What can screenwriters do to write compelling second acts within their screenplays?
In the end, every cinematic story has a three-act structure — a beginning, middle, and end. This has been the story structure followed by humanity since the days of telling stories around the village fire or etching cave paintings on stone walls depicting worthy stories of hunting for prey (beginning), confronting the prey (middle), and defeating the prey (end).
The three-act structure in cinema is the most basic and pure structure that most films follow, no matter what gurus and pundits say.
There is the setup, the confrontation, and the resolution. Four-act structures, five-act structures, and the seven-act structures for television movies — as well as many other variations — are just additions to the core three-act structure.
Even screenplays that utilize unique and original structures can usually be broken down into three acts.
And here's the thing — when you embrace the basic three-act structure for your screenplay, you're offering perhaps the most accessible story design for audiences.
- Each scene matters.
- Each scene progresses directly to the next, carrying the story's momentum forward in a natural progression — void of excess.
- There is the setup of the character and their world. (Beginning)
- A conflict presents itself that characters are either forced to face or choose to take on — and they do just that while failing and learning from their mistakes (Middle).
- And then we're led to the resolution where they overcome the conflict or succumb to it. (End)
Movies like Star Wars, The Fugitive, Witness, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Die Hard are perfect examples of the three-act structure. Anyone, in retrospect, can apply varying degrees of guru philosophy and beat sheets to each of them. Still, in the end, those types of stories showcase true beginnings, middles, and ends with constant forward progress as every scene builds towards the finale.
But the most challenging aspect of the three-act structure is the middle (Second Act).
Why Is The Middle of a Screenplay So Difficult to Write?
Beginnings and Endings are easy — and the most enjoyable to conjure and write.
Writers have been trained to focus on creating exciting opening hooks, moments, scenes, and sequences in the first few pages of screenplays. It's fun to conceptualize engaging ways to capture the attention of script readers and audiences.
They've also been advised to create masterful endings that shock and surprise people as well — or, at the very least, give compelling conclusions.
But hardly anyone talks about the most challenging part — the Middle.
The Middle of the script is where most novice screenwriters falter. Why?
- Character and story arcs arc the most in the second act after the conflict has been introduced.
- More creative plotting needs to be accomplished to get us to the end.
- Screenwriters have to craft twists, turns, and misdirects to engage the audience (see below).
Most spec scripts suffer in the middle because the concepts lack substance (and some are gimmicks rather than concepts), and the front-end work of story and character development wasn't done.
The middle portions of spec scripts are often dull and one-note — seeming to rush things to the otherwise exciting endings. Or the writers languish in the middle as things slow down with bad exposition in place of story and character development.
Beginnings and Endings are thought of as the fun elements of writing a screenplay — while the Middle is considered to be what screenwriters fear most.
But it doesn't have to be that way. If you know and understand how you can master the Middle of your script, you'll see that the Middle is actually where the magic truly happens — and where the fun of writing comes out the most.
How to Master the Middle of Your Screenplay
Here we present some simple elements that you can inject into the middle of your script to keep things moving for script readers and audiences. Believe it or not, writing compelling and engaging second acts is easier than you'd think.
1. Start the Second Act Early
If you're ending the first act on page 30, you're already starting to lose the script reader. Slow-burn scripts don't really have a place in the spec script market. Save those for when you've established yourself with some hits (or are a talented auteur).
While the second act is considered by many to be the dreaded portion of your script, it's time to reprogram yourself to rethink that. And the first step you take in that direction is to get out of the first act as quickly as possible.
- Hook us with an engaging visual, scene, or sequence in the opening few pages (somewhere between 1-3).
- Introduce your protagonist in their ordinary world within those first few pages so we can get an idea of their comfort zones and where they've come from, which will help you in the second act.
- And then have them face the central conflict of the concept within the first ten pages if possible.
Note: Again, spec scripts differ from what we see from the master screenwriters and directors in movie theaters. You need to catch the script reader early. And you need to entice them to keep turning the pages. So while these directives may not jive with some of your favorite movies, you need to look at it from the context of you, an unknown screenwriter, trying to break through via an endless stack of screenplays that script readers (interns, assistants, agents, managers, script readers, development executives, producers, directors, etc.) face each week.
Once the protagonist realizes the conflict at hand and has decided (or been forced) to confront it (knowingly or unknowingly), the second act is in full motion, and you're in the middle of your script.
2. Raise the Stakes Every Few Pages of Second Act
In Jaws, it wasn't enough that a shark was terrorizing a local island community. That initial conflict would have gotten old. The script called for raising the stakes even more than the threat of a shark attack.
- The chief of police trying to stop it was afraid of the water.
- The threat was taking place during the tourist season, which meant the chief had to protect hundreds upon hundreds more.
- The mayor of the community didn't want the chief to close the beaches.
- When a shark was caught, hope was lost — it wasn't the shark they were looking for.
- The chief that was afraid of the water had to head out into the ocean to hunt down the shark.
- The boat they had wasn't big enough and began to sink after being attacked by the shark.
You have to continually inject more and more stakes and conflict in the second act every few pages. That creates a constant feeling of anticipation. It engages the script reader and makes them wonder how your characters will survive, conquer, or overcome. That is what also makes your script a true page-turner.
3. Inject Twists, Turns, and Misdirects
Your job as a screenwriter is to take the audience on a ride. It can be an emotional or entertaining ride — preferably both. And to accomplish that at a high level, you need to be able to balance the sharing and withholding of information. That's how you keep the audience guessing.
In the middle of your script, take the script reader down familiar story paths and turn that story in a completely different direction.
Watching movies is often a sport for movie lovers. And it's the same kind of sport for script readers (most of which are movie lovers). They challenge themselves to figure out the end before the end is even near.
But when you take them to unexpected places, that end destination becomes foggy. That's what gets them on the edge of their seats. One of the greatest and most undersung examples of this is the Paul Haggis thriller The Next Three Days, starring Russell Crowe.
If you watch the trailer, you think you know what to expect, which probably was the reason why few people showed up in theaters to watch it.
However, almost every single predictable setup in the film leads you somewhere you'd never thought they'd go. The script pulls you back and forth to the point where you feel this anxiety building as you need to know what will be revealed next.
This type of screenwriting builds anticipation for the third act — and the eventual conclusion of the story.
You can accomplish this in all genres as well:
4. Create Internal Conflict and Stakes for the Protagonist
Catharsis is a vital part of the cinematic experience. Script readers and audiences need to connect with the characters emotionally to walk away feeling somewhat changed by the experience of watching your characters deal with the conflict thrown at them. And this plays a big part in making the middle of your screenplay engaging.
It's great to have excellent external conflicts that we can see.
- Bombs to defuse
- Bad guys to kill
- Natural disasters to overcome
But there needs to be more.
It's not enough to have John McClane defeat the bad guys and save the hostages in Die Hard. We needed to see the inner conflict he has as he struggles to save not just the hostages and himself, but his wife and marriage.
If you examine our ways to explore the inner arc of your character, you'll see that your protagonist's internal arc is basically an emotional three-act structure.
Show them accepting their current fate and situation (Act 1), force them to come to a revelation about their inner feelings and emotions (Act 2), and then let them be content, knowing that they've figured something out about their life.
Follow that structure with your protagonist while adding an external arc that helps them reach inner conclusions about themselves. You'll create an empathetic and cathartic connection to the audience.
5. Know Your Ending
When writing novels, you have the freedom to let the ending come to you. You don't have the time, page, and story window constraints that screenplays have.
When you're writing a script, it's a blueprint for a film that will take hundreds of people for it to come to life and be consumed by others. Because of that, you need to adhere to general guidelines and expectations regarding the structure, page counts, and scope of your story.
When you know your ending, you can use it as a compass to guide you through your second act.
Your ending will dictate the stakes, elements of conflict, inner arcs of your characters, twists, turns, and misdirects necessary to create a masterful second act.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter's Creed starring Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O'Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico, as well as produced and upcoming Lifetime suspense thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies