You can avoid the most common second act problem by writing a short synopsis before you write a draft.

I like to assign this exercise: tell your story in 200 words, 50 words per act (Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b, 3). I call this “the handle” because it affords you a handle on your story.

There are a number of reasons to do this, it provides a convenient overview of a story, it helps you sum up the relevant points when you pitch, and it lets you know if you have enough second act to write a script. Most people don’t.

Way back in 2013, I ran a class where students started with a premise, expanded it to a handle, the out to beats, and a treatment, etc. It was a miserable failure. It all broke down at the handle level:

“… everyone in the class ended up mislabeling the first twelve pages (opening scene to “inciting incident”) with act one and then ended up calling the rest of act one act two, and then short changed their second act.  This prompted a lively discussion about the difference between inciting incident and plot point one (the inciting incident breaks the ordinary world with the premise, the break into act two begins when the protagonist takes decisive action re: that premise). “

I see this a lot when I read finished scripts too. The vast majority of scripts I read suffer what I call the “combover problem” A script that lacks a true second act. If the premise is werewolf cop, the cop won’t become a werewolf until midpoint. As writing setpieces is hard, it’s easier to fluff up the first act and the third act and hope no one notices the dearth of second act proof of concept.

At this point you might be thinking, “spotlight theory, Matt.” You’ve identified a common problem and you’re building a mountain up to a molehill in your rush to find an angle to write a book about. At least that’s what I hope you’re thinking. I admire cynicism in other people.

Here’s an example handle written by reddit user GaylordQueen as a tongue-in-cheek way of questioning the handle’s use as a diagnostic tool. Despite this, I feel that the write up illustrates why it’s helpful for writers to try this when they’re struggling with a plot.

  1. GUNNER, a licensed salvager of derelict space stations who suffers from a debilitating medical condition, begrudgingly takes on a new partner, TASHA, on threat of losing his license, and he’s incensed at her apparent lack of experience and refusal to follow orders. She’s actually a government agent investigating terrorist activity.
  2. a. After being promised financial compensation, Gunner tracks the disguised terrorists to a space station. When Tasha attacks them openly, Gunner refuses to get involved, so she steals his ship. The terrorists explain that scientific progress is bad, and they’ll get him a new ship if he helps them find Tasha.
    2b. Gunner organises a search for Tasha. But, sobered by the death of a friend from the same disease, he instead decides to act for the greater good by misdirecting the terrorists and rescuing Tasha from a collapsing ship. They forgive each other. Outraged, the terrorists go ahead and destroy the station.
  3. Gunner races to rescue the survivors. He employs Tasha’s major skill (improvisation) to hold off the terrorists, but he must stop their leader by hurling himself (sacrificially) into space. Luckily, he is rescued by the power of friendship. Scientific progress is … good! Gunner gets cured. Tasha gets debilitating PTSD.

Reading through this I sense a combover script in the making. The script has too much first act.

  1. Only about three scenes are described here. It’ll be difficult to stretch this to page 25. Even if you could, it reads like an inciting incident, because…

2a. Despite the anemic act one, we’re still waiting for Gunner to take decisive action in the second act, and we start with a really boring scene – he’s offered compensation. Also, the decision at the end of 2 feels a bit like the end of a first act, it’s the only time Gunner really makes a choice.

2b. This is the most robust part of the script, but if we’re juxtaposing the mission against Gunnar’s changes, it feels like 25-30 pages isn’t enough time to give this conflict weight. You’d want to open up the second act, like so:

  1. GUNNER, a licensed salvager of space stations (with a terminal disease) gets coerced into taking on a new partner. TASHA, an undercover government agent investigating terrorist activity. The mission goes south, and Tasha steals Gunnar’s ship. The terrorists, zealous technophobes, promise Gunner a new ship if he helps them find Tasha. Gunnar agrees.

(ACTS 2a and 2b) You’d want to define what midpoint is. Currently, the midpoint’s soft, but I’d want to see more on the search, more on the death of the friend, and more on the eventual scam that foils the terrorists. I’m also not sure how much of a meal the spaceship destroying station is, but all this is more interesting than “being offered compensation” or “promised a new ship,” so it’s depressing that those moments get more time and these moments get less. Gunner organizes a search for Tasha. But, sobered by the death of a friend from the same disease, he instead decides to act for the greater good by misdirecting the terrorists and rescuing Tasha from a collapsing ship. (THIS SEEMS LIKE MIDPOINT) They forgive each other. Outraged, the terrorists go ahead and destroy the station.

By combining the first two acts into one solid act one, you make room to be interesting.

For instance, you need Gunnar and Tasha to bond, they could do it here. Tasha’s got a gift for improvisation? You could show that in action here. Rather than force all the story crap into what is now “part 2” you could spread it out over the entirety of act two so it has time to breathe. This would also give a more defined midpoint. At present, Gunner doesn’t really change at midpoint, so his arc and eventual growth lacks the punch it might otherwise have.

More about midpoint:

Some people like the handle. Some (most) really hate it. That said, I always recommend it because the late 2nd act start is a really common problem, and it’s usually diagnosable and fixable from a handle alone. Handles don’t have much information in them, but they have a enough, and they’re usually scale models of the places where screenplays go awry.

Published by Matt Lazarus

WGA screenwriter offering in-depth writing instruction, notes, critique, and assistance.

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