Thursday, July 14, 2011

Article - How to Conquer Your Second Act

So I’m sitting there reading Sex Tape last week and it hits me. Even the high level professionals getting a million bucks a script struggle with their second acts. And then I really start thinking about it (always a bad thing), and it clocks me. Not only do they struggle with it. They FAKE IT. No seriously, they do. They don’t know how to get through their second act so they throw up a bunch of smokescreens and set pieces and twists and turns, all in the hopes that you won’t figure out that they have no idea what they’re doing. And hey, who can blame them? It really is a fucked up act. I mean the first act is easy. You set up your story. The last act is simple. You conclude your story. But if you’re not setting up and you’re not concluding, what the hell are you doing? And why does the most confusing act have to be twice as long as the other two? Well, I’m going to answer that for you. It’s time to figure out the dreaded SECOND ACT.

This is technically a pre-second act tip, but it’s such an important one, it’s worth noting. Your main character needs something he’s after (a goal). The reason for this is, much of the second act will be dedicated to your character’s pursuit of this goal. So if there’s no goal, there’s nothing for your character to do. There are exceptions to this rule just like there are exceptions to everything (The Shawshank Redemption and Lost In Translation do not follow this format). But for the most part, if you want to conquer your second act, giving your hero a clear goal is essential.

Okay, here’s why most second acts fail: Because writers don’t realize the second act is about CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. That’s not to say there isn’t action in your second act. Or plot. Or thrills. Or horror. There can be all these things. But the bigger overarching purpose of the second act is to explore your characters. Once you realize that, you’re way ahead of everyone else. All of this starts with your character’s defining flaw - or “fatal flaw” - which is loosely defined as the thing that’s held your character back his/her entire life. Once you identify that flaw, you’ll create a journey to specifically test it over and over again. These tests will force your character to grow, which will in turn bring us closer to your character. So in The Matrix, Neo’s fatal flaw is that he doesn’t believe in himself. Therefore many of the scenes in the second act are geared towards testing that problem. The building jump. The dojo fight. The Oracle visit. The Subway fight. Each time, that lack of belief is being tested. And each time, he comes a little closer to believing. Now, note how I didn’t say it had to be your hero who had the flaw. Many times it’s a secondary character who does the changing in a story. So if you look at a movie like Star Wars, Han’s flaw is that he’s too selfish. That flaw is tested when he and Obi-Wan get in arguments, when he’s given the chance to save the princess, and when he’s given a chance to join the Death Star battle. Or Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. His flaw is that he doesn’t take chances in life. Virtually every scene in the movie is Cameron being given a chance to let loose, to “enjoy life.” Personally, for me, I think the best stories are when everybody goes through some sort of change. So make sure that your second act contains a healthy dose of character exploration.

Relationships are the other main way you’re going to explore character in your second act. Long story short, you’d like to have two or three unresolved relationships in your movie, and you want to use your second act to resolve them. Much like the character flaw I mentioned above, there’s usually a key issue in every relationship that needs to be fixed. Many of your scenes in the second act will be used to explore that issue. In Good Will Hunting, the three biggest relationships are Will and Sean, Will and Skylar, and Will and Professor Lambeau. Each relationship needs to be resolved. The key issue with Will and Sean is opening up. The key issue with Will and Skylar is fear of commitment. And the key issue with Will and Professor Lambeau is what to do with Will’s talent. In the second act, Good Will Hunting jumps back and forth between these relationships, continually hitting on these issues, pushing each of them to the breaking point. Now of course, how much time you spend on this will have a lot to do with the kind of movie you’re writing. Good Will Hunting is an unapologetic character piece. But I’m not sure I’d recommend intimately dissecting three separate relationships in a movie like 2012 or Taken. But that doesn’t mean you should abandon the practice altogether. Maybe you cut down the number of relationships explored. Maybe you cut down the depth or the time used to explore those relationships. But you should probably have at least two relationships you’re exploring in your second act.

One of the problems with second acts is that they go on FOREVER! 30 pages longer than the first and third acts. No wonder they’re so damn cryptic. But you have a secret weapon at your disposal to fend off this pit of boringness: the MIDPOINT STRIKE! Please don’t go around using this term. I just made it up for this article. The midpoint is that point in the story where the audience is sort of used to what’s going on, and is starting to feel like they have a handle on things, and are therefore on the verge of getting bored. By WHACKING them with the midpoint strike, you can change all that. So in Star Wars, it’s when they get to Alderran and the planet has been destroyed! In Jerry McGuire, it’s when Sugar steals Cush away from Jerry at the draft. In Psycho, it’s when Norman has killed and disposed of Marion Crane’s body. In Avatar, it’s when they destroy Home Tree. You need something to JOLT the story onto a different path. If you don’t, the script gets too predictable. You have a lot of options with what to do with the midpoint strike. It can be plot based, character based, internal, external, a big twist, the death of a character. Anything that changes the game a little bit. So in Source Code, it’s when Coulter finds out that he’s dead (character based). Or in Star Trek (2009), it’s when they realize Nero is going to destroy Earth and they have to either rendezvous with the rest of the star fleet or take a chance and stop him on their own (plot based). You get bonus points if your Midpoint Strike ups the stakes. So in Star Trek, earth potentially being destroyed is a pretty big upping of the stakes, wouldn’t you say?

Here’s something I don’t think enough writers realize. A second act should BUILD. There should be peaks and valleys, sure. But overall, the audience should feel like we’re BUILDING towards something. In most screenplays I read, the second act does the opposite. It peters out. It sputters to the finish line. So how do you avoid this? By placing obstacles in front of your character’s goal, and by making each obstacle bigger and more difficult than the previous one. Here’s an analogy. Think of a video game. In most video games, the goal is to get to the final level and defeat the boss. Each level before that, then, is an “obstacle” to achieving that goal. And each level, in order to make getting to and defeating that boss harder, is more difficult than the previous. So if you look at Raiders Of The Lost Ark, all Indiana has to do at first is get to Cairo, walk around in a half-disguise, and look for the Ark. His obstacle is not getting caught. Pretty simple. But then he gets caught and buried in a cave. Now he has to get out. A slightly bigger obstacle. Then he gets out and has to destroy a plane and a bunch of Nazis. Bigger obstacle. Then he has to catch up with the caravan carrying the Ark and stop them. Bigger obstacle. Since each obstacle is more difficult, we get the sense that we’re BUILDING towards something. Now the truth is, this is an imperfect science, because sometimes you need to give your characters a breather, and you do that by throwing in a smaller obstacle. For example, while Luke and Han gunning down Tie-Fighters in the Millennium Falcon was a big obstacle, I wouldn’t say it was bigger than escaping the Death Star. Still, on the whole, your main obstacles should continue to get bigger and more imposing. This is what will create that necessary BUILD that makes a second act fun to watch.

Take note, the build is not relegated to the plot. It should be incorporated into your character’s fatal flaw and those unresolved relationships as well. That way, the story is building ON EVERY FRONT! For example, in Back To The Future, George McFly’s fatal flaw is his lack of belief in himself (hey, kinda like Neo). At first this flaw is tested when Marty introduces him to Lorraine at school. She’s more interested in Marty though, and George slinks away. Nothing is lost because she barely paid attention to George in the first place. Next, he asks her out at the diner. This time, there’s more on the line because he’s all alone and putting himself out there. In the end, of course, he’s gotta take down Biff AND ask Lorraine to the dance, the ultimate test of whether he finally believes in himself. We get that building sensation because each test had more at stake than the previous one. --- Now on the “unresolved relationship” front, let’s look at one of the greatest rom-coms of all time, When Harry Met Sally. Their unresolved issue is trying to remain friends. At first they don’t really like each other so it doesn’t matter. But then they start hanging out, making that pact more difficult. Then they start dating other people, making it even more difficult. Then they start getting into serious relationships, making it even MORE difficult. So the act of trying to remain friends becomes more and more challenging by building the obstacles in front of that goal. As long as all the elements in your second act – plot, fatal flaw, relationships – are BUILDING towards a conclusion, you’re in good shape.

The end of your second act is when your character has tried everything. He’s overcome all the previous obstacles. He’s managed to keep his relationships together. He may even believe he’s overcome his flaw. But then all of these things (either bit by bit or all at once) should come crumbling down on top of him. He should lose the girl. He should fail to defeat the villain. He should fall back into his own ways. The last 10-15 pages of your second act is the steady decline of your main character, ending with him at the lowest point of his life. Neo unable to defeat Smith in the train station. Kristin Wiig losing her boyfriend and best friend in Bridesmaids. The Man In Black LITERALLY dying in The Princess Bride. The end of your second act should LOOK like it’s over for you character. That there’s no hope. And with that my friend, you’ve done it. You’ve concluded your second act and are ready to cross into the third.

There you go folks. Pat yourself on the back. I just want to leave you with one warning. What I’ve given you is the template for a TRADITIONAL SECOND ACT. One which includes a character who’s going after a clear goal. Unfortunately, not every movie follows this template. There is no character goal in The Shawshank Redemption. Will is not going after anything in Good Will Hunting. Ditto the characters in When Harry Met Sally. So it’s important to remember that while these tips give you a starting point for navigating your second act, there is no one size fits all solution. For example, there are no unresolved relationships being mined in the second act of Taken. Could there have been? Sure. Would they have made the movie better? Maybe. But the point is, every story is unique, and the big challenge will be putting yourself in enough screenwriting situations where you begin to understand which of these elements are needed and which aren’t. But hey, you’ve got yourself a starting point. Which is more than some of these professional writers can say. Feel free to leave your own Second Act tips in the comments section.