I heard once that your screenplay’s second act is your screenplay. It’s the journey, the challenge, and the longest part of your script and future film. At nearly 60 pages or 50 percent (or more) of your script, the second act is usually the hardest part, for both your character AND you. And that means it’s often where things go wrong. I picked up some tricks along the way, and I’m happy to share them with you today so you can avoid what’s often referred to as “the second act sag.”
In a traditional three-act structure, the second act begins once the character decides it’s too late to turn back, so they must charge ahead. But that does not necessarily mean that the conflict starts here.
“You know, I hear a lot about writers struggling through the second act of a screenplay,” said Bryan Young, a screenwriter, and journalist who writes for popular blogs over at SyFy.com, HowStuffWorks.com, and StarWars.com. “[If] you have a problem with your second act, you probably have a problem with your first act. Look at how you’ve set everything up.”
Many writers make the mistake of saving conflict or secrets for later in their script, rather than getting to it right away in act one, then using act two to escalate things. Screenwriter William C. Martell calls it the Golfing Goat Rule.
“If your movie is about a farmer with a goat that learns how to golf, and plays in the PGA, you can’t hold the secret of the goat golfing until page 25, because the poster shows Gerdie the Golfing Goat, there’s the trailer that shows the goat golfing against Tiger Woods, all of that stuff is given away to the audience,” Martell said in an interview with Film Courage. “So, you can’t hold that back. Instead, you’ve got to basically hit the ground running with the goat golfing. And you go, ‘well, that has to happen deep in the story.’ Well, that only has to happen deep in the story if then nothing much else happens. Instead, you need to have that happen upfront and then keep escalating the golfing until, I don’t know, the goat’s golfing with the president.”
That escalation typically comes in the form of conflict – and not just one.
“As you’re coming in through your act one turn, you want to make sure that what your character is doing is taking steps to accomplish their goal that fail repeatedly,” Young told us. “Is your character trying, and failing, and then have to try something bigger, and failing that, and trying something even larger, and then failing that until they get to the climax? You need to make sure that you’re raising the stakes in your second act with those try-fail cycles.”
If you’re still struggling, there are some steps you can take to workshop yourself through your second act, according to story consultant Em Welsh in her guide to writing act two.
- Explore Side Characters in Act 2
Use the second act to develop the characters in your script other than your hero. Use your side characters to draw out flaws in your protagonist, show how your character interacts with others, or make things harder for your hero.
- Create More Problems in Act 2
Think about what your character wants most. Now, list ten ways to keep them from getting what they want, then use those scenarios that will fit your storyline best and will create the most tension in act two. Don’t go so easy on your main character. Add conflict. Often writers are afraid to add conflict because it will get messy, but we need to get into it! Things need to continue to get worse. Don’t hold off conflict until act two. Light the fuse in act one and let there be a chain reaction of explosions in act one.
- Develop the Character’s Internal Struggle in Act 2
What is your character dealing with internally? We should know the internal struggle in act one, so you can leverage that struggle to create problems for your character and get in the way of them achieving their goal in act two.
- Divide Act 2 into Two Parts
Act two is long, so it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Divide your second act into act 2A and act 2B to break up the haul. In act 2A, your character has passed the point of no return, but may still be in denial about it. In act 2B, which occurs after the midpoint, your hero takes control, and by the end of act 2b, suffers the worst defeat of all.
“And if that still doesn’t work, make sure you look at your first act and see what’s wrong with what you’ve set up, what promises you’ve made the audience that you’re not paying off,” Young concluded.
See you in act three,