This week's Answer:
That Wonderful Second Act of Oz
sorry. I was
what were you saying, Arnold?
I heard you. When you, the writer, find yourself yawning and losing
interest in your own screenplay, that’s not usually a
good sign. I
understand what you mean by feeling like you’ve got
really something going in your first act and then,
suddenly, realizing with an erudite awareness, you say to
yourself (and anybody else who is brave enough to be in
the same room with you when you write):
“What the he** happened?!”
And the answer comes thundering back at you with
resounding alacrity, that dependable voice from the inner
recesses of your creative being:
“I dun know.”
And you’re on your way.
Truthfully, what you’re most likely experiencing is
the dreaded and dreadful “second act slump.”
But don’t despair; it’s not incurable.
You do, however, need to be aware of this morass, a
definite swampy terrain, a quicksand that can sweep the
best of writers under, often never allowing them to regain
the initial height and brilliance they achieved in the
beginning of their opus (and opuses sink fast, I hear
harking back to your question, what should you do
about this? How
do you avoid this gaping pitfall?
Let’s look at this mathematically.
(Don’t run out of the classroom; this won’t
take long.) It’s
simple: If (a+b+c)x
over y... I love to shake up algebraphobics.)
If we use the three-act paradigm and, just for
assumption’s sake, we assume that a script is 120 pages,
and further assume that the first act is 30 pages; and the
third act is the same (thank you, Syd Field), then just
look at the remaining pages that take up the second act:
60 pages. Sixty
pages! That’s a loooooong act.
Twice as long as the other acts.
You can fit Act I and Act III into Act II!
I’m sure you get the point.
No wonder so many screenplays lose their footing
path goes on and on (and on).
And you, the writer, must keep us awake and
involved so we don’t fall off it, or wander into some
briar patch, or just plop down on this path and take a
can’t let the bad witch of the north (or south, or
whatever evil direction she was from) to turn us into
instant narcoleptics by knocking us out with enchanted
poppies (although I could use a few of those to help me
sleep when I’m worried about having a worrisome second
act). No, you
must discover a way to propel your audience and you along
your own unique Yellow Brick Road (That’s enough Oz
don’t want to have my stuffing knocked out of me or lose
my oil can or be scared into crashing through a window or
be attacked by flying monkeys or be locked up in a castle
without a cell phone, unable to communicate with my aunt.)
The “bridge” that reaches across Act II (avoiding
that nasty Swamp of Boring Writing) must be built with the
mortar of conflict and the stones of obstacles—all held
together by that natural gravitational force:
main emotional relationship must be that of ours with the
protagonists as they encounter hardship and difficult
experiences that test their mettle and will eventually
somehow transform them.
Keeping with the three-act model, once you’ve set
up your story and introduced your protagonist and what
he/she is up against, you’re usually moving into the
second act, where you need to bring on the escalating
to give your second act some “shape,” normally right
about in the middle of it, your protagonist meets the peak
of the problems, making it appear as if all is lost
(or, at least, not looking very promising).
Then you move down the other side of Problem Hill
as your hero(ine) regains his/her strength and starts to
fight back hard. What
you’re seeking to achieve by the time you’ve reached
the end of your 60-or-so -- paged second act is some kind
of relieving of the aforementioned second-act tension,
which is a solving of the first main problem, which sets
up and/or leads into your third act with its new
that’s another e-mail.)
Your mission (if you choose to accept it) is to
come up with the most original, captivating, and
sympathetic way to do all this.
And, if it all seems too daunting, you could always
completely skip the second act, altogether, and move right
to Act III. Although,
that would have your protagonist thinking something like
I am; I have a problem; oh, unexpectedly I guess I
don’t; wait, yes, I do, and, suddenly out of nowhere, I
have this huge confrontation to take care of.”
You could do that.
Or you can just roll up your sleeves and jump right
in the Act II Pool (I guess you should have rolled up your
pants, too), and count your lucky stars that you’re not
writing a three-hour epic, which would demand that your
Act II would need to be 90 minutes!
Try that Yellow Brick Road.
(We’re off to see the Third Act...”)
Just don’t fall asleep along the way.
(And watch out for those flying monkeys.)