Keeping Act 2 Alive

It’s been said all too often that if a film is going to die it will be in Act 2. Of course, the reason it is stated so often is because it’s true. There are several reasons for this prophetic Act 2 nightmare:

  • Writers that lose focus stray from the spine of the story or distort the throughline during the longest act.
  • Writers sometimes stick in favorite scenes that don’t fit the story.
  • Writers get into creating dialog instead of action.
  • Writers lose track of the stories pace and slow down the story, or speed it up so fast that the audience can’t learn about the characters.

The only way to avoid these issues is to write in keeping with the story’s momentum. Every scene participates in the momentum of the story by setting up the main character’s goal, which leads to his action, which forces a reaction or a complication, which drives the audience to have to see the next scene.

This cause and effect, or action and reaction pattern, moves the story to the next scene in an interesting way that draws the audience deeper into the story. These complications can be in the form of:

  • Barriers that must be overcome or skirted.
  • Delayed pay-offs of the action points.
  • Reversals that change the direction of the story.

The reversal is typically used at one of the turning points or at the midpoint in film.

There are several test questions you can ask yourself as you evaluate each scene for its potential addition or subtraction to the story’s momentum.

  1. Does the story gain momentum through action or does dialog force it to advance?
  2. What types of complications are in the story and where are they located?
  3. Are the complications organic to earlier dramatic elements in the story?
  4. Are scene sequences used to set up the complications?
  5. Is the scene aligned with the throughline?

The key is that all actions in a story must be connected to the throughline and to the action that precedes it and follows it. It would be prudent for writers to also remember that dialog can take away from momentum and should therefore be used sparingly.

Copyright © 2013 by CJ Powers
Photo © Denis Aglichev –

One thought on “Keeping Act 2 Alive

  1. One of the things I so like about CJ’s comments is that he is able to clarify, put into simple words, the reason a story bogs down or the viewer/reader gets bored or confused. How often I start out engrossed in a movie, only to shortly realize I have no idea why something is happening, or who a character is. Some things just zip by, others just add to the cloud of confusion until the only response is the brain dead zombie stare, or turning the channel! Good to know it’s not me!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s