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With This Trick You’ll Be So Good at Tackling Act 2, You Might Just Be Recruited by the NFL

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by Naomi in pre-writing, screenwriting

Raise your hand if this sounds familiar:

You get an idea for a script.

You sit down and bang through the first act, having a blast.

You complete the setup and get into the Act 2 adventure. You slow down a bit but still feel confident.

And then, somewhere in Act 2… you hit quicksand. You’re stuck. Panic sets in. You take a break to clear your head. While you try to get back on track the break stretches on, no end in sight. And soon you’re like, “What screenplay?”

Act 2 is where you’re most likely to abandon your screenplay. Why? It’s probably the part you’ve thought about the least even though it really IS the movie.

So today let’s talk about Act 2 and a couple of tricks you can use to avoid the quicksand:

  • Breaking Act 2 into sequences, and
  • Making sure every sequence utilizes and escalates the essential elements

Together these two tricks will help you:

  • Tackle Act 2 without getting lost or stuck with writer’s block
  • Write a screenplay that’s more focused and cohesive, and
  • Keep your audience invested and emotionally engaged

Trick #1: Break Act 2 into 4 sequences

As we’ve talked about before, part of my outlining process is to break the whole story over 8 sequences (but you can use this trick whether you outline or not).

Today we’ll focus on just the sequences that make up Act 2. To avoid confusion, for this article I’m going to label the 4 sequences of Act 2 thusly:

  • Sequence A starts at the Break into Act 2 and lasts about the first quarter of Act 2
  • Sequence B picks up there and ends with the Midpoint
  • Sequence C launches off of the Midpoint and takes us another quarter of Act 2
  • Sequence D goes from there, through the low point, and ends with the Break into Act 3

Why use sequences?

Whether you’re writing by the seat of your pants or you’re diligently outlining before you go to pages, facing that vast expanse of Act 2 can be daunting. Sequences allow you to think about the story in smaller, more manageable parts.

What is a sequence?

A sequence is a series of scenes which tell a mini story, a part of the larger story of your screenplay.

Like in any good story, a sequence has a beginning, middle, and end, aka the setup, escalation, resolution. There’s a line of action created by someone pursuing something. There’s opposition and obstacles. And sequences in a screenplay build on each other and benefit from the context that’s created by sequences that came before.
 
If it helps, you can think of the sequences of Act 2 as four steps that take the protagonist from the big plot point at the Break into Act 2 to the big plot point at the Break into Act 3.

For example, last night I watched the movie Greta. [SPOILER WARNING] It’s about an older woman, Greta, who stalks a younger woman, Claire, who Greta wants to have a weird mother-daughter relationship with.

The Break into Act 2 is when Claire learns there’s something “off” about Greta and decides to part ways.

The four steps of Greta’s Act 2 are:

  • (A) Claire tries to politely blow off Greta but Greta turns menacing
  • (B) Greta won’t go away so Claire looks into Greta’s past for a way to get rid of her
  • (C) Claire makes up with Greta so she can then ghost her but Greta kidnaps Claire
  • (D) Claire plays along, trying to survive Greta’s weird game

That takes us to the Break into Act 3, which is when Claire makes her move and attempts to escape.

So you can see how identifying the four parts that make up your Act 2, even at this fairly broad level, can help you get through what can be an intimidatingly large section of story. Breaking Act 2 up like this gives you direction, a roadmap (however loose you’d like to keep it), to help you get through Act 2 without abandoning your script.

Trick #2: Include the essentials and make them escalate

Okay, so you want to use sequences to build out the middle of your screenplay. But how do you come up with the four steps that make up Act 2? As usual, you start with the essentials:

  • Protagonist
  • Goal
  • Antagonist / Opposition
  • Stakes

The essentials form the main conflict we’re tracking in the story. When you come at each sequence with the essentials first, you’re making sure we can see the main conflict playing out in each step. Each sequence advances the main conflict. This creates a strong throughline in your screenplay.

Since all the sequences connect to that throughline, the story feels more cohesive and doesn’t fall apart or forget what it’s doing somewhere in the middle.

But don’t forget to escalate

Of course, a set of linear steps from Point A to Point B will get us to the destination, but will it keep us hooked? To maintain the audience’s interest, we need a more exciting ride.

As you’re planning out the four steps, look at how the essentials escalate. Escalating ensures you’re not hitting the same note over and over.

What does it mean to “escalate”?

We’re talking about:

  • Increasing opposition, which intensifies the conflict by making it harder for the protagonist to achieve his goal, and/or
  • Raising the stakes, which essentially means that achieving the goal becomes more important or meaningful. So, something happens that threatens or escalates what’s at stake in the story, and afterward the protagonist needs or wants to succeed even more than he did before.

Escalating the conflict and/or stakes makes the audience re-engage and re-invest in the story. When we’re constantly engaged, we’re leaning in to find out what happens next – which is exactly where you want us.

Movie example: Bridesmaids

Let’s go back to Bridesmaids for a closer look at how the essentials exist and escalate in each sequence of Act 2.

First of all, the essential elements are established in Act 1 (the context or setup for the story). In Bridesmaids, that setup establishes:

  • Annie is the protagonist.
  • Her story goal is to be her best friend Lillian’s Maid of Honor.
  • The antagonist is Helen, who is Annie’s rival.
  • What’s at stake is Annie’s friendship with Lillian. Annie feels like Lillian is moving forward in life without her, and she wants to hold onto their friendship which is the one good thing left in Annie’s life.

Here’s how the essentials show up and escalate in each of the sequences of Act 2:

Sequence A

What happens: Annie takes the bridal party to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, then an exclusive bridal gown shop where Helen shows Annie up by helping them get in despite not having a reservation. Everyone gets food poisoning, thanks to Annie’s dodgy lunch choice.

Where are the essentials: Protagonist Annie begins pursuing her goal by pulling together the first event. Antagonist Helen is there to point out Annie’s shortcomings and to save the day – Annie fails as Helen wins. And as Annie fails, her role as MoH and her friendship with Lillian are increasingly in danger.

Sequence B

What happens: Annie plans the bachelorette party in Vegas but ruins the trip in spectacular fashion and is removed from Maid of Honor position.

Where are the essentials: This is the next big wedding lead-up event, i.e. what Annie’s doing in pursuit of her goal. Antagonist Helen causes conflict by rallying the other bridesmaids and pressuring Annie to do a big trip to Vegas (which Annie doesn’t want and can’t afford). Helen again demonstrates her superiority to Annie by getting first class seats for herself and Lillian. And because of Annie’s reaction, the bachelorette party trip is ruined, Annie is stripped of her MoH title, and her friendship with Lillian is now seriously strained.

Sequence C

What happens: Now that she’s been replaced by Helen as MoH, distance grows between Annie and Lillian. Annie receives an invite to the bridal shower and sees that Helen has stolen her idea for the theme, which was based on Annie’s best friend insider knowledge of Lillian.

Where are the essentials: So, protagonist Annie has had to totally change tacks. She really can’t pursue her original goal (being Maid of Honor) because she’s been booted out of that position. At this point she’s just trying to stay in the bridal party and hold onto their friendship. Antagonist Helen gets in the way by continuing to “prove” her superiority. The friendship stakes continue to raise as Annie is pushed farther and farther out of Lillian’s life.

Sequence D

What happens: Annie attends the bridal shower and freaks out, causes a scene, and gets disinvited from the wedding.

Where are the essentials: Protagonist Annie continues to pursue that goal – she’s attending the bridal shower and making nice as well as she can. But antagonist Helen goes too far, buying Lillian a trip to Paris – something Annie cannot compete with and she’s pushed to a breaking point. Lillian’s had enough of Annie’s behavior and disinvites her from the wedding, so the stakes have come fully to bear.


It’s worth noting that I’ve only pointed out the main external conflict here. There’s also the progression of Annie’s internal conflict, as well as various subplots in the story. Those are additional areas you can mine during your outlining process.

Thinking about Act 2 in four steps or sequences is one more tool in your kit. It’ll help you make sure your Act 2 is strong, and the four steps will give you a roadmap to follow as you’re writing. Act 2 can be daunting, but this trick will help you get through it without getting stuck.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe