Screenwriting 101 – Clean Up Your Act: The Key To A Good Middle

Image credit: NYFA

By Brock Cooper (DoddleNews)

When was the last time you watched a movie which had a great beginning and amazing ending, but lagged in the middle? That middle is Act 2 and for many writers is the hardest area to master. A screenplay is all about pacing and going too fast or too slow can ruin everything. Pushing people at breakneck speed towards Act 3 may end up making the resolution pale by comparison, but too slow and you’ll lose your audience.

If Act 1 is the appetizer and Act 3 is the dessert, then Act 2 is the main course – meat and potatoes. This is the journey the protagonist takes from inciting incident to final resolution. Here are some key aspects that will help make your Act 2 a hit.

Tension and Change

The key to Act 2 is to begin tension at the very beginning that continues to the end and having the protagonist change because of this tension. The tension could be action-oriented, such an impending calamity or a time limit on a hostage situation. It can be emotional, such as a man trying to woo back his ex-girlfriend before she gets married, etc.

Tension is always driving the protagonist to the final conflict and resolution. The protagonist begins the act with a situation where he makes a firm decision to move to the resolution, but you’ve got about 60 pages to show how he does it. The protagonist has to go through trials and tribulations, ultimately coming to his lowest point. Writers will sometimes lose focus while telling the story and miss out on creating the tension.

The character must also change between Act 1 and Act 3. The protagonist begins the journey ill-equipped to physically, emotionally or even financially succeed. The trials allow the character to grow all the while he’s being beaten down. For many writers, their protagonists are their favorite characters and don’t want to bring him low, but if you want the resolution to mean something, then they have to be brought low, so they can come back up.

The Midpoint

A crucial aspect that many writers miss in Act 2 is the concept of the midpoint. If you cut Act 2 into halves, the midpoint splits the two and is a moment of total shock. Act 2 is like a thunderstorm that you see in the distance and the midpoint is when that storm finally hits. It’s a torrential downpour filled with thunder and lightning that knocks you off your feet.

This is where things ramp up and your protagonist now realizes that if he’s going to reach his resolution, he has to act now. Let’s take Titanic as an example. The midpoint is where Leo and Kate have sex and then the ship hits the iceberg. Their love is solidified and now they have to get off this ship before it sinks if they are going to have a life together. If you want your story to succeed, then you need to have one hell of a midpoint.

Shifting Focus

Many times the antagonist is so much more fun to write about than the good guy. The antagonist has no morals and can do all the things your protagonist wants to do, but can’t. He’s the bad guy and everyone loves to hate the bad guy. It’s easy to shift focus from your protagonist to the antagonist. Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter was awesome, but Agent Starling was the protagonist. You can’t forget that while Lector is a great character, the emphasis must be placed on Starling. When you shift the focus away from the main character, you’re shifting the focus of your story.

The Low Point

The end of Act 2 and the transition to Act 3 is the low point. I talked earlier about bringing your protagonist down low so he can come back and this is it. If you want your third act to have the punch and excitement that you need, then you need to beat, break and bowl over your main character. He has to think the world’s about to end. How many boxing movies have the main character getting beaten to a pulp over and over again until he’s sitting in his corner with his eyes swollen shut and everyone is telling him to throw in the towel? This is the low point. Does he throw in the towel? No. He comes back and knocks the guy out.

Act 2 is by far the most difficult part of a screenplay. Keep your tension up and your hero low and you’ll be ready for Act 3.

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