SPOILERS AHOY: Toy Story 1 & 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo
It’s weird, but I often find myself talking to different people about the same thing screenwriting-wise, whether I’m writing my own stuff, reading other people’s or having random conversations about writing. For example, this last week and a half I have had no less than six conversations about the problems people have in “keeping it going” in Act 2.
Very often in the specs I read, the Set Up may start very well, even catapult us right into in to the story – yet as soon as Act 2 kicks off, the problems surface. The protagonist’s journey often becomes turgid, as if the character is dragging themselves through treacle in order to get to their goal. Sometimes, the journey even grinds to a halt, so said protagonist feels as if s/he is “running on the spot”. In short, Act 2 – half the screenplay in real terms – has not got a sense of “progression”, the narrative “sags” in the middle. When it comes to structure, we can rattle off the names of the Three Acts without any issue: Set Up, Conflict, Resolution. Thanks to the likes of the Ten Page Test, the newer scribes are at last appreciating the importance of hitting the ground running so Set Ups are getting better. Very often too, Resolutions are avoiding the more obvious pitfalls like the dreaded Deus Ex Machina. Yet the “sagging” conflict is a problem it seems for all writers, of all experience, it seems to me – whether new, professional or reader.
So if it’s not experience (or lack of it) that causes “sags”, then what is it? Personally, I believe it’s a wish to NOT inflict the most pain and/or difficulty on your character. I realised this with Grace herself, the protagonist whom my script is named after; I had literally been avoiding putting her in the types of situation that cause the most conflict. I bet you’ve done the same at some point, or will in the future: you’ve created this person, they are literally your baby and you don’t want them to have to go through the worst of times. But guess what? Act 2 is called CONFLICT for a reason, because as we also all know thanks to Syd Field and the many other gurus out there, drama is conflict.
When thinking about good Act Twos for this article, it occurred to me Pixar movies are one of the best for putting their characters through “the worst of times”. No matter what happens to their characters, things will ALWAYS get worse before it gets better. It isn’t bad enough that Buzz Lightyear has bounced into the yard of a sadist kid who blows up toys?? Oh no — he has to realise he is deluded, he’s not a *real* space ranger at all!!! Buzz knows this in Toy Story 2, so when he’s looking for his friend Woody who has been toynapped — another deluded Space Ranger takes Buzz’s place!! In A Bug’s Life, Flik must inadvertantly sabotage himself, over and over again, so he gets thrown out of the colony, not once but TWICE. In Monsters Inc, not only do Mike and Sully have a little girl to send back to the real world, they discover a terrible plot to “steal” screams and not only that, their boss is in on it!!! In Finding Nemo, Marlin has escape after escape from the monsters of the deep and also must realise he’s molly coddled his son (and is in part responsible for his loss) actually in A WHALE’S MOUTH!!! And yet not one of these 3D masterpieces has an unhappy resolution. If Pixar animations don’t prove, absolutely, that drama is conflict, I don’t know what does.One of the best explanations I ever read about “keeping it going” in Act 2 was from the mighty Yves Lavandier. In his book, Writing Drama, he likens Act 2 to a “a series of walls, each one higher than the last.” In other words, a writer needs to provide specific events, with each one WORSE than the one that preceded it, in order to propel us towards the resolution. It’s bloody obvious when you think of it in such terms: I now think of it as the protagonist having to climb a ladder, rung after rung, towards that all-important goal. Yet sometimes it needs someone to state the obvious before **one** can grasp the obvious.
So next time you’re stuck in Act 2 Hell, ask yourself: what events can happen here, to ensure my protagonist has a wall to get over… And what happens AFTER THAT?!
Buy “Writing Drama” By Yves Lavandier here.