Act II — the Subplot

By using the classic three Act structure to plan your story, you can clearly see what your hero’s goal is (Act I), how your hero achieves that goal Act III), and more importantly, how the hero changes to be capable of achieving that goal (Act II).

Too many people get a good idea for a movie and start writing their screenplay — only to run out of ideas after a few pages. At this point, the screenwriter is left with a half-baked idea and stuck trying to figure out where the story can go next. This is like hopping in your car, driving as fast as you can in any direction and then stopping to wonder how to get to Los Angeles.

Obviously the best decision is to plan your route first before you waste time writing a bunch of scenes that you’ll probably have to dump anyway. For screenwriting, plan your story first before you start writing.

Start with the classic three Act structure. Act I sets up your story and Act III shows the end result of that story. In “The Incredibles” Act I sets up the hero’s problem in that Mr. Incredible wants to be a super hero but must live a normal life. In Act III, Mr. Incredible finally gets to be a superhero along with the rest of his family.

In “Rocky”, Rocky wants to be someone in Act I and prove that he’s not a bum. In Act III , Rocky gets a chance to prove to the world that he’s not a bum by fighting fot he heavyweight champion of the world.

Act I always sets up the hero’s problem and Act III always shows the hero solving his or her problem. What links Act I and Act III is the subplot, which is Act II.

If a story went straight from Act I to Act III, the story would be too short and simple. More importantly, the hero’s transition from Act I to Act III would be unbelievable. Does anyone think a bum like Rocky could go from a nobody to challenging the heavyweight champion of the world without changing in the process? Is it possible for Luke Skywalker to have a chance attacking the Death Star without learning something new along the way in Act II?

Act II contains the subplot, which is where the hero learns new skills and changes as a result of his experiences to allow him to confront the final climax when battling the villain.

In planning your screenplay, look at what your hero wants (Act I) and how your hero will achieve his goal (Act III). Then look at what your hero needs to change in order to succeed and this is what your hero needs to learn in Act II.

Essentially the classic three Act strutter of a screenplay boils down to this:

Act I: Define the hero’s goal.

Act II: Show how the hero learns new skills and ideas that will help the hero achieve his or her goal.

Act III: Show how the hero tries to achieve his or her goal.

Each Act has a specific purpose in a screenplay so by using these three acts, you can plan the overall design of your story. Act II acts as the bridge to take the hero (and the audience) from point A to point B. More importantly, Act Ii is the subplot that shows how the hero changes to be capable of achieving the final goal at the end, which was impossible for the hero to achieve at the beginning of the story.

In “Witness,” Harrison Ford’s character, John Book, learns to adapt the Amish non-violent way of life in Act II, which is the entire subplot of getting to know Rachael, the Amish woman.

In “The Karate Kid,” Act II is the subplot where the hero learns the necessary fighting skills to be capable of fighting in the karate championship at the end.

In “How to Train Your Dragon,” the hero, Hiccup, learns what dragons are really like, which allows him to help solve the problem of bringing peace between the Vikings and the dragons at the end.

Act II is the subplot and the learning portion of your story. By understanding this three act structure, you’ll actually have a plan for writing your story when it’s time to start writing your script.

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