Second Act Problems

I paid a screenplay consultant to tell me about the book’s potential for the bright lights. The missed clue: It was my shortest book.

“The writing’s pretty good, so far,” she said slyly,  “but you’re missing a second act.”

After I got myself past, “Whatta’ya mean…?” I knew she was right and that I’d known it all along.  I just needed someone to slap me for money.

“It’s a good story,” she said. “But you need to put in the elbow grease. Read John Truby before you rewrite.”

In truth, I had run out of creative, tension-filled plot twists. Up to the point where I had ended the story, it moved fast, had a unique protagonist and an unusual twist to the moral argument. But it was not the basis for a screenplay.

It wasn’t good enough for a book either, I concluded. Especially a thriller. But the idea of tacking on contrived scenes to create another “act,” made me nauseous.

I had jumped on the first story pony that came to mind and rode it into a blind canyon.  It was a goodincompletestory.  By not thinking through the plot thoroughly on the front end, I had given myself a “second-act problem.”   In my case: No act at all.  

For all the pre-work I’d invested, I had failed to use it well.  Fortunately, I had spent considerable pre-writing time working on the setting and on fleshing out my characters.  I went back to the project notebook and dug deeper.  

Here are a few other results of the re-think:

  1. My setting was more complex than I had portrayed it in the first draft. It was a civil war, so there were many, many forces operating simultaneously. This time I looked deeply into those social, political, international, and even geographic factors for sources of conflict. I had overlooked lots of them.

Example: The operatives, those people who actually do the dirty deeds, could not be oblivious to the fact that things were changing. Despite amnesty, some of them were aware that their bosses might very well throw them under the proverbial bus to save themselves from international scrutiny. This offered new motives for unexpected actions.

  1. Most of the named characters in the first draft came from one family or were closely connected to it. That fact remained mostly true in the rewrite. But by thinking of these characters as representatives of the forces in the setting, a panorama of conflict potential opened up.

Example: The matriarch was a colorful old lady who had limited impact on the protagonist, her great-granddaughter.   By having this character “come alive” as it were, with the political passion of her generation, she helped spin the P into a second round of action with re-energized desire.

  1. New political forces created by the end of the Cold War created needs for new political subterfuge. These forces, quite apart from each character’s personality, created new tests for their strengths and exploited their weaknesses.

Example: During the war, official agencies took on clandestine missions. In the Sixties, the Army’s Office of the Chief of Staff, known on the street as the Archivo, became a major sponsor of death squads. In the immediate, pre-ceasefire decade, new secret societies (the Cofradia and the Oficinita) arose, designed to use control over money and influence to achieve corrupt political goals in peacetime. Membership in these groups came with complicated loyalties for the opponents and made complicated enemies for the protagonists.

  1. It’s basic that your protagonist must have some weakness and the opponents must have some strength. But by making them subject to a more complex set of situational forces, those personality attributes came to the surface in surprising ways.

Example: In the first draft, making the moral argument depended on P’s weakness, her subsequent failure, and her resulting change. But whereas the first draft concluded that protagonist’s arc had been completed, the second saw a new person emerge from the ashes of that first act into—viola!—a second act. The P’s desire intensified but remained sufficiently the same for the second act to grow organically out of the first.

Mea culpa:

Shouldn’t I have thought about these things for the first draft?   Sure.  But I seem to learn only by doing and failing (repeat, ad nauseam). So… I may not make the same mistake again.

Take away:                       

All your deep pre-thinking is precious.

Don’t forget to use it at the front end.

Suggested reading: John Truby. The Anatomy of Story.