The Act 2 Wilderness

Act two is a complicated mess of possibilities, so it’s good to know where your coming from and where you are going.  The first act curtain should fall as your main character commits to his quest and passes a threshold from which there is no turning back.  The second act curtain should fall when he is taken to his lowest point.  He is close to the final stage and yet he is dealt one more setback or given a twist of fate or a change in direction that will lead to the third act climax.  In between those breaks is a wilderness.  and it’s important to keep up the pace, keep it interesting and make ends meet.

In a way, you can think of the beginning of the second act as a new first act.  It has parallels.  Where act one shows you the protagonist’s ordinary world, act two introduces a new world that he must discover and become accustomed to.  There is an introductory period where the rules of this world are established, whether it’s John Carter figuring out how to walk on Mars, or Ariadne learning how to be the architect of a dream in Inception.  New characters are also introduced here, such as a romantic interest, or a side kick if they have not yet been established.

A good rule of thumb, when considering the length of your script, is that one page is roughly equal to one minute on-screen.  Two hours (120 pages) is still fairly standard for a feature.  Many movies have been made needlessly longer than that and contain a good deal of filler that ought to have been cut.  Even very short films have the same problem with filler, though, while some three-hour films are the perfect length.  The key is not length, but content.  As a writer it’s best to avoid empty dialogue and unnecessary scenes and try to stay on target, but you also want to flesh out your story.  It’s better to have to trim it down than stretch it out.  It might be difficult to get a feel for the pacing, the way an editor can determine with film, but the story should always be interesting and keep moving forward.  Always try to keep your reader turning the pages.  Don’t give an excuse to put the script down.

In a 120 page script the second act will make up about 60 pages.  It will contain the bulk of the journey and the escalating action.  Based on your third act breakdown, you probably have some idea of plot points that need to be accomplished and ideas that must be explored, as well as some natural sources of conflict that will need to be included.  This is a great starting point for mapping out your act two journey.  There are also some natural steps in drama that are fulfilled here in the second act.  After the new world and rules are established there will be a turning point, that can happen anywhere in the second act.  It’s preferable to have it nearer the center of your script than the end of act two, because it tends to become more a part of the story and seem less like an afterthought.  Wherever you include it it’s that pivotal point in the script where your character’s quest is refined and the inevitable begins to come into view.  The turning point is not necessarily a transparent indicator of what’s to come, but it should coordinate with the climax, so that the ending will be satisfactory and nicely round out the story.  In Jaws the Orca is attacked during the night and the hull is breached causing the ship to begin sinking.  This turn of events heightens the drama, while simultaneously adjusting your expectations of what is going to happen.

In the hero’s journey your hero will have a moment called seizing the sword, which is often literally the acquisition of a sword that is meant to help him complete the journey.  It can also be a symbolic sword manifesting as some tool, or strategy that is likely to lead to success, although things rarely go according to plan.  It’s not a cheat for your hero, It’s rarely even an advantage, but something necessary to level the playing field.  another important point is the inmost cave.  Sometimes a trap, sometimes a retreat, but it is a time of solitude and introspection that the character must go through before moving on to act three.  In the second act alone there should be about six sequences of rising and falling action that will result in an act break and lead to the set up for the final battle.  There are twelve sequences in all which will help us as we dig deeper into our stories and work out the details.

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2 thoughts on “The Act 2 Wilderness

  1. Pingback: D&D: Decisions and Destiny | cinetactical

  2. Pingback: Turning point: Story to Script | cinetactical

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