I read scripts for money. I enjoy it. I like reading, I like teaching, and reading has given me insights that have helped my own craft.
But 90% of the time, I end up writing some variation of this paragraph:
The script starts late – it spends 35 or so pages setting up the whys and wherefores of its complicated setup, and then does nothing with it. The second act only spends two scant setpieces exploring the ostensible main idea, and spends the rest with talky, pro forma scenes that could be swapped into almost any other movie of the genre.
Let’s unpack this:
* First acts should be efficient. We want to sketch out the rules of the world, the main goal, and the main opposition, then we’re off to the races. If you’re still explaining the difference between quantum cyborgs and nexus cyborgs by page 41, your premise is already dead in the water.
* Second acts are usually underpopulated. When I was starting out, I was always proud of my first acts, which felt fun and writerly, but I would sort of bullshit my way through the second act on my way to the big finish. This seems to be a general trend with writers.
* Premise is your friend – if a premise is working, the movie is working. If you do a story about a werewolf cop, the story is clicking whenever his werewolfing is complicated by his policing. If you put in something that’s not related to the core concept, you’ll have to work twice as hard.
Let me be perfectly clear: the second act basically is the movie. If you don’t have 4-8 dynamite sequences that relate to your concept in your second act, you’ve basically written an overstuffed short, something that could be written in 10-20 pages. Shorts are a noble art form and everyone should try writing one, but they won’t make you rich enough to change your life, so let’s move on.
Redundant metaphor: if a script is a sandwich, act one is bread, act three is bread, act two is the meat that the bread contains. You don’t make an anemic sandwich better by adding a third slice of bread.
Before anyone says “yeah, but I write art movies so spare me your commercial hackery,” the idea of premise also applies to art movies. If you spend 25 pages explaining why the Maori woman must go to the sacred rock to atone for her miscarriage, I want the second act to explore Maori stuff and human drama, I don’t want to see a bunch of talky bullshit that could come from any other movie.
Ultimately, a movie is its second act. That’s the money part, that’s where the premise is explored. When someone pitches a comedy with a premise like “Zombie OKCupid,” they’re making an implicit promise that they can find enough funny moments in the second act to justify whatever inane setup that movie would require. If the zombie Okcupid stuff is funny, the comedy is succeeding, if all the jokes come from two human characters, the premise is a wash.
So second acts are important, and they’re mostly made of setpieces. Big moments, movie moments. If it’s an action movie, it’s gotta be action. If it’s a talky drama set in Regency England, the costumes have got to be gorgeous, the talk eloquent, and the drama dramatic. If it’s a zombie OKCupid movie… you get the idea.
A good premise yields 4-8 obvious moments. A good premise is one where even your non-writing mother gets excited and pitches you an idea that could work in your story. A bad premise is one that only yields one or two ideas.
People talk of premises being light, loose, or “soft for development.” What this means it that the premise doesn’t yield enough ideas to populate a second act and that it’s hard to imagine more. So if you want to write a movie about zombies attacking a farm, make sure you can think of enough specific, fun moments to make your story worth telling. If you can’t, you’re better served by picking a different premise, one that’s more fraught with evident possibility.
TLDR: Before you write an idea, make a list of 4-8 sequences that logically flow from your main idea. If you can’t, your premise might be too soft for development.
This can be fixed with the help of a diagnostic logline.