Guess what time it is? It’s time to venture into the SECOND ACT!
NOOOOOOOOOOO!!! you say.
Don’t worry, my screenwriting salsolitos. Just like The Beatles, I’m going to hold your hand.
For those of you new to the site or you infrequent visitors, I’m doing a 13 week “Write a Screenplay” Challenge, where I guide you through the process of writing a screenplay step by step. If you missed the first few weeks, you can find them here:
As of today, you should have written 21 pages. That means you’ve completed your inciting incident (located near page 12-15) but are not quite at the end of your first act (page 25). So today, we’ll be covering the break into Act 2, as well as the first sequence of Act 2.
Now I heard some grumbling last week about 3 pages a day being too difficult. Come on, guys. Seriously? That’s one scene. You only have to write a single scene. You’re telling me you can’t write a scene in a day??
Maybe this will help. Brendan O’Brien and Andrew Jay Cohen said that when they were trying to figure out their script, “Neighbors” with director Nicholas Stoller, they’d pitch him a bunch of directions they could go, thinking he’d pick one and let them go write it.
Instead, Stoller would say, “Well let’s try that version right now.” “What do you mean right now?” they’d ask. “Let’s sit down and write it and see if it works?” “You mean write the script… now??” “Yeah.” And they’d sit down and write the whole thing over a few days. If it didn’t work, they’d try a different take.
The point is, you’re capable of one scene a day. Don’t be a perfectionist. Just write.
Okay, on to this week’s challenge. You’ve got between 4-8 pages before the end of your first act. If your hero is in a refusal of the call situation (Luke Skywalker claims he can’t join Obi-Wan because he must stay and help his Uncle on the farm), this will be the last bit of resistance your character experiences before accepting that they have to go on their journey (pursue their goal).
If your hero isn’t refusing the call, this is the last few pages of logistics before they pursue their objective. Indiana Jones don’t refuse no call. He just packs his bags and prepares for the fun. If your character doesn’t have any say in the matter, the forces of the story will simply kick them out on their journey, much like a bird kicks its babies out of the nest to see if they can fly. Tough love, amirite?
Now in some cases, a journey is literal. Rey’s journey in The Force Awakens takes her across the galaxy. Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman take a road trip to Vegas in Rain Man. Joy has to travel deep into the recesses of Riley’s mind in Inside Out.
Other times, it’s more symbolic. As long as your character is constantly pursuing something, even if they’re stationary, it’s considered a journey. To use the aforementioned Neighbors as an example, our heroes may be inside the same house the whole movie, but their “journey” consists of trying to get the frat next door kicked out.
So the first 15 pages of the second act are a unique time in a script. Your heroes are going off on their journey, but since we can’t throw the kitchen sink at the audience right away, this section tends to be more of a “feeling out” period for the characters. Maybe they’re feeling out each other (“Bad Grandpa”) or feeling out the situation (In a heist flick, the characters might scout out the bank they’re planning to rob, or the team they’re trying to recruit).
The late Blake Snyder, whose book “Save The Cat!” is somehow still the best selling screenwriting book out there despite Scriptshadow Secrets being available, famously termed this section, “Fun and Games.” Since Blake mainly wrote comedies, this was meant to define the period in the script where you showed off the promise of your premise.
The best example of this is probably super-hero origin stories. This is the moment when Spider-Man or Ant-Man first get their powers and play around with them. But it can also be applied to other genres. In Jurassic Park, it’s seeing the dinosaurs for the first time. In The Equalizer, it’s when Denzel starts administering justice on the locals.
If all of this is confusing, however, or it doesn’t feel like it applies to your movie, don’t worry. There’s a backup. What’s that backup?
Divide your script into a series of eight 12-15 page sequences. You’ve already finished the first two sequences. That was your first act. Now you’re on your third. You have to fill up 15 more pages. The easiest way to do this is to give your characters an objective they have to meet by those 15 pages. That way, you don’t have to worry about this giant chasm-filled void of a second act. You only have to write 5-7 scenes getting your hero to the end of that sequence goal.
A good example is the Mos Eisley sequence in Star Wars. We’re officially on our journey into the second act. What’s the goal here? The goal is to get a pilot and get the fuck off this planet, since the Empire is chasing us. We experience a series of scenes where our characters come to Mos Eisley, enter a bar, look for a pilot, get a pilot, head to the ship’s hanger, get chased by stormtroopers, then leave. That’s a sequence right there, folks. That’s all you have to do.
You can even use this for non-traditional scripts. Room is a movie that’s basically two long acts. It’s divided in half. But if you look closer, you’ll notice that there are sequences to give the story structure. For example, the fourth sequence of that movie (which would roughly be page 40/45 to page 52/60) is Ma (Brie Larson) planning the escape. That’s a sequence folks. It’s got a goal. It consists of a series of scenes. This stuff isn’t rocket science.
Gravity is a great movie to study for sequencing. It’s evenly broken down into a series of sequences where Sandra Bullock constantly has to get to the next destination, which usually takes between 10-15 pages (no, that is not an excuse to procrastinate!).
So that’s this week’s challenge, guys. You have to get 15 pages into Act 2. Seeing as we finished on page 21 last week, that means you only have to write 19 pages this week, which is LESS than 3 pages a day. Which means no more complaining. I’ll see you next week, with 40 total pages completed. And that’s when we head into the HEART of the second act. Ooh, I can’t wait for that. And by “can’t wait,” I mean, “Shit, that’s going to be terrifying.” Seeya then!