(SPOILERS: Some Like It Hot, Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland, The Visitor, Up in the Air, Ocean's Eleven)
Now we get to Act Two in my in-depth analysis of story structure. Unlike acts one and three that have a lot of specific jobs to do structurally, Act Two is pretty wide open. In fact, in traditional three-act structure, there are only two beats in Act Two: the Midpoint and the Act Two Break (and the midpoint is even sort of optional).
Yet Act Two is supposed to take up roughly half of your screen time. This vast stretch of story without a lot of landmarks frequently undoes writers. It’s a cliché that many unfinished drafts sitting forgotten in desk drawers petered out a bit after the half way point. The writer got lost in Act Two. So I think it’s quite useful for us to look at things that commonly occur in Act Two of successful movies. This gives us ideas to fall back on when we start to lose our way.
Today I want to look at what needs to happen overall in Act Two. In our basic story foundation this is where the character faces obstacles in pursuit of their goal. So obviously one thing you need to do is figure out what obstacles your character should face. There ought to be more than one and they should escalate as the story progresses.
For example, in Some Like It Hot (screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) Joe and Jerry are disguised as women to escape gangsters who want them dead throughout Act Two. The first obstacle is convincingly behaving like women under the eye of suspicious Sweet Sue. Next we have the lovely Sugar tempting our heroes to reveal their true nature. Then there is the millionaire who falls for Jerry and won’t take no for an answer. Situations arise that threaten their disguise as well – for example the unintended party that starts in Jerry’s train car that could get them kicked out of the band. As the guys’ lies grow more elaborate the effort required to maintain their disguises increases.
In Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) Act Two is the family’s journey to California. Their goal is to get Olive to the pageant on time. Some of the obstacles include the van breaking down, Richard losing his pending business deal, Dwayne freaking out when he discovers he’s color blind, getting pulled over by a cop and grandpa dying. Each one must be overcome in turn.
Ups and Downs
You do not, however, want the character’s progression through the obstacles to be too linear. We like our movies to be like a rollercoaster – with lots of peaks and dips and twists. A rollercoaster with only one big drop isn’t much fun. You need to mix moments of success in with moments of failure for your characters. In one scene they’re getting closer to their goal, the next farther away.
So in Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) immediately after Columbus meets Wichita, she betrays him and steals the car and guns. He finds her again and they start travelling together but she doesn’t trust him. Slowly he wins her over until in the celebrity mansion she dances with him. But just as they’re about to kiss, Tallahassee interrupts them. The relationship develops in fits and starts – they take two steps forward and one step back.
In The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy) Walter’s friendship with Tarek and Khalil is regularly disrupted by cultural misunderstandings and then by Tarek’s arrest and threatened deportation. But even when things have gotten bad we see Walter’s character growing as a result of this friendship. The arrival of Mouna even offers him an opportunity for romance.
Mysteries and caper movies particularly need to develop in stages like this. In a mystery there can’t be one clue that solves the whole mystery. Clues should accumulate and build and red herrings should lead the investigator awry. In a caper movie there should be multiple sub-tasks involved in pulling off the overall plan. So in the remake of Ocean's Eleven (screenplay by Ted Griffin) they have to gather the gang, stake out the casinos, practice cracking the vault and so on.
Plot and Subplot
Most feature length movies have several subplots. In fact, four plotlines – one main and three subplots – seems to be about right. Any more and the movie gets cluttered. Any less and it’s underdeveloped. Often one of the subplots is used to dramatize the character’s arc (this is frequently a romantic subplot in stories that do not have romances as their main plot). Developing these subplots will occupy some of your time in Act Two.
In Up in the Air the main plot is about Ryan’s relationship with Alex. The three subplots are his mentorship of Natalie, the impending wedding of his sister (and his task of getting pictures with the cutout), and the brutality of the layoffs that are his business. All three subplots provide perspective on the theme and character arc. And they help flesh out Act Two.
Over the next three posts I’ll go through the beginning, middle and end of Act Two and what usually happens in each section, as well as addressing the Midpoint and Act Two Break.