Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Courtney Meznarich

How to Make Writing Your Second Act Faster

I've written about how to get through second acts problems a few times now, and there's one thing that screenwriters always seem to have in common when they share advice on the topic:  

"Yeah, second acts suck."

I've yet to meet a writer that just loves writing the second act of their screenplay, and that includes Disney writer Ricky Roxburgh ("Big Hero 6: The Series," "Saving Santa," "Rapunzel's Tangled Adventure), whom I quote above. I asked him if he has any tips to get through second act challenges, and he began, "Oh god." So if you get the same feeling, you're not alone.

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"The reason second acts are intimidating is because they're twice as long as the other acts," he told me. "So, what I do is I compartmentalize my second act. I break it up into two different acts, so it's almost like, act 2A, act 2B."

I've heard of this trick before, but Ricky takes it a step further.

"Then I break each of those halves down, so I treat it like I'm writing a smaller script within that script, mentally, and that makes it a lot less intimidating," he said. "You can think about the beginning of the first half of your second act, and the beginning of the second half of your second act, in terms of like, ten pages here, ten pages there."  

The reason second acts are intimidating is because they're twice as long as the other acts. So, what I do is I compartmentalize my second act. I break it up into two different acts, so it's almost like, act 2A, act 2B. Then I break each of those halves down, so I treat it like I'm writing a smaller script within that script, mentally, and that makes it a lot less intimidating.
Ricky Roxburgh
Screenwriter

To make sure enough is happening in your second act, you can also use these elements, which Michael Schilf similarly outlines in an oldie-but-goodie post at The Script Lab:

Obstacles

I'm sure you've seen second acts that seemed like they just dragged on. To avoid this, make sure plenty is going on. The second act is all about obstacles. Each sequence should center on an obstacle that gets in the way of your protagonist reaching their goal, and those obstacles should get more and more extreme.

First Attempts

Your protagonist is set on their path and now needs to try to solve their problem. They'll probably try something easy at first, and of course, it fails.

Consequences of First Attempts

Whatever your protagonist tried before has only made matters worse.

B & C Plots

Bring in your subplots in your second act, which should intertwine with the central tension and reveal more of the protagonist's emotion.

First Culmination

The first culmination is in the middle of your movie. The protagonist has either tried something and experiences some success or their lowest low, depending on the genre.

Midpoint Mirror and Contrast

Keep in mind that your film's midpoint – whether that's a win or a loss – should be mirrored in the conclusion of your movie. Before the end of act two, you'll want to contrast whatever your midpoint was. If it was a victory, the contrast would be a failure and vice versa.

More Attempts

Now that the character knows what NOT to do, they'll attempt to solve the problem correctly.

Character Arc, Part 2

You established your character's flaw in act one, so in act two, make sure you include your character's attempt to overcome that flaw. Where is your character headed in their personal journey? This is the middle of that arc.

Main Culmination

The main culmination is the turning point where it looks like all is lost.

First Resolution

Your protagonist resolves that main culmination, but there's still one more step to get to their goal in act three, and act three begins …

"All of a sudden, it's not, 'oh my god, this is so long.' It's, 'oh my god, this is so short. How do I do this?'" Ricky said. "I think it makes your second acts more dynamic and less intimidating."

I feel better already,

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