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How To Create More Suspense in Act Two: Use An Event With A Deadline

By Marilyn Horowitz

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What do the World Series and Halloween have in common? Aside from the fact that wearing a costume or a uniform is part of the deal, they are both defining events that happen at a certain time. Events with deadlines can be very useful as potential "ticking clocks" in your screenplay. Adding an event with a clear deadline is a great way to shore up any kind of story. Holidays are a good example, but other kinds of events that are germane to the arena of your story can be equally effective.

In my “Finish Your Script” class a few nights ago, five of my incredibly talented and prolific students who are writing in different genres had all hit a mid-script wall and were struggling with what should happen next in Act II, part 2 of their screenplays. ?What was needed was a way to create suspense, a sense of mystery that would tantalize the viewer to keep watching until the end. How could this be done for all five scripts, regardless of genre?

The answer in all five cases was to take whatever the event was in the third act climax, revisit the first act, and revise it in order to lay in hints that let the audience know where the film is headed, almost from page 1.

By using a deadline, either subtly or explicitly, to highlight the amount of time that will pass between the moments when the event hinted at in the first act until the event occurs in Act III is a great way to add that tension that will keep the audience on the edge of their seats. This can be done in a number of ways, such as by placing reminders in the dialogue about an impending deadline or by using such devices as a newscast in the background of a scene where the impending disaster or presidential election is discussed. A voiceover can be the right answer, but should be used only as a last resort unless it's a fundamental structural element.

For example, in the film, Election, we know immediately that the big event that's happening in the school is the upcoming Student Council election. The action of the film is driven by the fervent desire of a teacher, Jim McAllister, who does not want an ambitious student, Tracy Flick, to win because she has wronged his friend. In Act I, a voiceover introduces us to Jim’s passionate anger towards Tracy Flick for destroying his friend’s career. The vehemence in Jim's monologue creates organic curiosity and anticipation in the audience: how far will he really go? As the film progresses, Jim becomes increasingly desperate and it's only a matter of time until he loses control of his rage. Because we are aware of the deadline of the election, we stay involved, even as the film seems to detour in Act II, part 2, when he has the affair with his neighbor.

So to recap, the question asked was how to get past the mid-script wall? The answer is to create more suspense in Act II by going back and revising Act I! Revising Act I to accentuate and underline the Act III climactic event (for example, the counting of the votes in an Election) is the solution to getting your Act II to be both well structured and highly entertaining.

A last tip: This technique works for all genres. The Student Council election described above is only one particular type of event, but you could easily replace it with a dinner party, Halloween, a presidential election or any other deadline and achieve a similar result. Other successful examples are the use of New Year's Eve to precipitate Harry committing to Sally, the president's speech in In the Line of Fire, or the baptism of the child in The Godfather. Personal events such as birthdays, anniversaries, and payments due can also be effective. Even the simplest deadline of having to get up in the morning can be very powerful as evidenced in the film, Groundhog Day.

Exercise: Pick an event that is relevant to your screenplay and see if by planting it in Act I, mentioning it throughout Act II and having it happen in Act III you can't raise the level of suspense and keep your audience on the edge of their seats.

I also suggest you take a look at the breakdown of “Pretty Woman” in Movie Outline 3's reference library, in which the element of “time pressure” and the ticking clock is established at the end of Act I (Step 8). Vivian charges by the hour so Edward decides to eliminate this pressure and pay her for the night. Then in Act II (Step 13) Edward decides to hire Vivian for the entire week and here is where the deadline is set which pays off in Act III (Step 44). This is where the relationship reaches its end game and their week together is finally over. Had the deadline not been set up in Act I and Act II this scene would have no emotional impact and be redundant.

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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