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Act II: Into the Thick of It

In continuation of my article featuring the first act, we’ll now move on to Act II structure. As you already know, there is no one handier to help in story structure than Blake Snyder and his beat sheet. In act I we covered the Opening Image (page 1), the Theme Stated (page 5), the Set-Up (page 1-10), the Catalyst (Page 12), the Debate (Page 12-25) and the Break into Two (Page 25). Now this time around we’ll be facing Syd Field’s ‘confrontation’ stage head on, defined in his three-act paradigm.

Act two is the heart of your film, the nitty-gritty substance, the part where your character will encounter the very significance of the story and face the main obstacles heralding his or her way. It’s about fifty pages long (30-85), defines your arc, reveals the stakes, and explores your theme.

Sounds complicated, right? But don’t panic. Snyder’s beats will give your script the fillers it needs to avoid any structural gaps.

The B story (Page 30)

The B story is the supporting side story, the sub-plot to your main story.

Generally speaking, B stories are murky, the grey area of solid script-writing, because your B story can’t just be about your character’s sidekick. Your B story must address your story’s theme. That’s right, the one Blake Snyder told you to state in Act I.

Sometimes it runs to the rescue of your A story.

Let us visualize.

In Greg Berlanti’s Life as we Know it, the A story is Holly and Eric coming together to look after their goddaughter, but the B story is the development of their relationship, which circles back and fortifies the A story. Because of their teamwork, they achieve their goal of looking after their child.

Sometimes it adds heart.  In Jurassic Park, it’s the arrival of Hammond’s nephew and niece, adding a nice layer of emotion to the story. Because suddenly, the film isn’t just going to be about dinosaurs on a rampage, it’s going to be about protecting the children from the rampage.

It may sound like a particularly complicated Rubik’s cube, but the B story is essentially how the main character deals with all the obstacles thrown at him by the A story.

It’s the emotional plotline of your story, the part with the sentimental and solid depth, whereas your A story is the action-packed objective of your story.

Fun and Games (Page 30-55)

I reckon the Fun and Games segment pretty much speaks for itself, but in any case, it’s usually the most enjoyable part of watching any film. Before any drama kicks in, the Fun and Games section makes life look pretty good for your protagonist. They’re a respite from the drama and problems to come, they’re entertaining and engaging. In Pretty Women, we see a sequence featuring down-on-her-luck Vivian enjoying the glamour of high society. She shops. She enjoys the hotel’s luxuries and nice meals. Why? Duh, it’s fun to watch. In Bruce Almighty, Bruce plays around with his powers; in the Hunger Games, Katniss is preened and primped and fed and glamorized for the games. It’s fun to write, fun to read, and fun to watch.

 The Midpoint (Page 55)

The Midpoint is different from the Catalyst of Act I. Whereas the Catalyst delivered the main character into a brand new world, the midpoint delivers the character into a new adventure (the whole point of the film). It comes halfway through the second act and propels the protagonist into a new direction. In The Philosopher’s Stone, the trio find out Fluffy is guarding the Philosopher’s stone. In Jurassic Park, it’s the moment when the electricity goes out, the dinosaurs are on the loose and the park’s no longer a safe, happy haven. You just know it’s going to be a bloodbath. Boom, the stakes are raised. In Jaws, the shark strikes again, and this time it’s going for Brody’s son in the estuary. Is he going to survive? This leads us to…

Bad Guys Close in (Page 55-75)

This is the official section of your screenplay, the part where the stakes are raised against the character. The protagonist’s situation of the midpoint (whether good or bad) starts to disintegrate further. Your antagonists are out to get your character now, and whether they’re physical (another human being), or emotional (fear, jealousy), they begin to overtake the storyline. For example, in 500 Days of Summer, the bad guys close in when Tom, out of jealousy, punches a guy hitting on Summer. There is no more fun and games now, it’s downhill from there.

In Lost in Translation, the bad guy is time, as Bob and Charlotte aren’t going to be in Japan for much longer and their friendship/relationship will inevitably come to an end.

All is Lost (Page 75)

It’s the ultimate crisis point. Here the character will either lose everything they’ve ever wanted and gotten, or they will realize that if they achieved it, it wasn’t what they were looking for anyway. It’s a false friend. It’s the moment where your character hits rock bottom and he or she is so far away from their goal, it seems impossible they’ll ever get there. In 500 Days of Summer, it’s Summer and Tom’s break-up. In the Philosopher’s Stone, it’s finding out that Snape is going to steal the stone and the only person who can protect it (Dumbledore) is gone. It’s when Han Solo is frozen in carbonite, when Harry dies in the Kingsman and when Indy’s father is shot in the chest in Indiana Jones.

Dark Night of the Soul (Page 75-85)

It’s the grievance period, the part where the protagonist tries to deal (or not) with the all is lost moment. It’s the wallowing in the utter failure before they pick themselves back up again. In 500 Days of Summer, the dark night of the soul is the part where Summer resigns her job, Tom becomes depressed and starts lashing out at everybody. In Jurassic Park, Hammond realizes the park is a failure: it’s not worth the lives lost, it’s got to be shut down.

The character must understand the reason why they’ve been beaten, so that they can overcome it in full. In Babadook, Amelia realizes that because she can’t let go of her husband, she can’t defeat the Babadook and so she’s exposing her son to danger. Essentially, the answer must lie in something learned from the B story, which touches on the theme stated in act one.

And with that you can relax, because you’ll have reached the end of act two. Now all you have left is your Breaking into the Finale, otherwise known to Blake Snyder as the resolution segment.

The good news is that if you’ve got a solid second act, then from here on out it’s all plain sailing to the end. The second act is all about testing your character’s strengths and weaknesses, dangling their goal in front of them and whipping it out of reach again when they least expect it. It’s complicated but not impossible, and if you think in terms of a full circle, one that incorporates your theme into your B story and then your B story into the realization of your theme, well, you’re flying high.

Formatting Fun: Scriptwriting Essentials

Script Formatting

So now that you’ve got the basics of your screenplay worked out and ready, it’s time to cast your ever-eager gaze onto the art of formatting.

This is possibly one of the trickiest aspects of scriptwriting to master, but only because there are plenty of differing views and techniques at large. If you grab a copy of the Hollywood Standard, by Christopher Riley, you’ll find it’s jampacked with formatting gems that will really make your life (and everyone else’s in your near perimeter) a lot easier. He covers every formatting element in existence, from transition shots to camera work–always handy if you’re a script supervisor.

Today I’ll provide you with the tools to equip you in writing one scene according to professional formatting guidelines. It won’t be enough to write a whole feature or even a decent short, but keep your eyes peeled and eventually you’ll get there. Script formatting is a bit like learning to drive a car, rocky and uncertain at first, then gradually easier until one day you wake up and it’s second nature. Another practical way to go about it–hands down–is by installing Celtx (a scriptwriting software) onto your computer. It’s free, it’s easy to navigate and it segments your excessive babbling into formatted elements, practically on automatic.

There are, after all, certain stylistic conventions every script must adhere to, independently of your writing style.

For now though, let’s focus on the basics. Say hello to Courier 12, he’s your new best friend. Every script is written in Courier-or a variation of the font, thanks to its clarity. But more importantly, setting is the first thing you’ll need to whack us over the head with. Bringing us to the time-old questions of who, where, when and why–not necessarily in that order.

1. Scene Heading

Every new scene you write–even if it’s set in the same room but at a different time–requires a heading. You’ll answer three questions (maybe more if you want to be very specific). Is the scene outside or inside (exterior or interior)? What is the specific location, a hotel lobby or a beach? Does the scene take place during the day or at night?

You’ll need to insert a new scene heading every time one of these elements change.

Interior and exterior are always abbreviated to INT. or EXT. (capitalized). But where you abbreviate the Interior with a dot, you’ll separate the location from the time of the day with a hyphen. So your scene headings will look something like this:

INT. COFFEE SHOP - MORNING

Or:

EXT. BROOKLYN BRIDGE - NIGHT

This is what Riley calls a Master Shot Heading, and anything longer than that is usually unnecessary. The code is short and sweet. Beyond that, you might be wasting paper space.

2. Action

The first thing to remember is that professional script-writers don’t tend to worry so much about their character’s inner thoughts for a reason. On the page, it doesn’t matter if Tom is agonizing over whether or not to jump from a balcony in a gun chase, if in the script it takes him a split-second to do so. The screenwriter must lay out the characters’ actions in a way that cinematographers and directors can easily visualize them–and quickly too.  Never be ambiguous, you can’t afford to be vague for literary effect, describe exactly what is happening as if it’s happening NOW. Action is always set in real time.

Writers usually break the rhythm of each action down into one or two sentences each, so that the time it takes to read the action, is how long it actually takes to carry out in real time. This is so that the reader generally has the same imaginative experience as the viewer will have.

 

In Pulp Fiction, the writer establishes via the ACTION, that the coffee shop is in Los Angeles, it’s 9:00 a.m and the place is bustling with breakfast-goers. That’s one sentence.

Next, he establishes the two protagonists of that scene:

"Two of these people are a YOUNG MAN and a YOUNG WOMAN."

Whenever we introduce our main character, you should capitalize their names once, to establish their protagonism.

 3. Character–Dialogue–Parenthetical

On Celtx, when selecting the Character from the drop box, the name of your character will automatically be centred in the document, and the Dialogue option will present itself just beneath that. Character names will always be capitalized.

You can also choose to portray the attitude or accompanying action with which your character speaks with the PARENTHETICAL option. The rule of thumb “Show, don’t tell” applies to the Parenthetical option, however. Parentheticals in every sentence is overkill.

For example:

 

JEREMY

(Slurring)

Leave me alone, I'm not drunk!

 

Or if the Dialogue spoken by your character takes place Off-Screen, you’ll write:

 

JEREMY (O.S)

Leave me alone, I’m not drunk!

 

If your character is narrating but you can’t see them, it’s defined as a Voice-Over, and looks like this:

 

HENRY (V.O)

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.

4.Transitions

Transitions are mostly used in scripts to define the abruptness with which each scene leads into the next. There is a lot of controversy nowadays as to whether these should only be inserted later in a shooting script, but as a writer, you might find them useful anyway.

The most common transitions are:

 

  • CUT TO:
  • DISSOLVE TO:
  • QUICK CUT:
  • FADE TO:
  • FADE OUT:
  • SMASH CUT:

 

Transitions are always capitalized and placed in the right-hand margin of a page, preceding a Scene Heading, as follows:

Jules finishes his burger, crumples the wrapper, and tosses it into the bin.

                                           Jules

                                         Let’s go.
Cut to:
 INT. HOTEL LOBBY - NIGHT

 

These are the ABCs of formatting, but there’s a lot left to cover so next time, we’ll delve into the different transition shots. Meanwhile, get Celtx and start experimenting. Also, look for scripts online, you’d be surprised by how many famous scripts are just sitting there, waiting to be read. See how they separate action into sentences. Learn dialogue pace. And focus on the scriptwriter’s style. You’ll start to notice a pattern unique to each writer. The best scripts stand out not just due to spotless formatting–but also because of individualistic traits.

If you read a lot of scripts, you’ll notice an improvement in your own writing within a matter of weeks. Remember, practice makes perfect.

 

Flaws for Thought: Character Development

In a technologically geared world, where VFX and Motion Graphics are taking the film industry by storm, proper character development is sometimes left at the wayside. Complex antagonists and detailed backstories have also taken a hit, alongside emotional depth and realistic personalities.

The hero’s flawless. The heroine well-groomed. He’s cocky. She’s funny. They laugh in the face of death. They drop corny one-liners even though they’ve got a gun pointed at their heads. There are faultless explosions and unconvincing reactions and it’s all a bit…

Predictable.

If you’re flicking through your script as you read this, and realise that you can smell a happy ending from a mile off, it might be time to revise your characters, as he or she could be a bit too predictable, and a bit too picture-perfect.

The same goes for your antagonist. Most people in real-life aren’t evil for the sake of being evil–they don’t have trademark wicked cackles and devious master plans. People have complex backstories that make them the way they are–and this is in constant development. The human brain is a slimy network of grey matter (literally)—there really is no black or white. And that’s okay to portray in your characters.

Character Conflict

As I’ve said in other articles, conflict is the main driving force behind any story, and it’s the writer’s job to identify this and provide it through your character’s actions. Characters who don’t face conflict because they’re just so amazing at everything they do won’t make the audience worry about their outcome. A litany of failure and flaws is essential for keeping our interest in the film alive, and makes the protagonist’s eventual success that much sweeter. Perhaps it’s because we identify with their flaws, as we see our own shortcomings reflected back at us.

Character Building

A good example of character building is in Lost, ABC’s drama series. Through a series of flashbacks, we can see how Jack Shephard is emotionally scarred by his father’s expectations, and how this shapes his entire thought process, fostering his exaggerated hero complex. Even his surname represents his position of leadership amongst the other crash survivors.

Charlie, on the other hand, is the ultimate underdog. Battling against drug addiction, through his flashbacks we come to understand how he used to protect his brother against it. The same goes for Kate: she may be manipulative and a murderer, but if you delve into her backstory, you come to realise she killed her stepfather to save her mother.

A sign of good character-building is when your audience sympathises with their plight because their backstory is realistic, detailed, and ultimately touching. It’s the Walter Whites and the Tom Ripleys of the world that cause a reaction within us. Characters with messed up minds and real-life human flaws.

Give your character a history. Think about what it was that made him the way he is. If he’s going to be cruel, what event-or sequence of events pushed him over the edge? If you can create a character which draws up mixed feelings–someone who we hate and pity and admire all at the same time, then you’re well on your way to creating multi-dimensional protagonists.

Empathy

Being a good writer is also about empathising. We’re all shaped by our past; our thoughts and actions are guided by our backstories. So will your character’s. It’s up to you to help this shape your script. Stepping into your character’s shoes and attempting to see what the world looks like from their point of view will add this layer of much needed realism. You can’t convincingly write about your character’s phobia of bouncy castles unless you really understand that while comical, this phobia is as real to them as is your fear of a paper boat-pinching, gutter-dwelling clown…

Character Questionnaire

What were your character’s parents like? Did she/he have a positive/negative relationship or is your character an orphan? Where did he or she grow up? What was the environment like? Did they grow up poor, wealthy or comfortably middle-class? How has this had a psychological effect on him or her?

Do they laugh easily? Andy Dufresne barely cracks so much as a smile all through Shawshank Redemption, yet all Harley Quinn does in Suicide Squad is smile, one is endearing, the other vaguely psychotic, yet both are equally interesting.

No two people are truly alike, and that is the beauty of character building–you have complete freedom to create as you will.

The same goes for the way your character speaks. Think of two people you know, and listen closely when they speak. Just as their accents might differ, one might drop the F-bomb five times in one sentence while the other might laugh too loud, a bit like a hyena. Is this endearing, or annoying? What reaction does it cause?

Think about your characters, emotionally. What scares them?

What is your character’s biggest regret?

Is there something missing from your character’s life?

Character Introductions

First impressions always count and are a great opportunity for writers to show just exactly what is special about the protagonists.

In American Beauty, screenwriter Alan Ball introduces us to Lester Burnham via a voiceover. “This is my neighbourhood,” he says, as the camera pans down onto a suburban street. “My street. This is my life. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead.”

We sympathize immediately because he represents the middle-class monotony of suburbia. There’s an almost claustrophobic feel to the way Ball introduces him to us. As readers, we feel just as trapped as Lester does.

Juno Macguff, from Diablo Cody’s Juno, is pretty charming for a sixteen-year-old, and her quirky way of introducing herself gets us hooked from the get go. The first few minutes even include a flashback with backstory. We see Juno staring with rapt attention at a battered-looking leather recliner dumped on the side of a curb. It all started with a chair, she tells us. And then we immediately jump to a flashback, featuring the real chair in question. Note the creative way of linking a present object with the story line?

When we meet Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, however, no flashbacks are needed. He comes storming over the seas like a pro, with background music rising impressively, only for the shot to reveal his sad, sinking boat. His comic timing and debonair style are both portrayed within a matter of seconds, and the audience can’t help but like him the moment he steps onto the pier.

Remember, making characters people find relatable, someone to root for, is a big part of what makes a script successful. This doesn’t mean that you’ll spew out everything you know about your character in the first five minutes of your screenplay. You’ll have to reveal snippets as you go along, using different techniques.

Act One: Drumming Out Your Beat Sheet

Films are undoubtedly a visual medium, and a powerful one, but they aren’t born that way. Every film starts off as a script, and what lies within the pages of your screenplay determines or defies the quality of its visual twin.

You should sequence your story into manageable, bite-sized portions, which when transferred to screen, will look as seamless as they read. As readers, we don’t stop to question the nature of these steps, they usually do their job and do it well; they cajole us into turning the page.

In screenwriting, you’ve got about ten pages to capture an executive’s attention; seriously, no more and maybe less before they continue slogging through the slush pile.

The key to success? You’ve got to open with a bang. Ten pages isn’t much, so you really need to give us something to react to, something big. Remember Lost, by J.J Abrams and Damon Lindelof? The first scene opens to the protagonist coming to on a jungle floor. That’s enough to get us asking questions, but when he makes it out onto a beach, we’re slapped in the face with the answer: a crashed plane, an exploding engine, people screaming, getting blown up. All within three minutes of screen time. That’s all it takes for the audience to get hooked. In features, the first act comprises of about twenty or thirty minutes’ screen time, the written equivalent of which is thirty pages.

This is where a beat sheet comes in handy. Beats determine the mission and scope of each of your scenes, they’re like touchpoints to hit. Great if you do, but they’re not the end of you or your script if you don’t. Blake Snyder’s beat sheet is probably the most comprehensive, the ones you should tick off your Act I checklist:

Opening Image

This is perhaps one of the most important beats of your script. The first scene acts as a hook to catch the reader/viewer’s attention.
The opening image of Jurassic Park sets the premise immediately. Man versus Beast. In Gone Girl, a wife snuggles up to her husband whilst he tells us (via voiceover) how he pictures cracking his wife’s head open and pooling her brains for answers. This is genius in the way it points to the film’s major premise. Is he mad? What answers is she hiding?
The opening image should make us ask that question, what’s going to happen? And we don’t want to be spoon-fed the answer either, we want to be strung out, wherein lies the suffering, lies the pleasure.

Set-up

This is where you lay the foundation for your story. Where is the story set? What is the character missing from his/her life? What is the film going to be about? Essentially, you are presenting the protagonist’s world to the viewer as it is before the call to adventure.

Theme Stated

The theme usually appears in the set-up, and is the underlying message of a film, spoken aloud to the protagonist to challenge the way they think. It’s a message that usually falls flat on the main character in the beginning, because they don’t have enough context or personal experience with it to yet understand its value. In other words, the character is oblivious to it. In Jaws, Brody’s wife waves him off to work, telling him to be careful and he laughs it off. “In this town?” Right.

Gravity‘s theme is pretty straightforward: Ryan needs to let go. We see this figuratively and literally throughout the film. Ryan has to let go of her daughter’s death, just like she’s got to let go of Matt, in order to survive. In 500 Days of Summer, Tom is hopelessly optimistic about Summer, but it’s his sister who sets up the theme of the film by pointing out that just because Summer shares certain aspects in common with him, this doesn’t make her his soulmate, a truth Tom painfully comes to terms with.

Catalyst

Otherwise known as the Inciting Incident, or call to adventure, the catalyst is the first event or action that will show that change is coming for the character. That life as he or she (or it) knows it, will end. In Shawshank Redemption, Red puts his money on Andy to crack during his first night in his cell, but Andy stands his ground and doesn’t make a peep. Inglorious Basterds’ catalyst hits when Lander asks LaPadite if he’s harboring the Dreyfuses under his floorboards. His family won’t come to harm’s way if he collaborates, setting Shosanna’s fate into motion.

Debate

Usually there is some debate surrounding the character’s catalyst. Should I leave my nice comfy hobbit hole to go on what appears to be a suicide mission? Wouldn’t I be safer here, eating crumpets and sipping tea? But not all debates revolve around a character’s departure. In the Hunger Games, for example, the debate is not whether Katniss will participate in the games (she doesn’t have a choice) but if she’ll win. That’s why it’s important you have a general idea of these beats, but don’t use them to define your screenplay.

Break into Two

This is the end of act one. It’s the ultimate game-changer that will propel your character into act two, the cataclysmic decision, the point of no return. Usually there’s new surroundings to be explored and it’s the driving force that carries the protagonist into act two and dumps him in harm’s way. In Jaws, the hunt is on once a reward is put in place for catching the killer shark. In Django Unchained, Dr Schultz cuts Django a-I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine deal he can’t refuse. In Juno, the protagonist ponders over abortion, but then decides to give the baby up for adoption.

Remember this is just a formula, it’s not THE formula. A template designed to help, but never restrict you. Each writer finds their groove as they go along, so it’s absolutely fine to take all this on board with a pinch of salt. If you don’t put the catalyst on exactly page number twelve, the script police aren’t going to beat down your door and batter you senseless with a heavy duty script guide. Like I said in my previous article, your story is unique, and sometimes the rules are there to be broken.