(SPOILERS: Pretty Woman, Lars and the Real Girl, The Visitor, Bruce Almighty, Star Wars, Some Like It Hot, Avatar)
I’m going to break Act Two down into three parts for my ongoing analysis of story structure. Today I’ll discuss the period that comes right after the Act One Break. Next I’ll discuss the middle including the structural beat of The Midpoint, and then the end including the Act Two Break. So, what commonly happens in the early stages of Act Two?
Fun and Games
Screenwriters sometimes refer to this section of the script as the “fun and games” section. This is the time to explore all the interesting possibilities of your premise. One question that good writers ask themselves is, “given this set up what would I like to see in the movie?” The answer will be those “obligatory scenes” that you need to have so the audience isn’t left unsatisfied. Many of these scenes go here.
For example, in Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton) we see Vivian the prostitute from Hollywood Blvd. get to live the glamorous high society life, enjoying a Rodeo Drive shopping spree and fancy dinner. Or in Lars and the Real Girl (written by Nancy Oliver) this section of the movie is filled with comedic scenes of the townsfolk trying to adapt to a delusional young man who believes a life size sex doll is a real person. In The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) Walter learns to play the drums and learns about a different culture as he bonds with his new friends.
In movies where the character gets some kind of super power this is where they explore what they can do with it. For example, in Spider-Man (screenplay by Devid Koepp), Spider-Man swings around New York in his new costume stopping crime and becoming famous. And in Bruce Almighty (story by Steve Koren & Mark O’Keefe, screenplay by Steve Koren & Mark O’Keefe and Steve Oedekerk) Bruce plays with his newfound powers of God by parting the traffic like the red sea and pulling the moon closer for a romantic moment with his girlfriend. It’s playtime – the downside of the powers hasn’t revealed itself yet.
Exploring the Special World
In the Hero’s Journey story structure spelled out by Joseph Cambell in The Hero With A Thousand Faces (and excellently applied to screenwriting by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey) the end of Act One usually coincides with the character entering the Special World. This could literally be a different and unfamiliar place or it could be a metaphorical world – the character has left their comfort zone and is trying something new. The fun and games period at the beginning of Act Two is when they explore this special world.
So Neo learns how to manipulate the matrix in The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) and Jake explores Pandora and learns about Navi culture in Avatar (written by James Cameron). In Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) Joe and Jerry discover the world of women. They engage in girl talk and a late night party in Jerry’s train bunk. At first they try to be prim and proper to fit in, but they soon discover to their surprise that the women in the band are not like that at all.
Allies & Enemies
Another stage from the Hero’s Journey structure is Allies and Enemies. Frequently in the early part of Act Two the character meets the people that will help them on their journey and those that will stand in their way. So Luke Skywalker teams up with Han Solo and Chewbacca and encounters Storm Troopers in Star Wars (written by George Lucas). And Dorothy meets the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (screenplay by Noel Langley & Florence Ryerson & Edgar Allan Woolf).
After about twenty minutes or so of screen time the special world and initial premise will start to feel a little tired. It’s time to shake things up. That’s what the Midpoint is for. And that will be the topic of my next post.