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Act Two - The Elusive Heart of the Screenplay

By Jengo Robinson

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Act II is the longest and most difficult part of any screenplay. It is the 60-page heart of the script. But it's a broken heart, split into two very distinct halves, and the dividing page contains the most critical part of the story. This must happen at the mid-point on page 60.

How To Create a Mid-Point Shock

The show-stopper of a Hollywood screenplay should burst like a thunderbolt halfway through the second Act, exactly one-hour into the drama. Figure this out, because Act II cannot generally fall into place until this moment is established.

Anyone can read books on this subject, even more can become totally perplexed by all the diverse and confusing points, moments of enlightenment, crises, percentages and general lack of clarity. However, my disciplined method is a simple way of structuring Act II, in line with Hollywood standards.

How to Structure the Act II Mid-Point

Imagine a tale about a sexually nervous college graduate who is seduced by an older woman. At the end of Act I, she makes it very clear she is available, and given half a chance would jump straight in the sack with him! But the movie must end with the hero's love for the older woman's forbidden daughter. To win her hand, he must destroy an arranged marriage, barricade the church and run away with her.

I give you the 'The Graduate' with its perfect set-up and brilliant conclusion. Act I and Act III. But, the trick is the pace of the 60-page Act II and its correct structure. Ben has to progress from sleeping with Mrs. Robinson on page-30, to the low-point on page 90, where he has apparently lost all hope of marrying Elaine.

You must divide Act II in half. Watch 'The Graduate' again. And again. It is perfect. Look again at the significant events in Act II.

They are as follows:- Night one in the hotel with Mrs. Robinson and the montage that follows. His father berates Ben about his future. "And would you mind telling me what those four years of hard work were for?" Ben's unforgettable response, "You got me."

Then we get the first argument between Ben and Mrs. Robinson in the hotel room, and the incendiary topic of Elaine. We move to the first date with Elaine. Ben tries to tell her he has slept with her mother, and then that devastating moment when Mrs. Robinson appears, hears and coldly calls the police. Elaine is sent back to Berkeley. What now for the pitiful Ben?

Devastated, he drives to Berkeley hoping to find Elaine, but discovers she has a new boyfriend and a virtually arranged marriage. Ben is helpless. His life shattered, his love lost, beaten by his lust and his true self. This is the low-point. This is how Act II plays out in order. The significant event is the turning-point when Mrs. Robinson becomes enraged at Ben's interest in Elaine. Not until then do we suddenly think, "Uh, oh. This lady is dangerous."

This is the classic page-60 event, dividing, changing and heightening. The fling with the mother in Act II A, the fling with daughter in Act II B. It's that simple. Don't get caught up with theory. Just neatly divide Act II in this fashion - sharp as the slash of a dagger.

How To Figure A Mid-Point

And, as ever, there's a knack. Look for the moment where the drama is heightened. At the beginning of Act II A, your hero is pursuing his goal, dealing with conflicts, until suddenly, something changes his course.

In 'The Graduate,' Ben discovers Elaine is very beautiful, and that he's falling in love with her. As her mother's lover, this is a potentially disastrous moment, loaded with unimaginable consequences. Therefore, 'The Graduate's' mid-point must be the arrival of Elaine, and the first glimpses of Mrs. Robinson's fury. They filmed this scene so skillfully, so movingly, Ben could be seen before our eyes to begin losing his attraction to Mrs. Robinson, and Elaine now represents the conflict that will carry the rest of the drama. Mrs. Robinson becomes the nemesis.

Watch films with a stop-watch to hand. Concentrate on this moment. With practice, you will never miss that flip-the-script moment when the course of the movie is suddenly set in marble. Every Hollywood producer looks for it and expects it bang before his eyes.

Next Step - The Low Point

The Low-Point is where your hero has just about run out of options. All hope is lost. His goal no longer seems attainable. Notice the words 'just about' and 'seems.' This is the key. Nothing is finished, but it must appear that way. Your hero, on page 90, must be beat-up, battered, and emotionally cooked. This is the first time he's been this distraught, this helpless. Ben Braddock is in the boarding house. Mr. Robinson is threatening to sue. Elaine is getting married. Mrs. Robinson has orchestrated his worst nightmare. He's disgraced at home. It couldn't be worse. This is page 90. The audience is suicidal. This is the low-point.

And of course, there's a trick to creating a devastating page 90 which will keep the drama alive. And it's everything to do with time.

Ben cannot spend the afternoon hanging around the University of California Berkeley, remembering better times, because Elaine is getting married right now. He must race north, find the church, break down the door, and save her from a fate which only he appreciates represents cold horror.

What follows is one of the greatest Act III's ever filmed. The hero must act now or never. If he doesn't get dressed and get moving, he will lose the only girl he would ever love. The race is against time.

Another example of a brilliant low-point comes in the gangster movie 'Scarface,' when Tony Montana kills his best friend after he discovers him with his sister. Tony guns Manny down, and without emotion, steps back into his Rolls Royce, and drives home. But he inhales a mountain of cocaine, and suddenly realizes he's murdered the only man he ever trusted. "Oh, fuck, Manny. How the fuck I do that?... How the fuck I do that Manny?" The brash, cocky, kiss-my-ass Tony, in tears of remorse.

This leads directly to the final battle of Act III. But like Ben in 'The Graduate,' Tony Montana has no time to wallow in his sorrow. Sosa's army has arrived to finish him.

You need a low-point thunderstorm where the hero is weak, maybe even broken, and the nemesis comes forward like Attila the Hun. The time element will usually solve itself.

Once you have established the mid-point and the low-point, it should be plain sailing to the movie's end. That's if you've planned it meticulously. With the Act II A cliff-hanger halfway, and the Act II B roller-coaster to impending catastrophe properly set out, your run-in to an interesting end is nothing like so difficult as the minefield of Act II. Page 30 to page 90. That's when you face death. Tread carefully and plan properly.

About Jengo Robinson

Jengo Robinson has a BA in Creative Writing and Art History from the University of East Anglia. He's written eight feature film scripts, and has a 1 yr diploma in screenwriting from the New York Film Academy. He works in London as a script consultant.
Screenwriting Article by Jengo Robinson

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