(SPOILERS: Zombieland, Some Like It Hot, The Visitor, Star Wars, Aliens, Little Miss Sunshine, While You Were Sleeping)
Continuing my in-depth look at story structure with the Act Two Break…
The Act Two Break is one of the most critical beats of your story. It’s often referred to as the “lowest moment,” though I don’t like that because I think it’s misleading. Seldom do I see a successful story where things start getting better right after the Act Two Break. I think “moment of greatest failure” is a better description. It’s also sometimes called the “all is lost” moment, which is pretty good. The point is that this is when it looks like your character is doomed to fail.
That assumes, of course, that ultimately your character will succeed. Some stories end with the character failing and in this case you have to reverse the Act Two Break. It becomes the moment of greatest success. Gangster movies often work this way – the gangster seizes control of the gang at the end of Act Two and looks like he’ll be unstoppable. But by the end he’ll be lying dead in the street, riddled with bullets.
Why is this so important? Because the ending won’t be satisfying unless it’s hard to achieve. And you don’t want your movie to feel completely predictable. This is the point where the audience needs to think, “boy, I know the hero must be going to beat the bad guy and get the girl (this is a movie, after all), but I sure don’t know how he’s going to do it. It seems hopeless.”
Hope and fear come into play here. What is the audience rooting for? Do they want the character to succeed or fail? (Both are possibilities depending on your premise.) This is the moment where you make them think the opposite might actually happen. Or in a tragedy you make them think they might get the ending they want only to snatch it away from them. Romeo and Juliet hatch a plan to run away together… maybe it will all work out after all…
For example, the end of Act Two in Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) is when Columbus wakes up in the mansion to discover that Wichita and her sister have ditched them in the middle of the night. So much for finding love! In Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond), the gangsters that Joe and Jerry were fleeing show up in Florida and nearly recognize them on the elevator. It looks like the jig is up. Our heroes have failed in their goal of escape.
The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) demonstrates the tragic take. At the end of Act Two Walter and Mouna go on a date. It’s looking like Walter’s life might actually be getting better. The chapter title on the DVD is even called “A Moment of Happiness.” But it’s just temporary – at the resolution Walter and Mouna will be separated forever.
Beyond this fundamental idea of greatest failure/success opposite the resolution, there are several common ways the Act Two Break works.
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
Sometimes the character will actually achieve a major goal at the end of Act Two, only to discover they’ve set in motion a bigger – but related – problem. This is what happens in Star Wars (written by George Lucas). Luke Skywalker escapes the Death Star with Princess Leia. He’s achieved the goal he set out to achieve. But we quickly learn Darth Vadar had placed a tracking device on the Millennium Falcon. Now Vadar knows the location of the rebel base. By achieving his goal Luke has potentially doomed everything!
Hero Gets What They Want But Doesn’t Want It Anymore
Sometimes the hero will achieve their want but find their priorities have changed. For example in Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron), Bishop gets the back-up shuttle from the space ship down to the planet. They can escape! This is what Ripley wanted all through Act Two – to get off the planet. But Newt has just fallen down a shaft and been captured by the aliens. Ripley finds she wants something more than escape – she wants to rescue Newt.
Trip-with-a-destination movies frequently operate on a variation of this. The hero generally arrives at their destination at the end of Act Two only to discover things are not what they expected. For example, in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) the family arrives at the talent show only to discover that it’s populated by shallow, creepy, distasteful characters. Richard, the guy who was all about winning, is no longer so sure he wants Olive to win this contest.
Romantic comedies that use love triangles also typically follow this pattern. The heroine finally gets the guy she’s been pursuing but it’s the wrong guy. This is what we did in Sweet Home Alabama. While You Were Sleeping (written by Daniel G. Sullivan & Fredric LeBow) did something similar – Peter wakes up from his coma and, though Lucy has invented their whole relationship, he decides to marry her. The trouble is Lucy has since fallen for Jack.
As a screenwriter your primary job at the Act Two Break is to make sure that you put your character in an extreme situation regarding their goal. You need to make things look bleak (or hopeful) enough that we’re on the edge of our seats throughout Act Three.