This blog post from the popular blog Go Into the Story discusses what the second act of your screenplay should achieve. Take a look:
Many writers have trouble with their script’s middle part. Either they get confused and lost to the point where they drop the project out of frustration, or if they do succeed in getting through, the pages come off as a string of episodic events with no coherency to them, no build-up to a big All Is Lost Act Two end.
This is a big reason why I’m such a proponent of the Protagonist metamorphosis arc (Disunity to Unity), a dynamic we see at work in movie after movie. I’ll speak more on that later, but in terms of the story’s middle, let’s consider Deconstruction and Reconstruction.
Broadly speaking, the Protagonist emerges from Act One in a state of full-blown Disunity. Typically they will have a Want (a conscious goal), but are either unconscious of a deeper need or aware of it and actively repressing it. In general, the way they have been living in their ‘ordinary world’ established in the story’s beginning is to stitch together a semblance of a viable existence through a variety of coping skills and defense mechanisms, but there is at the core of their being something real and powerful and authentic from which, for whatever reason, they are in essence disconnected. Hence the term Disunity.
In the first half of Act II (Deconstruction), events occur which assault the Protagonist’s preexisting modes of behavior. Furthermore, as they move out of their ordinary world into the extraordinary world of adventure, the Protagonist is unsure of the rules and the new personalities they are meeting along the way, who they can or can’t trust. The challenges in the first part of the story’s middle, often involving attacks on the Protagonist’s physical self, are seemingly a ‘negative’, but in fact, the cumulative effect of the events is to batter the Protagonist’s status quo, forcing them to open up, allowing that authentic part of their self from which they had been disconnected to emerge into the light of day (consciousness). This is accompanied by a sense of growth and empowerment.
In the second part of the story’s middle (Reconstruction), the Protagonist moves from reactive to active, tapping into their newly found power, and in fits and starts using it to begin constructing a ‘new’ self. As they gain experience, they move toward joining their external (Want) and internal (Need) selves. The All Is Lost moment at the end of Act Two sets the Protagonist back on their heels, yanking them away from their goal, doubly upsetting because they had come so close to achieving ‘victory’.
Now look at these previous two paragraphs: Don’t they present a coherent plot? Don’t they build to a dramatic ending? Don’t they sound like a big middle of a story? And these are generic concepts, not the specifics of this or that Protagonist’s journey.
Not all stories follow this paradigm, but most of them do. If your story’s middle is more like a muddle, feeling either confused, inconsequential, or both, go deeper into your Protagonist and look for psychological elements there that can become the basis of their metamorphosis, where Act Two can be about Deconstruction and Reconstruction.