Unlocking Act Two

For beginning screenwriters, the second act can be an intimidating challenge to face
down. If the prospect of filling 60 pages with tightly paced, well-plotted action causes
you to sweat, you aren’t alone.

It’s easy enough to think of a beginning, and even to imagine an exciting climax.
But what comes between the two?

In answer to that often-asked question, I present to you the Three Keys to Act Two:

  • Divide and Conquer
  • Subplots Create Depth
  • The Moment of Truth

Divide and Conquer

One secret that will make the task seem less onerous is to think of Act Two as being divided into two parts. This is also why many screenwriting gurus refer to a “Four-Act Structure”.

If you chop Act Two neatly down the middle, right about page 60 in a standard 120-page script, you are left with two smaller 30 page sections. If you approach these sections as proper acts in their own right, each with a beginning, middle, and climactic end, then you have a much clearer and easier structure to work with. These “subacts” will tend to break each half of the second act into three distinct “subsections” of approximately ten pages each.

The page 60 dividing line also presents you with a concrete goal to work towards as you write the first half of Act Two. This dividing line should also be represented by a defining event which neatly bisects the film into two distinct halves.

To illustrate, here is a breakdown of the second-act structure of Alien:

First 1/2
Subact 1: Science officer Ash attempts to cut the alien larva from Kane’s face, but the creature leaks acidic blood which burns through several decks.
Subact 2: The larva leaves Kane’s face, and is found to be dead. The lander leaves the planet.
Subact 3: An alien baby that has incubated inside Kane’s body bursts from his chest and hides somewhere in the ship.
Midpoint: The crew decides to hunt down the alien.
Second 1/2 – Bad Guys Close In
Subact 1: While searching for the alien, crewman Brett is killed by the creature, which has now grown much larger.
Subact 2: Dallas, the captain, attempts to hunt the alien down inside the ship’s duct system, but is killed.
Subact 3: Ripley, now in command, finds out the Company’s secret directive to preserve the alien at any cost. Ash, following the directive, attempts to kill Ripley, and is discovered to be an android.

Notice that now that the main body of the script’s action has been outlined, you can see that it it comprised of a series of distinctive events which break the story into definite blocks. When you are outlining your own stories, think of them in terms of these small blocks, or subacts, that are then used to build full-fledged acts, which are then used to build the entire story. This is the essence of the Divide and Conquer strategy. When you look at the story as a collection of small pieces, it becomes much less intimidating to assemble an entire screenplay.

As you can see, the structure of Alien is extremely straightforward, yet effective. The film, being more about situation than about character, is based upon a relentless series of irreversible actions. This makes for a taut, clockwork plot which hammers the story home.

A pointed feature of the Alien script is that the description is clipped, and the dialogue terse. Anything non-essential is stripped away in order to move the story forward.

Notably, Alien has no real subplots. (Arguably, Ash’s hidden agenda functions sort of like a subplot, but works more like a plot complication in its manifestation.)

Subplots Create Depth

What if your screenplay is a character piece, and based upon the emotional lives of the characters? This is where subplotting becomes crucial.

The structure of Jerry Maguire is unusual in that the subplot about Jerry and Dorothy’s relationship almost completely takes over the second half of Act Two. The main plot about Jerry’s struggles as an agent, shown through his management of Tidwell’s career, predominates the first half of Act Two, then lurks in the background until Act Three. Notice how the subplot parallels and intertwines with the plot.

First 1/2
Subact 1: After a vicious race between Jerry and rival agent Bob Sugar to secure clients, Jerry gets only a single athlete, football player Rod Tidwell, to sign with him.
Subplot 1: Dorothy Boyd, moved by his Mission Statement, quits the agency to join with Jerry.
Subact 2: Jerry gets Cushman, a hot draft pick, to verbally commit to him.
Subplot 2: Dorothy’s sister lectures her on taking financial risk by joining Jerry, when she has her son, Ray, to think of.
Subact 3: Jerry goes with Cushman and Tidwell to the football draft.
Subplot 3: Dorothy begins to realize that she has feelings for Jerry.
Plot Midpoint: Jerry discovers he has lost Cushman to Bob Sugar.
Subplot Midpoint: Jerry dumps his fiancée, Avery, making him available.
Second 1/2 – Bad Guys Close In (aka Forces of Opposition Increase)
Subact 1: Tidwell reaffirms his commitment to staying with Jerry.
Subplot 1: Jerry, drunk and feeling sorry for himself, arrives at Dorothy’s house for consolation. They kiss, but part on uncertain terms.
Subact 2: Tidwell gets a renegotiation offer that is too small.
Subplot 2: Jerry and Dorothy sleep together, and Dorothy declares to her sister her love for Jerry. Dorothy gets a job offer in San Diego, and prepares to move. Jerry, at a loss, proposes to her.
Subact 3: Tidwell has a rough game; his future looks uncertain.
Subplot 3: Jerry and Dorothy get married.

The main themes of Jerry Maguire are loyalty and intimacy. The plot illustrates the first theme through the ups and downs of his career:

  • Jerry’s Mission Statement is about how people (and loyalty to them) are more
    important than money.
  • Bob Sugar is completely disloyal to Jerry, and only cares about money.
  • Tidwell and Jerry each respect their loyalty to the other.
  • Cushman first commits to Jerry, but has no loyalty to him, and quickly sells out to Sugar.

The subplot shows Jerry’s struggle with intimacy through the tribulations of his love-life:

  • Avery makes Jerry uncomfortable with her brutal honesty, which she mistakes for real intimacy.
  • Jerry marries Dorothy because of her loyalty and his fear of being alone. He confuses her friendship with intimacy.
  • In contrast to Jerry and Dorothy’s uneasy marriage, Tidwell and his wife Marcee are the picture of comfortable intimacy.

There are two other subplots of note, which fulfill the important function of dimensionalizing Jerry and Dorothy:

  • Interaction between Jerry and Avery comprises its own tiny subplot-line, which in addition to the theme of loyalty, also touches on the issue of Jerry’s failing self-confidence by contrasting him with Avery’s unflinching überwoman personality.
  • Scenes with Dorothy’s sister and her women’s group comprise another small thematic subplot, that of a group of women whose bitter cynicism about love contrasts with Dorothy eternally hopeful romanticism.

In overview, it can be said that the main function of subplots is to reveal character. To do this, subplots:

  • Flesh out characters’ emotional lives.
  • Dimensionalize characters by showing how they interact with others.
  • Give characters a chance to reveal their thoughts and philosophies.

Effectively utilizing subplot can give you vivid and strong directions to take your story other than simply having one adventure after the next befall your characters. When creating subplots, tie them into larger themes to make an interrelated and resonant complete picture.

Moment of Truth

Right at the end of Act Two is typically when our main character’s situation is at its worst. All is in doubt, the chances of success look impossible, and the specter of failure rears its ugly head. It is at this Moment of Truth that the main character must face down their own inner demons in order to confront the actual demons waiting for them in the third act. This Moment is structurally crucial, because it sets up the consequences that lead to the final conflict and climax in Act Three.

Following are several Moments, and the irreversible Consequences they lead to.

The Moment: The remaining crew decide to self-destruct the ship, and escape in the shuttle.
Consequence: Ripley is the only one to survive the get to the escape shuttle, but she unknowingly launches with the alien aboard.
Clockwork Orange
The Moment: Alex, out of prison, has been rejected by his parents and beaten by his old friends, who, ironically, have become police.
Consequence: Alex seeks aid at the very house owned by a writer who he and his friends previously assaulted, and whose wife they raped.
Jerry Maguire
The Moment: Jerry argues with Tidwell, telling him he plays with his head and not with his heart, and Tidwell tells Jerry he doesn’t want to be friends anymore.
Consequence: Tidwell is briefly tempted by an offer from Bob Sugar.
Subplot Moment: Jerry is unsure of his love for Dorothy, and they separate.
Consequence: Jerry and Dorothy feel alone without each other.

As Alien is primarily an action-based horror story, its Moment centers around specific physical action and its result.

In Clockwork Orange, a morality play, the Moment is about Alex receiving the moral consequences of his actions.

Jerry Maguire is really two intertwining stories. The plot is a story about trying to have heart in a heartless world, and has a Moment defined by loss of faith. The subplot, a romantic comedy, has a Moment centered on the confused feelings of two lovers.

Understanding and analyzing these Three Keys to Act Two, then applying what you learn, will lead to greater cohesion and control in your own work. A greater understanding of how these structures are applied in successful films will allow you to use or depart from them as your story requires.

← The First Act Screenwriting Essentials Third Act Crunch