Act II – Asking The Narrative Question

Robert Peluso from Script Magazine explains why one of the reasons that the second act sags in the the second act in many stories is that the writer loses sight of the narrative question and central theme the story explores.

It’s a challenge, to prevent that notorious “Act II sag”—to generate enough obstacles, reversals, sub-plots, character development, sharp dialogue, and the like, to carry the story through from beginning to end.

Perhaps because the process of writing Act I, those first enthused 30-or-so pages, has all the thrill and charms of falling in love. That’s because you are: you’re falling in love with the story you want to tell, with the characters you’re creating…. But then…? You’re in love. You’re committed. Now what?

There’s a secret to successfully framing Act II. It’s called the NARRATIVE QUESTION. Most usually (we’re talking traditional film here—not mumblecore, not avant garde), Act II presents a predicament that will be answered with “yes” or “no” by the end of Act II.

The Narrative Question, or, put another way, the Protagonist’s Main Objective, mustbepositive. By positive, we don’t mean the protagonist must want to save the orphanage kiddies from leprous goblins; we mean the Goal must be “PRO-SOCIAL”. It must be something the audience would like to see happen. The audience, after all, is giving you its time to hear your story. Why would people root for your main character if you’re working to give them something they don’t want?

Imagine the Narrative Question for a spec about a first-date: “Will the Loathsome Lothario successfully manipulate and seduce the naive young girl by the end of the night?” We don’t want that to happen. “Will the Loathsome Lothario discover True Love and be redeemed by the virtuous, irresistible young woman?” That we might be interested to see. It’s all in how you frame Act II.

The frame, or Narrative Question, will emerge from the spirit of the piece, which emerges from the spirit of the protagonist.

Your audience has to feel you’re one of them, one of their society—that you value what they value. Which validates them. And their beliefs. At least in the West, people have always paid good money to watch their beliefs validated and reflected back at themselves in an entertaining way.


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