Ah, the dreaded Second Act, an enemy of nearly every screenwriter. Its double the length of your First and Third Acts yet inherently less memorable than either of them. And, why shouldn’t it be? Your First Act offers an introduction to your characters and the world they inhabit. Everything is fresh and new for both you and the reader. Meanwhile, the Third Act provides closure. It houses the ending you’ve always been working towards. The moment when ET is finally able to go home, when Keyser Söze’s true identity is revealed or, more recently, the moment when Thanos snaps his fingers and eradicates half the world. Still, if the First Act is a cocktail hour and the Third Act is dessert, then your Second Act is the main course.
The Second Act is where the bulk of your story takes place. It’s the section of your script where the protagonist faces his or her problems head on and experiences false victories, temporary defeat, and great change. It is also home to your major subplots. The key to a good Second Act is to keep things moving briskly but that can be easier said than done. Many writers will admit to getting lost in the weeds of their Second Act, which in turn throws off the pacing of their entire script in. Below are some tips to help write your way out.
One of the main tenets of the First Act is the Inciting Incident. The Inciting Incident upends the protagonist’s reality. So, as you begin your Second Act, the first thing you need to do is set them on their path. What is his or her goal and/or intention? What is the journey we, as an audience, are about to watch them embark on? A good example of this comes from the recent comedy THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME. In the film, Mila Kunis’ character learns that her ex-boyfriend ended their relationship to protect her from his clandestine lifestyle but distancing himself wasn’t enough. He’s murdered by enemy spies, leaving her in possession of an important trophy that needs to get to Vienna. Now what? Up until this point, Kunis’ character is passive and content to let life pass her by. She works as a check out girl at Trader Joe’s and doesn’t appear to have any real goals. But, the sacrifice of her lover and the gravity of the circumstances inspire her to fly to Europe and insure the trophy is delivered safely.
The Second Act goal should be specific and clearly defined by page 30 of your screenplay, at the latest. On the face of things, it should seem easy to achieve. Although, of course, we know it won’t be. The Second Act goal is also the first step towards the Global Goal: the actual change your protagonist will undergo over the course of the entire screenplay and/or the thing they ultimately want in their heart of hearts. To keep with the THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME, Mila’s character needs to learn to take charge and be responsible for herself. Her Global Goal is to find her purpose in life. Taking the trophy to Vienna proves to be much more difficult than she expected, and she is thrown head first into a government conspiracy. But this very experience helps her uncover how capable she truly is and in turn convinces her that she has what it takes to be a spy herself.
Because the Second Act is so long, it can sometimes to be easier to think of it in terms of halves with the Turning Points as the mile markers. The first Turning Point should come directly at the midpoint of your script, roughly around page 50. This turn will offer either a False Victory or a False Defeat. Regardless of which way you choose to go, the Turning Point should heighten the stakes of the film and provide your protagonist with an opportunity to reflect on the status quo. The first Turning Point will directly thwart the Second Act goal, thus propelling the story in a new direction.
When the protagonist seems to have completed their mission only to have the rug pulled out from under them. Their win (or victory) wasn’t really a win at all. Instead, success is now further off than ever before. A textbook example of a False Victory is THE WIZARD OF OZ. After spending the first half of the film trying to find the elusive Wizard and return home to Kansas, Dorothy finally makes her way to the palace only to be only to be told that she needs to attain the Wicked Witch of the West’s broom, before the Wizard will grant her request.
Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz
When the protagonist takes a loss and appears to hit rock bottom, only to learn that there is more trouble on the way. A classic example of the False Defeat is JURASSIC PARK, which sees the T-Rex appear on screen for the first time and almost eat the children at the direct midpoint of the film.
The second turning point is the All Is Lost moment (also referred to as The Low Point). This turning point will come somewhere between page 80 and 90, depending on the length of your screenplay. The hero is at an all-time low; emotionally and physically depleted, they can no longer see a light at the end of the tunnel. The stronger the All is Lost moment is the better you set yourself up for a memorable Third Act.
Take, for example, STAR WARS. Luke and the rebellion have suffered throughout the film but victory seems possible… and then Darth Vader kills Obi Wan. It’s a gutting moment for the viewer and for Luke, but it makes the eventual destruction of the Death Star that much more meaningful. Likewise, in IRON MAN, Tony Stark has the electromagnet ripped out of his chest and faces death but this low point reminds him that he is Iron Man without any of the fancy tech, and allows him to evolve/achieve his Global Goal in Act Three.
A final element of the Second Act, which is integral to opening up the world of your story, is introducing subplots and fleshing out secondary characters. There is very little time in Acts One and Three to spend on anyone other than the protagonist but you have that luxury here. To circle back to some of our earlier examples, the Second Act of THE WIZARD OF OZ is the part of the film were we get to know the personalities and desires of the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man. It is also in the Second Act of STAR WARS that we first meet Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Approaching the Second Act of your screenplay can often leave you feeling like you’re experiencing your own All is Lost moment. The sheer idea of writing sixty pages’ worth of plot can be daunting for even the most successful writers. But, if you work the steps and have a solid outline, that can make things exponentially easier. Remember that as much as you’d like to get the end of your screenplay and wrap everything up in a neat bow, you first need to lay the foundation to do that in a satisfactory way.