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How To Master The Wild and Wooly Second Act of Your Screenplay

By Marilyn Horowitz

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I will be teaching a workshop on this topic for fifty plus screenwriters in New York City. As I was preparing my lecture, it occurred to me that organizing the main points of my workshop into a single script tip might be helpful to all of you.

You can think of screenplay structure as a sandwich – Acts 1 and 3 are the bread of the sandwich, and Act 2 is the meat of the matter.  The first Magic Question asks, “What is my main character’s dream?”  And the fourth Magic question asks,” What is the resolution of the dream?” 

The answer to how to use these questions will be the subject of my next Script Tip, but very briefly, if we use the film, The Wizard of Oz as an example, Acts 1 and 3 take place in Kansas, and explore and answer what Dorothy’s dream is and how she achieves it.

The second act of a screenplay seems to be the most troublesome part for many of the screenwriters I work with, in part because it’s twice as long as either Act 1 or Act 3, and also because many writers are not crystal clear about what is actually supposed to be happening.  In our example, Act 2 takes place in Oz.  Once Miss Gulch has taken Toto to be destroyed and he escapes, Dorothy is forced to leave her home in order to save him and it’s this journey that is the subject of Act 2. But the journey is complex and changes mid-script.

Here’s the key: The second act of a screenplay is NOT one long story!

The second act of a screenplay is best thought of as having two parts of equal length, with an escalation of action at approximately 60 pages in, or halfway through.  I refer to these sections of the second act as Act 2, part 1 and Act 2, part 2 respectively.

Act 2, part 1 should ask and answer the Magic Question of “What is my main character’s nightmare?”  For example, if we consider the film, The Wizard of Oz, as our model, in this part of the story, Dorothy lands in Oz, accidentally kills The Wicked Witch of the East, earns the Ruby Slippers and discovers she is in a foreign land, away from home, and most take a terrifying journey to ask The Wizard to help her return home. Definitely a nightmare!

Another key is that at the end of Act 2, part 1, which should be halfway through your screenplay, is to add an event that will allow your story to become more fraught with jeopardy and increase the danger the hero or heroine must face. 

In our example, Dorothy meets the Wizard, who instead of sending her home, demands that she attain the Wicked Witch Of The West’s broom as a payment.

The Third Magic Question is: “Who or what would your main character ‘die’ for?” The word die is in quotes because sometimes it is not a literal death, but rather a major change in the character that occurs because of the events he or she experiences in this part of the story. In The Wizard Of Oz, Dorothy would die to return home, and very nearly does so at the hands of the Wicked Witch Of The West!

She must muster all the smarts and bravery she has to find her way back home. It is in this section where Dorothy grows as a person. She is tried, tested, challenged, attacked, befriended, lost, found, running into obstacle after obstacle as she tries to fulfill the Wizard’s demand.

She takes her friends to aid her on her journey, and this choice is what provides us with the answer to the 3rd Magic question: Dorothy is willing to die to save her friends, and risks her life to save the Scarecrow.

A note here on the Third Magic Question: The choice of how harsh the event will be in Act 2, part 2 must be based on the kind of genre you are writing in. In a crime story, death would be literal, but in a comedy, there would be metaphoric choice. For example, in the film, Little Miss Sunshine, the grandfather dies and his son steals the body, so that his daughter can make it to the beauty pageant on time.

So to summarize, once you divide your Second Act into 2 parts – a nightmare, then who or what your character would die for, you raise the dramatic tension, which allows the story to build to the climax – in this case Dorothy killing the Wicked Witch, then finding out the person who she pinned all her dreams on – the Wizard of Oz, is a fraud. The key here is to make sure that Act 2 part 1 builds up into Act 2 part 2 – the tension should build, not fall.

Here’s the exercise:

Step 1: Watch your favorite movie and parse the second act into 2 parts.  Watch it in 10 minute sections hopefully using The 4 Magic Questions, or another of my books, How To Write A Screenplay In 10 Weeks.

Step 2: Repeat the process for your current screenplay, and see if you are answering the questions, and if there is an event mid-screenplay that raises the stakes.

Step 3: Watch 3 films in different genres so that you can gain an organic understanding of the third Magic Question.

To sum up, by viewing the second act of your screenplay as having a two-part structure, you can master the work. And in general, using the 4 Magic Questions of Screenwriting will give you a more streamlined and systematic way to write.

Good luck and happy writing!

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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