So far, our lessons have been kind of fun and games:
- Protagonist is the main character, the hero.
- Objective is the thing protagonist wants.
- Antagonist, bad guy, stands between the protagonist and the objective.
- Mentor points the protagonist in the right direction.
- Inciting incident happens to the protagonist, changing her life forever, kicking the movie in motion.
- Flaw is a flaw and every protagonist has one.
- Call to action sets the protagonist in motion.
A lot happens in Act One and it happens fast . . . but Act Two is a different beast.
Some writers will tell you that anyone can write a First Act. They’ll say most everyone can write a Third Act. Act Two, on the other hand, is littered with the bodies of dead writers. Okay, not really. Actually, maybe really.
“Act Two is littered with the bodies of dead writers.”
What happens in Act Two?
Plenty, but I’ll try to keep it as simple as possible.
Act Two is a tightrope and a long one. It’s sixty to seventy pages long. Story-action in Act Two revolves around three main things: protagonist, objective, and obstacles.
Obstacles of Act Two
Obstacles are road blocks the writer puts in the protagonist’s way, keeping her from reaching the objective.
Think of obstacles as a series of tests—this is really important—those tests and obstacles become increasingly difficult the further you get into Act Two.
“Tests and obstacles become increasingly difficult the further you get into Act Two.”
Overcoming obstacles defines the protagonist, both his character and growth. The more difficult the obstacles, the better the journey and greater the protagonist’s growth. The greater the test, the greater the journey.
Let’s take a look at The Graduate. The film is a pretty straightforward “boy wants girl.” We’ll skip over Act One and move right into Act Two, since that is our focus.
In early Act Two, boy (Ben) learns he can’t have girl (Elaine), because girl’s mother forbids it. Why? That’s another story.
Anyway, Mom says you can’t date my daughter. Mom’s an obstacle and, as designed by the writer, she is formidable. How formidable?
Why is Mrs. Robinson so mean? Remember, the greater the test, the greater the journey. Just think, what if Jaws was a dolphin? Mrs. Robinson is, it’s fair to say, a killer, just like Jaws.
Later in Act Two, the Elaine moves to Berkley, California, away from the Ted, who lives in Los Angeles. Distance = obstacles and obstacles are mounting. Ted goes to see Elaine, but she won’t speak to him, due to mother’s orders. Obstacles increase, again. Good!
As we move into late Act Two, Buck Henry, the screenwriter, knew he had to push the stakes. What would make things really be difficult for Ted? What if Elaine was getting married? What could be worse for the Ted/protagonist? Nothing. The stakes have increased, impossibly high: Ted can’t have Elaine, if she’s married to someone else.
Then, Henry pushes obstacles a notch higher. When Elaine getting married? Tomorrow. And the wedding is taking place in a different town. Distance = obstacles. Ted must get to the chapel in Santa Barbara before Elaine before she marries another man!
Again, the obstacles have grown, becoming (nearly) impossible to overcome.
In case you haven’t seen the film (spoiler), Ted makes it to the chapel. He fights off the groom, father, and mother. And, yes, boy gets girl.
Try reversing the order of these events: high stakes first and lower stakes later. It strips the conflict out of the film.
As conflict increases, obstacles become bigger and or more threatening. The writer should remember she is building story, building momentum, and raising the stakes.
“The writer should remember that they are building story, building momentum, and raising the stakes.”
I said above, Buck Henry must have thought, “What is the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist?” (which is the question every writer should ask of the protagonist in late Act Two). What is the worst thing that could possibly happen?
Most writers don’t want to go there. They want to save or protect the protagonist from the terrible things that may happen. Nothing could be more wrongheaded. You want what’s worse for the protagonist. What’s worse is where the conflict is! Go there!
Speaking of conflict . . .
There are many ways to create conflict. For instance, there is . . .
With external conflict, the protagonist faces outside forces: opposing team, bad guys, hurricane, killer shark, wicked witch, and so on.
External conflict is visual and very clear, easy for the audience to understand. Summer blockbusters and action films are built on external conflict: stop the bomb, catch the bad guy, halt the meteorite before it demolishes Earth.
Steven Spielberg kept it simple in Jaws. External conflict came in the form of a giant, man-eating shark. The shark wants to eat you and you don’t want to be eaten = External Conflict.
In this scene, taken from the movie True Grit, Mattie’s objective is simple: to cross the river.
Here’s another example from Kramer vs. Kramer, which is a reality-based drama.
But enough with the external stuff. There is also…
Inner conflict is, as the name would suggest, internal. It can be mental, psychological, and or emotional. Inner conflict is, by its very nature, not visual, which offers the writer a unique set of problems. Movies are a visual medium. How do you dramatize a stomachache? Your character might wince or double over in pain, but there’s not much drama there.
Woody Allen, perhaps more than any other writer, explores and exploits inner conflict. Frequently, Allen uses voice-over to give the audience a deeper sense of the character’s inner conflict. Or Allen gives the protagonist a therapist to talk to, so we can hear what we cannot see—the inner conflict.
Through voice over or therapist, the audience hears what’s going on in the protagonist’s mind. We’re privy to his angst, fear, paranoia, etc.
Another option when trying to reveal inner conflict is the use of a sounding board. A sounding board frequently comes in the form of best friend, which is similar to Allen’s therapist.
. . . And now you know why there are so many best friends in movies!
We need to hear what the main character is thinking. The audience does not have access to the protagonist’s inner turmoil, unless they hear those thoughts. Best friend, mentor, therapist, or confidant. Any of those will work, as long as the audience hears and appreciates the protagonist’s internal conflict.
This best-friend-inner-conflict-access was well done in the film Tootsie. Just before the movie went into production, so the story goes, Elaine May suggested giving Dustin Hoffman’s character, Michael, a best friend. That friend came in the form of Jeff, Bill Murray’s character. Jeff is simply someone for Michael to talk to.
Some of the best moments in Tootsie are when Michael asks Jeff for wardrobe assistance.
FYI: Hoffman plays a woman in the film, but he’s in love with a woman who doesn’t know he is really a man. Yes, you have to see the film.
Let’s see good conflict in action.
Here’s an example I use in class from time to time.
1.Boy meets a girl on a plane. They fall in love = No story
2. Boy meets a girl on a plane. They fall in love, but she’s engaged = Better story
3. Boy meets a girl on a plane. They fall in love, but she’s engaged to boy’s brother = Even better story
4. Boy meets a girl on a plane. They fall in love. Girl’s engaged to boy’s brother and the wedding is three days away (ticking clock) = Much better story
5. Boy meets a girl on a plane. They fall in love. She’s engaged to his brother. The wedding is three days away. Also, boy’s father is extraordinarily wealthy. If boy steals his brother’s fiancé, the father will disown him and cut him off financially. Of course, the boy is broke = Movie
Why does boy-meets-girl-on-the plane scenario work?
Each time, we add an obstacle. Conflict grows and the drama builds. The demands of the conflict are placed directly on the protagonist. If he meets someone and falls in love, that’s easy. If he meets someone and falls in love, but risks alienating his brother, then it must be true love.
But, if he meets someone and the relationship means his life will be adversely affected, financially and otherwise, he has made a sacrifice, as only a hero can.
- Act Two is all about creating obstacles for the protagonist.
- Obstacles become more difficult as you move through Act Two.
- External obstacles are visual and easily accessible to the audience.
- Inner obstacles are frequently realized, for the audience’s sake, via conversation with best friends or mentor.
- Think of the worst thing that can happen to the protagonist. Then, make it happen.