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This week's question: 

I start writing screenplays, which look good for a while, but as they get going, they get really boring.  What should I do?

Arnold from Vancouver


This week's Answer: 

That Wonderful Second Act of Oz

Zzzzzzzzzz.  Oh, sorry.  I was listening.  Now, 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 tell.).  So, 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 here.  The 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 snooze.  You 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 allusions.  I 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:  emotion.  The 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 problems.  And, 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 problem.  (But 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 this:   “Here 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.)

DcH


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