The second act is the most difficult to write. It is the place where we are most likely to get stuck and give up, and the place where readers are most likely to get bored and drift off. Why? Because it’s 50 pages or more, and it’s less clear what we are supposed to do with it.
The first act is relatively easy. We’ve got lots of setup, we’ve got a wonderful inciting incident, we’ve got the reaction to that incident and we’ve got the first big moment in our story. We’ve nearly always got more than enough to fill up 25-30 pages. Our only challenge with the first act is keeping it to 25 pages.
Then we get to the second act and suddenly it feels like the well has run dry. 50 pages! We’ve got to fill 50 pages with stuff. How do we do that?
So we start padding scenes out a bit, hoping to fill in some space. We start creating scenes that we don’t feel are completely necessary, but at least that’s three pages more. We add in a whole sequence that only follows a single subplot, but that’s seven pages. The 50 pages is flying by now, but none of it has anything to do with our movie.
It’s all because we haven’t properly planned our obstacles and the protagonist’s solution to those obstacles. And I promise you, that is all a great second Act is—obstacles and solutions. That’s it.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the most critically and audience acclaimed movie of recent Hollywood—The Shawshank Redemption. There are only three movies that score over 9/10 on IMDB. The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2, and The Shawshank Redemption. And Shawshank is number 1 on the all-time movies list. That’s a pretty lofty place to be for a movie that basically bombed on release. It was perfectly well received by critics but it made less than $30m in US theaters. Its entire popularity was discovered on video (remember those?) and DVD.
It is not what anyone would consider a high concept movie. It’s not “Hollywood” by most traditional standards. It is a historical drama, and quite a dark one at that. I always find it fascinating how many women love the movie since it holds no facet that anyone would usually expect a female audience to love. Would Lifetime have commissioned it? I doubt it. But love it they do, more than their male counterparts in my experience.
So let’s look at the second Act and see why it holds such a place in people’s hearts.
A good second Act is made up of 3-5 obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, with each obstacle being increasingly more challenging. I’m sure some of you think that this is far too simplistic. And it is. In a good way. This is an area where we want to start with simple and build our own version of complicated.
The Shawshank Redemption is about Andy Dufresne, who is sentenced to life in Shawshank prison in the 1940’s for a crime he may or may not have committed.
His goal from the moment he arrives at Shawshank is very simple—to survive.
Obstacle number one:
His first obstacle is to fit in and find his place in the prison.
He makes it through his first night without being the one to cry, but gets off to a rocky start with the other prisoners by insulting them with a question about the prisoner who died the night before. This makes him an outsider.
His solution to finding his place within the prison population is to introduce himself to “the man who can get things”. This is Red. What starts as a simple transaction for a rock hammer becomes a friendship of sorts, and this gets Andy in with a group and offers support within the population.
Obstacle number one is solved.
Obstacle number two:
His second obstacle is “the sisters”; a vicious group of men, led by Bogs, who take a fancy to Andy and are bent on rape, or giving Andy a beating if he resists.
This goes on for a few years. Andy fights them off when he can but is regularly raped and beaten.
Andy does solve this problem for himself but the solution is unexpected. Whilst tarring the roof of a building Andy overhears Captain Hadley speaking of an inheritance, and his anger at having to pay taxes on the inheritance. Andy approaches Hadley with a way to keep the whole amount, almost getting himself thrown off the roof in the process. But when the scheme works Andy is given protection by the guards, and Hadley beats Bogs nearly to death. After that, the sisters never touch him again.
Obstacle number two is solved.
Obstacle number three:
The third obstacle is to have a purpose in life so that he can stay sane.
This is ignited primarily by the death of Brooks Hatlen. Andy realizes that without a purpose he will end up just like Brooks. Now in favor with the guards and the warden as their own financial wizard, Andy decides to try and do up the prison library by writing to the state senate and asking for funds. The warden even offers to mail the letters for him.
Andy writes a letter a week until they finally send him some money and books. After which he writes two letter a week until they give him an annual fund to get him off their back. He uses the money to build a beautiful prison library (dedicated to Brooks Hatlen) that gives him purpose within the prison.
Obstacle number 3 is solved.
Obstacle number four:
His fourth obstacle comes when a new prisoner, Tommy, tells the tale of man who admitted to committing the crime for which Andy is serving time. We now know that is Andy is innocent “…like for real innocent.”
Andy can’t stay here knowing that his chance to get out is right there in front of him. He approaches the warden to help him make this new evidence known and get a new trial, but Andy is too valuable to the warden to be let out. Andy is funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars of illegal money through the prison. The warden not only refuses but sends Andy to the hole for two months for his insolence.
While Andy is in solitary, the warden has Tommy shot, claiming that he was trying to escape.
This is Andy’s lowest moment and the end of Act 2. Andy is furthest from his goal. Being in prison as an innocent man is one thing, but in prison as a provably innocent man with no one to listen is too much.
Andy is let out of solitary and goes back to his job administrating the warden’s illegal deals, but he is a broken man. Maybe he will not survive after all.
That night we believe that he might have actually ended his journey and killed himself (the death moment). He acquired rope from a fellow prisoner, and in the morning there is a ruckus when Andy doesn’t come out of his cell.
However, he is not dead. He is missing. As the warden and Hadley struggle for an explanation, the warden throws a rock at a poster hanging in Andy’s cell. Hearing the rock drop away he pulls the poster off the wall to reveal an enormous man sized hole in the thick concrete wall.
Andy has escaped.
Obstacle number five:
It turns out that Andy’s fifth obstacle has been going on for the twenty years that he has been in the prison and neither we, nor anyone else in the prison, were aware of it. His fifth obstacle was the physical obstacle in the way of his escape. A solid wall of concrete. And every night he has been digging it away with his rock hammer and every day he has been dropping the rock in the prison yard.
With his escape, obstacle number five is solved.
But the fourth obstacle is still not completely solved. Escaping is half the solution, but it would not completely solve his obstacle of the injustice meted out by those in authority to keep an innocent man locked up and murder a young inmate.
So Andy doesn’t just escape. He steals all the warden’s ill-gotten $370,000. He also sends the ledgers and other evidence of the illegal dealings to the local newspaper.
Hadley is arrested and Warden Norton puts a gun in his mouth. Total comeuppance for all involved.
Obstacle number four is solved.
Five obstacles, each one more difficult than the last. Five solutions, each one ingenious, unexpected and completely logical, which build to the conclusion that we always wanted on a route we couldn’t possibly have imagined.
That’s a second act. Do that.
And I’m not being obtuse. Perfection of story and structure like this comes from the knowledge that all good stories have a simple structure of obstacle and solution at their heart. Using this structure, we build original and inventive solutions to obstacles that are surprising, hilarious or terrifying.
Sit down and think about films that you admire. Films that never feel slow or labored, no matter how long the second act may be. What are the obstacles that the protagonist faces and what solutions do they create?
There’s no need to make it difficult for ourselves by trying to get clever and break the rules. Stick to the rules but do it really, really well by planning out our obstacles and solutions. This will give us the momentum we need when we inevitably get stuck in the middle of writing our second act.