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The second act

How to construct the second act of a screenplay. What happens and how is it portrayed.

Taking over from the first act

In the first act we've done the setup. We've told the viewer about the world, the people, we have, simply, set the scene.

So there are three things the second act must do that are entirely connected with the first act:

  • Stick to the rules
  • Transition the protagonist
  • Set up the story for the conclusion

These all require explanation. Whatever rules we set up for the universe in act one must be followed. If the story is set in a totalitarian society then that's where act two happens as well. We begin the plot by transitioning the protagonist, this means that while the events of act one happened to the protagonist, in act two the protagonist starts to take control, things still happen to him, but now he fights back. Finally the motivation established in the first act has to build to the point where at the end of the second act the protagonist can see a resolution to the story.

How to transition

Good stories change the protagonist. In act one he's largely passive, in act two he becomes an active part of the plot, in act three he's overwhelmingly active, brushing aside attempts to thwart him. This transition happens entirely in act two. Ask yourself some questions about the protagonist.

  • What difficulties does he face?
  • How does he overcome them?
  • How does this change him?
  • What effect does it have on his motivation?
  • How does his motivation change the plot direction?
  • How does the new direction cause him new problems?

Then, of course, you go back to the beginning of the list and do it again for the next challenge he faces. Motivation is important. His actions have to be in line with his motivation, if his motivation changes then his choices will change as well.

So obviously we now have a neat little definition of how the structure of act two works, but we've missed something important.

The antagonist

In act two the antagonist is also active and is trying to stop the protagonist. The story reflects this. It isn't essential that the antagonist's motivation and character change through the second act, in fact it can be the relentless, stubborn, inflexible conduct of the antagonist that drives the story and the transition of our hero.

The antagonist will have a chance to change, probably, at some point, but that change can be imposed upon him in act three, if necessary.

So, what does the antagonist do? Well here we come to a problem with teaching people to write screenplays...

The twists and turns

While act one has great similarities from script to script, act two is much less rigid. In this part of the story there are things to do, but how they're done is genuinely different from tale to tale.

Here's the general method:

  • Protagonist does something
  • Antagonist tries to prevent it
  • Protagonist changes behaviour to overcome the obstacle

or

  • Antagonist does something
  • Protagonist tries to prevent it
  • Antagonist tries to force it through over the obstacle

This mechanism is collectively described as conflict. Conflict is the driving force behind act two, it's also the plot events that will drive the creation of dialogue, character choices and motivations. Conflict can be intellectual, physical, emotional, imaginary, you name it, nonetheless it is essential and in act two there should be some reference to conflict on every page.

Ending act two

Act two carries the plot forward until it can hand off to act three. What happens at that handover?

The critical thing is that at this point the protagonist and antagonist have reached the point where they can see their goal, success and failure are hinged at a single event, finally the hero and villain have their climactic showdown and everything is at stake. If their lives aren't on the line, if they aren't both taking a great risk, if there's nothing at stake then the story simply won't engage. Ask yourself:

  • Is everyone risking something?
  • Does everyone have something to gain?
  • How will the events of act two prepare the protagonist

Once all that's settled you can move on to act three.


"A wide screen just makes a bad film twice as bad."

Samuel Goldwyn