The Sagging Second Act – The Silent Killer Of Your Script

Writing a great screenplay is a lot like a hot date. You have to enter and exit at the right time… Starting too late, peaking to early, vacillating in the middle can ruin your night… It’s got to be timed just right. You can’t go hammer and tong before you’ve finished your wine and there’s no point sitting at the dinner table after your meal is finished. Know when it’s time to dim the lights, sprawl on the sofa, play a tune and… write your second act. My, it’s getting warm in my office.

In my previous posts, I likened a movie script to a flight. The first act is the take off, the second act is the main flight after the aircraft has levelled off and the final act is the landing. The second act is the longest of the acts, so it’s easy to lose your way. Given that most screenwriting paradigms define the second act as occurring between pages 30 and 80 with little further guidance, no wonder we drift.

Syd Field describes two pinches that occur on pages 45 and 75.  These are targetted plot beats designed inject a crucial shot of caffeine into your story before your audience has a chance to yawn. If there’s logical character motivated action, the audience will follow. From a dramatic viewpoint, the second act is when the character faces the most hurdles and confrontation, there are plot complications, twists and reversals, leading to their lowest ebb at the end of the second act.

At around page 55, the midpoint occurs. This is analogous to the main tent pole holding your story together. Up until this point, the main character’s internal conflict is defined, and after initial resistance to confront it, they are forced to take decisive action and pushed to breaking point. The midpoint signifies a seismic shift in attitude and a peak in emotional energy.

Between the midpoint and the end of the second act, the main character pursues their quest with new found knowledge, tools, skills and confidantes. The opposition rises until they reach their metaphorical death at the end of the second act, when they shed their old skin and proceed into their new world in act three in a renewed state, having resolved their main issues.

So why does the second act get boring? Because we get episodic. Lazy writers write a series of inconsequential scenes to get to end of the second act rather than allowing the main character to drive the action in the face of rising action. Let it build up to a crescendo.

At this time, the subplots are also fleshed out to add dimension to the main story. These are often love stories by lazy default, but make sure they relate to the main character’s struggle and central theme in some way. Otherwise you run the risk of writing two concurrent stories.

If you’re writing action sequences according there should be a natural undulation every 8-10 minutes. Each sequence should end on a “hot button”, or action plot point. This writing device is used in all commercial television programmes to ensure viewers return after the commercial break. Ensure that these are organic to your story and not simply contrived explosions which are visually stimulating, but dramatically dull. There should be about 6-8 action sequences in your second act.

On a final note, ensure every scene advances the plot or reveals an essential aspect of character without repetition. Think of your character’s arc and you can’t go wrong.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Gerard O'Neill says:

    I’m writing a Sci Fi along a road not previously tread by other writers and so I can’t really look to other stories for guidance. Where i am in the story, has just been clarified and redirected toward my eventual destination at the beginning of my third act. Thankyou for that guidance as I had just decided to bring a character into the third act and needed a reason as to why I would choose to do so. You’ve just given me that reason.

  2. Nardz Belen says:

    It’s an enlightening article on the second act!
    Thanks!, Nardz Belen

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