Posted by: steveonfilm | April 9, 2012

Meat and Potatoes

Act two is largely regarded as the hardest part of a screenplay to write. It’s the meat and potatoes of the story. Once things are set up in act one, it’s act two that makes us give a shit about what’s happening. It’s act two that makes us care about these characters. It’s act two where alliances are made and rivalries tear people apart. Act two is the glue that holds the beginning and the end together.

You can’t fake your way through act two. You can try. But you’re going to lose your audience. Even if you have the most ridiculously amazing third act twist and payoff, it won’t matter if people stop reading at page 65. Act two is usually where people “fail” at screenwriting.

I’ve been lucky so far. I’ve never really had too much of an issue with my second acts. I’m not saying they’ve all been home runs (or any of them for that matter), but from a technical sense I never had a huge problem writing them. And I’ve never had someone tell me that my second acts were boring. My problem was that my writing never moved past “slightly above average,” and if you’re trying to impress people, “slightly above average” doesn’t cut it.

Of course, if I’m writing about how easy writing act two has been for me in the past, obviously I’m having a problem with it now. And man am I ever.

I really believe in my current project. I’ve got a solid first act plotted out. I’ve got a solid ending. But this middle is driving me crazy. I’ve gotten close to completing an outline for my second act three times, but each time when I’m almost there I stop, because something just feels… wrong. And when something feels wrong, that’s because it usually is.

I’ve been stumped with how to move forward. I keep exploring different tangents of my story, and various plots that rise and fall with how exciting and interesting they seem. This hasn’t been a total waste of time either. Each story that I’ve almost finished has taught me more and more about my lead character, and several of the supporting characters. Thus, when I do get around to actually writing, I’ll have a level of confidence in my first draft that I’m not always able to bring to the table.

However, none of what I might be able to do in the future is helping me out right now. While asking a few friends for help, I got a solid suggestion from someone that I was too dumb to think of myself:

“Pick a few of your favorite movies and really study what’s so fun about their second acts. It’s shouldn’t be hard. Just think of a few of your favorite movie moments, and nine times out of ten they happen in the second act.”

It was a good suggestion. And after spending a good half hour thinking about it, I realized my friend was right. With few exceptions, most all of the favorite quotes, action scenes, and moments from my favorite moves all occur in act two.

I’m going to spend the next few days watching some movies and taking note to how they plot, plan, and play out act two. I’m especially going to pay attention to how they connect to things set up in act one. Because I’m a firm believer that if you set up things properly in the beginning, you won’t have a problem with the rest…

Wait… maybe me problem is actually with the beginning?

Damn, more stuff to think about…

Keep writing,



  1. Seems to me it’s a structure issue. Of course, I’m a formalist ‘hammer,’ so every problem looks like a structure ‘nail’ to me. But still. From my own failures and frustrations, I feel like Act II problems are almost always structure-related. Happy to talk it out with you.

    • I’m not sure I’m at a point where I can say that structure is a problem. I think it’s just with the middle part of the story itself. I’m not sold that what I’m trying to put together yet is the thing I actually want to tell, if that makes any sense. It’s like, you know you want a sandwich, and you can picture how satisfied you’ll be after you eat it, but you can’t settle on the type of sandwich you want to make.

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