Yup, you’ve got it again – those Second Act Blues, a malady that has plagued screenwriters since the beginning of time, more or less. OK, since the beginning of screenwriting.
It’s perfectly natural. After all, you’re writing a screenplay and the chances of selling it are, well, about a gazillion to none. And here you are, smack down in the middle. This is when you start to wonder why you even started writing in the first place. Or why you even learned to read. You start cursing Shakespeare and all the great writers of yore. Soon you’re ready to burn that pile of great screenplays sitting at the foot of your bed. Hell, why even bother using language? It causes so much harm.
That’s when you need to calm down, breathe deeply, and re-read this article. I’m Greg DePaul, produced screenwriter and author of Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter, and I’m here to help. And by the way, my advice works for those of you writing non-comedies as well.
Here are some tips for getting through the Second Act Blues. Five ways to deal with that vast wasteland known as the Middle Of The Script. How you get through the desert:
1. Make sure you’ve built enough obstacles into your story.Sometimes a writer just hasn’t done her job of making the lead character’s journey difficult enough to sustain a one-hundred minute movie. If that’s your problem, fix it. Re-construct your second act so your protagonist not only has to walk through walls, but must deal with the fact that the walls are on fire. And surrounded by barbed wire. And the bad guys have bigger guns and… you get the idea.
Build more obstacles and make them progressively harder to scale. Trust me; your protagonist needs resistance. Without it, we’ll never get to know who she really is. Characters must be continually tested. So test away.
2. Get yourself a B Story.When I read a script that only has an A story, I find myself a tad shocked. Yes, there are some great movies that don’t have a B story to provide relief, but they’re a fine wine. For the most part, we need our heroes to have a love interest. Or a family. Their lives, like ours, are almost never one-dimensional. And anyway, we need periodic breaks from the A story.
Sure, if your story takes place over the course of a single day and the hero is trying to save the city from a nuclear detonation that will go off at midnight unless she solves a riddle or kills the bad guy, then maybe – if the story truly boils with tension on every page – you can forgo a B Story. But in a narrative lasting days or weeks (not in screen time, but in off-screen time), we crave little breaks in which we find out if the hero is, well, gettin’ some. Of course, the B Story must be worked into the larger story of the movie. It must matter to us. It can’t be arbitrary or out of the blue. But in most cases it needs to be there to give your protagonist a full life.
3. Get yourself another protagonist.Yeah, I know. This is hard to do on short notice, like when you’re half way through writing a first draft. But if it’s what your story needs, do it. Writing a screenplay with a single protagonist means there has to be plenty of plot. Action after action after twist after twist. Not all writers do that well. I know I don’t.
So don’t try. Write a buddy story like Let’s be Cops, The Heat, or 21 Jump Street. In buddy stories, two lead characters go through all the major story turns together. That means each major twist in the story will provoke pages and pages of funny dialogue. Your two leads might argue for an entire set piece before doing the simplest thing, such as opening a door or buying a bagel. That’s because they have issues as a duo and they bring those issues wherever they go. And that eats up pages. It means less surface plot to devise. It slows the story down and gets the most out of each scene. If you write clever dialogue and great mano a mano moments (or, if you prefer, womano a womano), you’ll excel and you’ll only need about half as much actual story. Your second act will be easier to plot and more fun to write. Blues conquered.
4. Feed the Page Gods.Before you started writing this puppy, you said you’d write “seven pages a day,” didn’t you? Well if you didn’t, you should have. When writing a first, rough draft of a screenplay, you should take a blood oath before you begin that you will never fall under a certain page count each day. Remember: your writing will suck most of the time, but the way you push forward through your outline or beat sheet is to push forward. That means writing when you don’t want to, writing when you hate writing, and writing when you’d rather play Minecraft. (And actually, setting page goals works for writing other types of material as well. For instance, I wrote ten pages a day when writing the first draft of my mind-numbingly awesome book Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter. So it works for non-fiction prose as well.)
5. Write with a friend.Hey, if you normally write solo, I realize this would be a huge change. Suddenly someone – another person, for Godsakes — would be sitting next to when you write. And that’s not easy to deal with. You’d have to put on pants and clean up your writing room.
But if you have the Second Act Blues over and over again, then maybe your muse is telling you something. I wrote with a partner for years and we sold a half dozen screenplays to major studios because we pushed each other every day. I’ve also written solo and it’s damned hard. So give partnering with someone a try if it helps you move forward. Writing, like life, is exploration. And you may find it’s better to suffer through the Second Act Blues with a friend than to suffer alone.