Yesterday’s script review reminded me how rare it is that a script actually recovers from a bad second act. I know this because when I first started giving notes, I came up with an idea I thought would revolutionize the notes process. It was my belief that the reason so few writers improved their screenwriting skills was because they didn’t know what the reader was thinking when they were reading their script. Most feedback a writer receives is general. “I didn’t like the main character.” “I got bored in the middle.” “I was hoping to laugh more.” “The dialogue was only okay.” That doesn’t help a writer improve.
What if you could be INSIDE THE READER’S HEAD as he was reading your screenplay? You would know exactly what was wrong, when it went wrong, why the reader checked out, the action that made them dislike your hero. It was the ideal teaching tool! So I came up with this idea of creating “Real Time Notes.” The idea behind them was this. I would create a graph charting all 110 pages of the script, and at the end of each 10 pages of the graph, I would give that section a 1-10 rating (1 being the worst, 10 being the best), as well as explain the rating.
So a typical section might look like this: 7 out of 10. “Good introduction of your main character. He seems like an adequate badass. A more original entry scene into the story would’ve scored higher points. I’m digging the mystery behind this secret facility he’s been recruited to visit….” and so on and so forth.
I was convinced I’d revolutionized the process of screenplay analysis.
Then I began implementing it. And what I found was that the script sections didn’t vary as much as I thought they would. The first ten pages wouldn’t get a “3,” then the next ten a “9,” then the next ten a “5.” It turned out that nearly every script (90%) followed the same formula. They would start out decent-to-good. The first ten pages might get a 6 or a 7. This was due to the newness of the story and a general excitement of being dropped into a new universe. Similar to what Jerry Seinfeld says about stand-up. “The first 5 minutes they’ll laugh at anything. Then you have to be funny.”
The second ten pages would get a bump, as this was where the INCITING INCIDENT took place – the main character’s “problem” being introduced. Buzz Lightyear arriving as a present in Toy Story, for example. The inciting incident is often the “plot-starter,” and therefore a naturally exciting moment in the story.
It was inside the third ten pages that the cracks would begin to show. And they’d show quickly, splintering out with increasing intensity after every page. Without the newness camouflaging flaws and without the excitement of the inciting incident, the writer would actually have to start writing. And if they didn’t know how, they couldn’t hide from it. Have you given us a main character we like? Have you introduced an intriguing mystery? Do all your scenes have a point? Are we clearly moving towards a goal or trying to answer a question? Are the stakes high? And are you coming at all of this in a way that’s fresh and unexpected? Typically, these third ten pages result in a 2 to 3 point dip.
Then we get to the fourth ten pages. Now we’re officially in the second act. And for someone who didn’t know what to do in those previous ten pages, holy shit do they not know what to do in this fourth set. You can feel them grasping at straws, trying to think of what to do next, rather than introducing another piece of the puzzle with confidence and conviction. The fifth, sixth, and seventh sets continue to get lower scores. The “mildly decent” scripts manage to stay at a 3 or a 4 rating. But most will dip to a 2.
Almost all scripts gain back a couple points in the last couple of sections, as the third act forces the writer to focus. Having to wrap things up ironically gives them no choice but to add goals and clarity, things that were lacking in the second act. This bumps up the interest a tad. But not much. It’s too hard when you’ve bored a reader for that long to make them excited again.
So almost all of the scripts looked like this, with only minor variances…
And, honestly? That “4” at the end? Was partially because I was so happy the script was over.
I continued with my real-time analysis for a few months, but ultimately decided it wasn’t helpful. It’s depressing looking at your script get a bunch of “2’s.” And writers are depressed enough already. I wanted my notes to focus more on helping the script get better, not pointing out how bad it was.
But it was a huge learning experience for me. Because it gave me a mathematical representation of what the reading experience is for the majority of screenplays out there. Almost all of them follow the same pattern. And from it I learned two huge lessons.
The first is that if you don’t properly set up the foundation of your story in that first act, your second and third acts don’t stand a chance. And by “properly set up” I don’t mean getting polite 6s and 7s because you’ve managed not to screw up the easiest section of the story. You need 8s and 9s. Grab us by the balls and set up a cool ass journey that we want to be taken on.
The most common example of failing that first act test is introducing a boring main character. When you do that, it doesn’t matter what’s going on with your plot in the second act. We’ve already decided we’re not interested in this person’s journey. Or, if you’ve given us a strong protagonist, not introducing interesting enough problems for that protagonist to overcome, or interesting enough mysteries or goals for them to pursue. If you didn’t set up some compelling plot problem in that first act, it’s only a matter of time before we get bored.
The second is that very few writers understand how to construct a second act. They think it’s a matter of organically figuring things out along the way, not understanding that when you do that the reader feels it. They sense your lack of conviction, something that becomes exponentially apparent the further into the act you go, as your plot choices more readily exemplify a writer running out of ideas. When people tell you to outline a script, what they’re really telling you is to outline your second act. Everybody knows how to start. Everybody knows how to finish. What happens along the way is where writers get lost.
The reason, then, those second act sections get such low scores (3s and 2s) is because they’re compounding two problems. One, that they didn’t properly set up a great hero and exciting story in the first act, ensuring the middle 60 pages will be boring. But on TOP of that, they don’t know how to write a second act anyway! Even if they’re one of the few who build a strong foundation, they don’t know the secrets to crafting a good second act (a strong goal driving the hero, constant conflict, unresolved relationships, arcing the hero’s inner journey, obstacles, a plot that builds, a steady stream of fresh and unexpected plot developments).
And that’s the advice I’d give all you aspiring screenwriters fighting the good fight. Make sure you have that awesome foundation in your first act. And outline that second act so you know where you’re going. And if the things I listed above about a good second act don’t make sense to you, you need to put in some educational hours and learn what they mean. Because when a second act doesn’t have those things? It falls apart quickly. But at least now you know where the pitfalls lie. And if you know that, you’re one step ahead of everyone else pursuing this crazy medium. Good luck!