The Two Parts of Act II

Act II is typically the hardest part of a screenplay to write. You have 60 minutes of time, so to make writing easier, divide Act II into halves where the first half leads the hero to a False Victory and the second half leads the hero to total despair and isolation.

Perhaps the hardest part about writing a screenplay is dealing with Act II. One problem is that Act II takes up half of the movie (60 minutes in a normal 120 minute film). Trying to keep audience interest up while moving the story forward through that entire 60 minute chunk of time can be seem as daunting as trying to row across the Atlantic Ocean in a lifeboat.

That’s why you should first divide Act II into two equal 30-minute chunks, which I call Act IIa (Positive Rising Action) and Act IIb (Negative Rising Action).

For the first 30-minutes of Act IIa, the hero is starting a new journey into an unknown world and winning early victories against an opponent who may not even know of the hero’s existence. By the end of Act IIa, the midpoint of the movie, the hero ends with a False Victory where he achieves the goal he originally set out to accomplish, but somehow it’s not enough.

For the next 30-minutes of Act IIb, the hero is losing against the villain, which is why I call this part of the script the Negative Rising Action. This is the time where the hero is on the defensive and the villain is starting to win victories. The end of Act IIb leaves the hero isolated and at the lowest point possible with the villain on the verge of success.

Let’s first take a look at Act IIa (Positive Rising Action) as it relates to several movies. In “Alien,” the end of Act I occurs when the alien bursts from the chest of the doomed astronaut and escapes into the ship.

In the first 15-minute segment of Act IIa, the crew starts out to find the alien. This segment ends when the first crew member discovers that the alien has grown and has killed another victim.

The second 15-minute segment of Act IIa involves the crew learning that the alien is hiding in the ventilation ducts. The crew develops a plan to trap the alien and kill it. The end of Act IIa ends with the False Victory. The captain traps the alien in the ventilation ducts, but winds up getting killed as a result.

Now we move into Act IIb (Negative Rising Action). Suddenly, the crew is on the defensive for this next 15-minute segment. They try to learn more about the alien but find themselves mysteriously locked out of the computer called Mother. That’s when Ash, the android on the ship, tries to kill Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) to keep her from learning the truth, which is that the crew is expendable in an effort to bring the alien back alive.

The final 15-minute segment of Act IIb has the crew scrambling to abandon ship. They get everything ready only to have the alien kill two more crew members. Suddenly, Ripley is left alone and isolated. Trapped on the ship by herself, she’s reached the lowest point possible, which sets up her final confrontation with the Alien.

The key to writing Act II is understanding the two halves of Act IIa (Positive Rising Action) and Act IIb (Negative Rising Action). The first half of Act II, the hero seems to be achieving his goal. The second half of Act II, the hero is on the defensive and struggling to react and survive.

Break each of these halves into 15-minute segments and you’re back to writing mini-movies of 15 minutes in length. When you focus on telling your story in 15 minute segments, you’ll find that writing your screenplay won’t seem as daunting as writing an entire 60-minute segment of Act II.

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