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Stories from a seasoned screenwriter. Take heart! Your creative source is infinite and un-ending. Sometimes Hollywood just rips up the roadmap back to it. The bottom line is that Hollywood is not at all as bad as it sounds. Additionally, it's worse than you can imagine. Remember to pack a sense of humor.


I am a screenwriter living in Southern California. I've written screenplays for most of the Hollywood studios over the past 20 years. One of the uncredited writers of FANTASTIC FOUR, I wrote FIRE DOWN BELOW starring Steven Seagal, and the TV Movie 12:01 PM starring Martin Landau and MANEATER with Gary Busey. I have directed short films. I have written on numerous Hollywood studio assignments, some for big shot actors, some for small shot nobodies.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The Second Act Slump

God, I hate it. I think it is what kills most prospective writers (and pros) from finishing original work, and it's what we all curse and bemoan and torture our wives, pets, or significant others during, and often finish only during assignments because - well, we have a deadline.

And it's what I'm in now. And I had a really good outline.

So what does it mean?

Simple. Not enough tension.

How many times have we all sailed happily up to the first act break and then stopped as if we had reached the flat end of the world, and beyond is the fall into the abyss? Oh, you haven't? Woops.

A good friend of mine, an award winner, says he has more great first acts than anything else, and has no idea what to do with half of them.

I think that's par for the course. We all have great ideas like that. What makes for a long form work is mounting tension, the beginnings of unfinished business, and the characters that play these ideas out over multiple story lines, slowly answering the small questions, until the big question is answered at the end.

So it's crucial in act one, to begin starting your unfinished business. That is the tension that crosses over from act one into act two and beyond, in and under the main story of your hero. Sure, he/she has ever increasing problems or confusions. But along with that are the secondary stories that are asking their own questions, supporting characters coming into conflict, setting up betrayals, enemies who may become friends, etc.

Look there to find the key to unlock the slump.


Anonymous Joshua said...

I hear that - though most often I get trapped in my third act - for me that's the most difficult one, for some reason.

Friday, August 26, 2005  
Blogger s.warren said...

I'm always finding new and exciting ways to drop a project during the second act. I don't know if it's due to a lack of tension or what, but I'm seemingly always coming up with new ideas that suddenly seem more attractive. And, since I'm not being paid for any of this, I hop onto the new project. I've completed quite a few scripts... but I have a graveyard of a dozen or more unfinished scripts in my wake. I always mean to go back to it... but I never do.

Friday, August 26, 2005  
Blogger RationalThug said...

Well, I've tackled this problem by making my scripts a bit shorter. Say, around 60 pages. But now, I'm stuck on page 15...

Friday, August 26, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

rational thug: ha!
s warren: yes, the problem is universal, I feel. Writing is hard work, and it's always something in the orchestration of character that's not allowing enough tension to build - something in the hero's story that is incomplete in his desire, or something inappriopriately figured out about his opponent.

Joshua: tying it all together is never easy, and staying emtional, allowing it all to resonate deeper as you reach the finale is the big challenge, (also without huge expository speeches a la Dashiell Hammett) and not give into cliche or emotional platitudes, so I understand the third act woes. Keep it simple, keep action/confrontation high, but avoid repetition and lengthy "I got you! Aha! And "why you suck" speeches. Less is more, keep the poetry.

Friday, August 26, 2005  
Blogger Melville said...

There's a real fabulous article of Terry Rossio concerning this topic, "The Off-Screen Movie":

His - how I think incredibly smart - point is, shortly: What you don't show should be as interesting as what you show. Changed my thinking.

Enjoy your weekend.

Saturday, August 27, 2005  
Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

There are several tricks I use to TRY and avoid "The 2nd Act Slump."

1. A trick I learned from Bill Martell was to think of a 90-95 page screenplay as three equal acts. No slack there. No time to get bored.

2. If the script is longer then I think of the mid-point as an act break, so I'm actually thinking in 4 act structure. I try to make that midpoint an emotional turn rather than a plot driven turn. It's still a cliffhanger moment (especially coming from my brain) but it's an internal twist that makes the hero's job that much harder. This also sets up the final act as being, of course, the resolution to ALL the hero's problems - internal and external.

3. Use a lot of structure in the outline phase and ask those questions that need asking:

What's the hero's ext. problem?
What his malfunction that makes him emotionally incapable of solving this ext. problem?
What kind of really nasty roadblocks can I throw in my hero's way - both emotional and external?

Saturday, August 27, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

Bill, great post thank you for that! The three act 95 page script thing is very intereesting, never tried that.

You're right, of course, a script is four acts, the three act syd field thing is wrong, but he wrote the first book, and came up with a very simple formula, so what the hell. But I always thought the - yes, act 2 is twice as long but has a mid-point turning point! - as a little odd. Had to figure out myself it was four acts, as that wasn't in any books of my time. Is it now, by the way? Or did you figure that one yourself too?

good questions, at the end too. I like the simpliciyt of "what is the hero's external/internal problem?"

Sunday, August 28, 2005  
Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

I kind of figured it out on my own by reading a lot of TV scripts which have 4-5 acts (which if you look at them in light of Syd Field then they can be boiled down to 3 Acts)...
Being a graduate of Writer's Boot Camp also made me define it all for myself as 4 act structure. Their outline method is known as a 3-6-3 (the "6" being the second act composed of two 3 part structures). That to me says 4 acts.

I also hear writers refer to "The Scifi Channel" method as having 7 acts. That's okay if you're counting commercial breaks as act breaks: Toe-may-toe or Toe-mah-toe - it's still the same sauce as four act structure.

Sunday, August 28, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Somewhere I came across the idea that the 2nd act is the story. Meaning that the 1st act is merely a complex chain of events that lead up to your story, the 3rd act shows how you resolve the story, but the 2nd act is The Story, the whatever it is you mean to say, the purpose of the whole exercise, what the script is about.

I think this is an interesting idea.

A lot of people (myself certainly) compose what they think is pretty well developed story and then find out to their dismay that only acts 1 and 3 are pretty well developed but act 2 turns out to be largely uncharted territory. One that looks rather a lot like tundra.

That's why people have come up with the idea of midpont (4 acts), the 8 sequence stucture or the 7 or 9 sequence structure. It's an attempt to break the 2nd act into managable units.

The 1st and 3rd acts are more technical than the 2nd act, that's my view at any rate. Structure-theories give you some pointers on how to deal with the first and last acts, basically a set of bendable 'rules' that are applicable to every kind of story (provided they are traditional in the sense of having a beginning, middle and end). But I don't think there are rules for the 2nd act, at least not rules that apply to every story. I believe that you're mostly on your own in the 2nd act. Perhaps the 2nd act is the most revealing/personal part of every screenplay.


Monday, August 29, 2005  
Blogger Alex Epstein said...

I always hit a wall around page 40. I like to call it the Sucky Point. Every screenplay sucks around page 40. You just have to keep going because, after all, previous screenplays once sucked at page 40, and now they're worth reading, so this one will too.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005  
Blogger Philip Morton said...

alex: I think "Sucky Point" is one of the funniest things I've heard in a while, and will have to use that from now on. You comically nail a crucial problem of many long form stories - which has to do with a lack of tension as you cross into the second act - as so many tend to oddly resolve things at the end of act one, even though the "adventure/problem/issue is innitiated. That's usually the problem, don't you think? Do you deal with that point in your book? If I write a book can I use "sucky point" as the delineator of page 40? (if I credit you?).

Wednesday, September 28, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Help!!! I've just completed by second draft (112 pages) and have a question I cannot find ANYWHERE! Though Act 2 starts to end at page 84, it doesn't complete its end until 86. Is this amount of slack allowed?


Tuesday, July 30, 2013  

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