have a care in the world.
Sequence 1: Peter does what he feels like.
Turning Point: Peter's attitude earns the approval of “The Bobs”, the efficiency experts in charge of finding which employees to lay off.
Sequence 2: Peter is untouchable. He does what he wants, when he wants thanks to the support of the Bobs.
Turning Point: Peter learns that his closest friends Michael and Samir will be laid off.
Sequence 3: Peter, Michael, and Samir plan revenge on the system.
Turning Point: They upload the virus into the office computer.
Sequence 4: Celebrate victory over the system.
Turning Point: Peter hears that his girlfriend Joana once had sex with his despicable boss Lundberg.
Sequence 5: Peter's meltdown over the Joana/Lundberg news.
Turning Point: Peter learns that the computer virus has gone horribly awry.
END OF SECOND ACT
Notice that these sequences include both the setup to the action, the action itself, and all immediate aftermath of that action. Events that are not directly related to that action, but are similar in topic are grouped within the same sequence, continuing under the same topic until they are interrupted by a turning point. For example, the “Forced Clean” sequence in Trainspotting includes Renton being locked in his room, the detoxification, Renton receiving a blood test for AIDS, montage of the boredom and depression of the clean life with his parents, a visit to Tommy who does have AIDS, and Renton proclaiming that he's clean to Diana.
One interesting point to take note of is that the first sequence of the 2nd Act is always far less goal-oriented and active than the sequences that follow. This is no accident. Just as the very beginning of any screenplay requires time to be spent on creating the SETUP, in which the storyteller introduces the characters, his/her world, the premise and the problem, so does the beginning of the second act. With most scripts following the traditional 3-Act Structure, the 1st Act Turning point creates an event that forces the protagonist into a new environment/world/state of mind. Max in Rushmore finds himself in a new school very much unlike Rushmore Academy. Schmidt finds himself in a lonely world with no one to take care of him. Renton has leapt from the world of sobriety back into the world of heroin. Peter in Office Space, though not in a different world, sees the world around him anew thanks to the hypnosis. Therefore, the first sequence of the second act has been dedicated to a second setup, a setup to the second act, in which we explore the character in his/her new environment.
Now you might look at look at these four study films and find it as no wonder that they all have the same structure. After all, they were chosen as study films due to their similarities in style and tone. Does this formula apply to far different films, films from other genres?
Let's look at Die Hard, a fast-paced, plot-driven action film that is frequently recognized for its excellent structure. Despite all the action that goes on in Die Hard's 2nd Act, the plot still breaks down into five, easy to analyze scene sequences.
First Act Turning Point: John McClane witnesses the terrorist leader Hans execute the boss of the Nakatomi corporation. McClane now knows that these guys are serious and he is the only one who can do anything to stop them.
Sequence 1: Setup. (The bad guys start carrying out their plans. McClane tries to figure out what to do.)
Turning Point: McClane sees the sprinkler heads on the ceiling and has an idea.
Sequence 2: McClane tries to get help by pulling the fire alarm. (McClane pulls it. The bad guys thwart the attempt by calling it in as a false alarm. A henchman is sent to find McClane. They fight. McClane wins.)
Turning Point: McClane taunts Hans that he is still alive and going to stop them.
Sequence 3: McClane attempts to contact the police on the roof with the dead man's radio. (McClane's call is not taken seriously. Hans hears the McClane on the radio and more henchmen attempt to kill McClane. Officer Powell comes to investigate, but finds nothing. McClane gets Powell's attention by throwing a dead henchman out the window.)
Turning Point: Police finally respond to Nakatomi Tower
Here, after the midpoint, the pace picks up and the plot complicates itself greatly with the addition of the members of the LAPD, the FBI, and a news reporter. However, the remainder of the act can still be easily divided into two focused, distinct scene sequences.
Sequence 4: Dealing with the police. (McClane struggles to get the police to listen to him and handle the situation in the correct way. Hans responds to the police presence. The police made a foolhardy invasion attempt. McClane is forced to rescue them.)
Turning Point: The explosion makes Holly's smug coworker think enough is enough and he decides to negotiate with Hans.
Sequence 5: McClane loses all his advantages one by one. (The smug coworker sells out McClane's name and background. McClane loses his ability to influence the events outside when the FBI takes over. McClane loses his anonymity when Hans sees him face-to-face. In the ensuing battle, McClane cuts up his feet and loses the detonators the terrorists need to blow up the building. McClane loses the advantage of time when the FBI shut off the power, opening the vault prematurely for Hans and the terrorists. A news reporter broadcasts from McClane & Holly's house.)
Turning Point: Hans sees the broadcast and learns that Holly is McClane's wife. He takes Holly to use to defeat McClane.
Five sequences. The formula still holds true.
Story structure is like taking your character on a cross-country road trip.. You have a person who needs to take a trip, a goal they want to end up at as a destination, and a path they wish to travel to get there. But navigating that path 2nd act is in fact much more like a cross-country road trip. But like a real cross-country journey, this journey is really made up of several “legs”, turns in the road, changes in the situation that make things different. Think of a cross country road trip from a location such as, say, moving east out of Los Angeles. On your first leg of your journey, you are driving on the freeway. You have to deal with fast-moving heavy traffic and have to figure out quickly what freeways to get on to and off. But eventually you hit a second leg of your trip: the Mojave desert. Driving in the desert is much different than driving in the city. And it has completely new and different problems: its hot, there is a lack of gas stations and places to get food. But once that is accomplished, you hit an altogether new leg: the Rocky Mountains. The roads are steep, winding, and lets say its raining. This leg of the journey is completely different and has different challenges.
The development of the storyline in a screenplay is just like this cross country journey. The protagonist set off to achieve his/her goal with a plan in mind. But then, something happens that changes things. Thing may have become more complicated, or she may have seemed to have succeeded but something altogether new comes and blindsides her and create new problems on top of the old. This creates a TURNING POINT. Her journey is now different. Her challenges are different and she has to set off with a new strategy to get to her final goal. But before long, some new development happens and changes everything again. But remember that although the situations keep changing, but her main goal stays the same. The journey is still traveling to the same destination. Thats what makes watching a good movie feel so fulfilling, watching a character continue after their goal even as things continue to change and new things continue to be thrown at him, he keeps after her goal and earns it by succeeding “against all odds.”
I believe it is time that screenwriting books stop presenting the holy “Three-Act Structure” as the be-all end-all of screen structure. The Three Act model is outdated and far too simplistic. It does nothing to truly instruct new writers on how to actually WRITE their plot. Rather than “Three-Act,” screenplay structure is in fact more of a “Twelve-to-Fourteen Sequence Structure.” (First and Third Acts typically being made up of three sequences apiece.) This is no secret. This structure should become obvious to anyone who bothers to look close enough. So why does 2nd Act plot development continue to be such a struggling point for young screenwriters? Why do these how-to books continue to be so unhelpful on the subject? Hopefully this problem will be remedied in the near future.
Until then, keep scribbling.