Lew Hunter, author of Screenwriting 434, has called writing Act Two the "blue collar" work of screenwriting. He is absolutely correct. Act Two is as long as Acts One and Three combined but size alone is not the challenge here. It is in Act Two, more than anywhere else, where structural problems commonly invade the screenplay, tilting the entire storytelling venture out of focus. To combat this tendency, it's best to think of Act Two in two parts, the first half and the second half.
(This, by the way, is why some teachers refer to a four-act paradigm rather than a three-act paradigm: four equal parts. I prefer retaining three-act terminology because it meshes so well with beginning-middle-end structure, which is the essence of dramatic storytelling.)
Act Two, Part One
Act Two begins with the protagonist firmly in the "extra-ordinary" world, the new experience of the story, with no turning back. Initially things go well. The scientist in Jurassic Park observes the roaming dinosaurs with awe, Benjamin in The Graduate happily begins an affair with Mrs. Robinson, and Will in Shakespeare In Love is long past his writer's block with a new play in rehearsal and a mysterious new actor before him.
Midway through Act Two, where the part one of the act moves into part two of the act, there is a major plot point called the MIDPOINT. As with all plot points, this spins the story in a new direction but sometimes it also defines a new goal for the protagonist.
In Jurassic Park, the prehistoric animals get free during a storm, terrorizing everyone -- the dangerous aspect of the theme park is introduced. In The Graduate, Benjamin decides he's in love not with Mrs. Robinson but with her daughter, Elaine. He has a new goal. In Shakespeare In Love, Will discovers that the mysterious actor is really a woman -- Viola, the love of his life, his muse -- and he now is writing from the energy of her love.
In each case, the story spins into a broader, more complex dimension. More is going on. This greater density foreshadows trouble that lies ahead.
Act Two, Part Two
In the last half of Act Two, the journey of the protagonist turns downward, ending in the end-of-act plot point, which is the low point of the hero's journey. It is here that all seems lost.
In Jurassic Park, the security system of the park collapses when the computer system has to be rebooted. This magnifies the danger from the animals hugely. In The Graduate, Benjamin learns that Elaine has been pulled from school and is being rushed into marriage. In Shakespeare In Love, Viola's disguise is made public and the theater is shut down.
In each case, things look grim for the protagonist: the scientist's life is in danger, along with everyone else's; Benjamin looks to lose Elaine, and Will looks to lose both his wonderful new play and Viola.
It is the purpose of Act Tree, about which I'll write next time, to resolve these issues back in favor of the protagonist.
Problems in Act Two
Here are some typical problems that can occur in Act Two.
- Loss of focus. The clear hero's journey set up in Act One becomes lost as the story becomes more complex. Sometimes subplots become more important than the central dramatic issue; sometimes minor characters become more interesting than the protagonist. The spine of the story collapses.
- Insufficient build. In the journey through Act Two, tension must build right along with the complexity of the story. This means there must be a through-line connecting the turns of the story and that the stakes must be raised at each twist. The story is like a poker pot with the bets raising and raising again.
- Antagonist's revenge. If one character is apt to steal the focus from the protagonist, it is the bad guy, the antagonist. Often bad guys are more interesting to write than good guys, but you must remember that your story always belongs to the hero. Study Silence of the Lambs for how a dynamic antagonist can be created without sacrificing focus on the protagonist.
- Too high a low point. Movies are bigger than life in all ways. Often writers do not put their protagonists in deep enough a hole at the end of Act Two. The stakes aren't high enough, the danger not great enough, the sense of defeat not threatening enough. A common command to screenwriters during the rewriting process is "crank it up!" Make the story matter more to the hero -- and to the audience. Make the story bigger than life.
This done, you're ready to attack the miracle of Act Three.