CAUTION: Some minor spoilers for Get Out and Logan below.
by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
The first act of a script is often the most fun to write. You get to build worlds, construct characters and their backstories, and set up the conflicts and troubles that await your protagonist. The end of the script can also be exciting to craft. The final showdown you’ve waited the entire story to unleash, the redemption you’ve been waiting to have your character experience, and the killer monologue your character gets to voice are just a few of the elements that might await you once you’ve closed the book on the first two acts of your story.
Gurus have offered a number of different ideas about how the second act can be created. Michael Hague has suggested it be sliced into two separate acts. Blake Snyder offered a number of different beats that could occur during the window, including fun and games, midpoint, and dark night of the soul. The possibilities can be endless.
While there’s certainly no formula to what makes a strong second act, there are a number of different methods to untangling the story when it seems to be going nowhere, or even worse – feels stuck. Here are four methods that might propel things into forward motion.
1. THE REVEALED REVERSAL
Reversals are powerful tools that can be used at a number of different points in your story. However, the second act is a prime location to issue a revelation to your protagonist that will result in a change of plans or fortunes. It may or may not affect the external goal that your character is chasing, but it should definitely affect how she goes about achieving it.
In Mad Max: Fury Road, Furiosa spends the first half of the story trying to get to the Green Place. When she does finally arrive near the midpoint of the story, it is no longer there. The reversal results in a change of plans and a new goal for her and her team. In Get Out, Chris Washington learns that the parents of his girlfriend are not really the people they claimed to be. His goal shifts from getting closer to them to getting away from them. In Logan, it is revealed that Eden, the place our hero has been tasked with delivering a little girl to, is actually part of a comic book tale. The revelation cleverly leads to an even greater reveal in the third act.
2. THE UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITY
Some people love surprises. Others hate them. Regardless of how your protagonist feels about them, they are a part of life, and often a part of good storytelling. Dropping something unexpected in your character’s lap during the second act can be a way of taking the plot in an unexpected direction.
Mia is offered the chance of a lifetime in the second act of La La Land. Ironically, the opportunity may cost her what she has come to love most. In Moonlight, Chiron is invited to act on the feelings he has had for a lifetime. The opportunity also comes at great cost for him. The third act results of his opportunity turn out much different than they do for Mia, but life is forever changed by the opportunity given to both characters in this crucial section of the story.
In both Room and Green Room our protagonists are given unexpected opportunities to escape the prisons they have found themselves in. Again, the results of these opportunities vary greatly in each story. For some characters, it leads to a better life, and for others it results in death.
3. GOING ALL IN
The second act of your story often allows the protagonist to go “all in” on the tentative decision they may have made early in the story to involve themselves in what turns out to the be the plot. Seeing a protagonist put themselves at greater risk, physically or emotionally, usually causes a greater level of empathy in the mind of the audience.
In Manchester By the Sea, Lee Chandler is thrown into caring for his nephew, Patrick. Over the course of the second act, we see him truly embrace the situation, and actually decide to care for the boy. In Arrival, Louise Banks is given the opportunity to decipher the language of an alien species. In the second act, the task takes on a greater emotional resonance and drives her to greater success.
Conor dyes his hair and stands up to the bully that has made his life hell throughout the first half of Sing Street. This commitment to his art and a different life symbolizes the heights that he is now motivated to. Similarly in Lion, Saroo takes his questions about his family of origin to new planes of commitment in the second act. He goes “all in” to find them.
4. THE PREPARATION
Sometimes, our protagonists must learn life lessons and go through preparation for the final challenge that awaits them at the end of the story. These moments can make for a powerful second act. They may experience formalized training, difficult defeats, or near-misses at what they crave. What becomes key is that the protagonist changes and develops over the course of the experience.
In Rogue One, Jyn is given the necessary team and skills she needs to accomplish her mission at the film’s conclusion. A less-than-perfect singer trains her heart out for the concert of a lifetime in the second act of Florence Foster Jenkins. She never achieves perfection, but does accomplish powerful triumphs along the way. In Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss must stand his ground in the trials of the second act so that he can take the ultimate stand required in the third. The preparation a character receives makes all the difference in the believability of their victory in the finale.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.