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How To Avoid a Second Act Slump in Your Screenplay

October 4, 2022
5 min read time

Over the years, if it’s one thing I’ve heard screenwriters struggle with the most, it’s the second act of their script. Even if they think they have a great concept and strong first act, they suddenly get to the second act and they find their creativity diminishes. They might have an idea of how the script ends, but the point B between point A and point C they find elusive. It’s not unlike being in a car that suddenly stalls after you start off for a road trip. Your writing stalling can be just as frustrating and even dispiriting. But is there a way to keep this from happening? Is there a way to avoid the second act slump?

Some tough love might be required here, because I think one of biggest reasons writers — aspiring as well as professional — struggle with second acts is because their concept and/or first act isn’t as strong as they think. Oftentimes screenwriters mistake an inciting incident for a concept: this crazy thing happens! The protagonist might be a stock character and not particularly interesting, but this crazy thing just happened to them. They might be thrown into a bad or difficult situation as a result, but now what? How does the writer continue the story and create new obstacles and new situations? I’d argue that if their concept was more expansive to begin with, a writer wouldn’t be struggling with their second act. A truly great concept lends itself to numerous scenarios; ideally, it should spark a chain reaction of ideas.

For example, look at the basic concept for the action classic Die Hard: a cop is trapped in a high-rise building with a bunch of terrorists who have taken an office Christmas party hostage. It’s a tall building with numerous places the protagonist can go, which in itself creates opportunities for many different set-pieces. Throw in a loved one with the hostages and suddenly you have high emotional stakes and a character you can cut back to while the protagonist is doing his best to survive. This is also a high-profile crime, so the police and news media would also get involved. You see how the concept just keeps generating more and more situations and subplots? That’s a great concept: one in which the second act never has a chance of stalling.

Let’s look at another classic film with a strong concept: Back To The Future. It’s not just that a teenager travels back in time (that’s the inciting incident); the concept is a teenager travels back in time and accidentally keeps his parents from hooking up. Now that’s a scenario that generates a lot of ideas for a second act. In addition to Marty McFly wanting to find a way to travel back to his own time, he has to make sure his parents reconnect or otherwise he’ll cease to exist. It’s high school in the 1950s and he’s a teen from the 1980s, so he’ll clash with the simpler and more naive teens of the era. And oh wait: what if Marty’s mother had a crush on him!? And what if the only way he could travel back in time involved a specific bolt of lightning hitting a clock tower on the night of the big school dance!? A great concept is an idea generator. If you have just one idea and it doesn’t inspire other ideas, you might not have the strongest concept. You should also take note that all of these above ideas had seeds planted in the first act.

Another aspect to a fully-realized concept that shouldn’t be ignored is character. The fact that Marty’s father, George McFly, is an offbeat and socially-awkward outcast added another obstacle for Marty to overcome when getting his parents together and also helped create antagonists for the film: surely a guy like George would have bullies making his life difficult and they would likewise be a problem for Marty. Just imagine if George McFly was a cool guy or, at very least, not a social outcast: would Marty have as much difficulty getting his parents together? Would bullies be involved? Would there be as many opportunities for humor? In my article Right Story, Right Character, I stressed the importance of combining the right characters with the right plot or concept. Along with your concept, your characters should be generating ideas and when you have the right story with the right characters, their union becomes an idea generating machine.

Think of a TV series like Breaking Bad; the concept of a high school chemistry teacher becoming a meth manufacturer opened up a world of story possibilities for Vince Gilligan and his team of writers. So many story possibilities that it eventually led to a spinoff series, Better Call Saul, which likewise is a show teeming with ideas. The same mindset that works for a successful TV series can likewise work when writing a screenplay. If your concept isn’t inspiring ideas past the first act, try looking at your characters and maybe rethinking them if necessary. Perhaps the characters you initially chose aren’t the best to bring out all the possibilities of your concept. Ideally, there should be an ironic or contradictory aspect to your protagonist’s involvement with your plot. Many times, this in itself, can generate enough ideas that can sustain a second act. For example, a protagonist with vices or personal problems leads to more situations than a protagonist who has a handle on everything. From James Bond to Peter Parker, you’ll find that the most enduring film franchises are centered around complicated protagonists with complicated lives. Their complexity leads to numerous ideas and very little downtime.

Finally, if a writer really wants to avoid a second act slump, they should try outlining beforehand. This doesn’t mean they have to work out every little story beat, but they should have a general idea of where their story is going. If during the outlining stage, a writer stalls at the second act, they need to take a long hard look at their first act, their characters, and maybe even their concept. I once heard it put another way: if you’re having trouble getting your character out of a scene, there might be something inherently wrong with the scene. A solid concept combined with the right characters will likely see you through the entire script, including the second act.

That’s when you’ll know you have more than just a hook or inciting incident.

That’s when you have a story.

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