Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Solving the second act problem

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Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark

David Mamet, in Three Uses of the Knife, tells what he claims is an old joke from the Algonquin Round Table: “A couple of guys are sitting around talking. One says, ‘How’s the play going?’ The other says, ‘I’m having second act problems.’ Everybody laughs. ‘Of course you’re having second act problems!'” And no wonder. Beginnings and endings are tricky, too, but we can approach them with a couple of proven rules: get into the action as late as possible, leave it as early as you can. Middles, by contrast, tend to turn into an unstructured mess of complications, with the beginning a distant memory and the end nowhere in sight. This is especially true of the start of the second act, when the main problem of the first act gives way to an even more serious obstacle, and it’s no accident that in everything I’ve written, it’s invariably this part of the story that goes through the greatest number of tightenings and revisions. Whenever it comes up, it feels like I’m confronting the problem for the first time, but I’ve slowly managed to figure out a few guidelines that might be helpful:

1. Cut transitional material as much as possible. Second acts are difficult because they’re all about transitions. You’re departing from the first major movement of the narrative into something larger, which usually means that there are a lot of pieces to slide into place. Unfortunately, this is also the moment when the attention of the reader or audience is likely to drag, so you need to be even more ruthless about cutting here than usual. If a story is two hundred pages long, and you’ve already cut as much as you can from the beginning and the end, it isn’t a bad idea to turn to page 100 and see if there’s anything you can excise from the twenty pages to either side. Any architectural structure has its points of weakness or stress, and in long works of fiction, it’s likely to be right here. And the best solution is to cut directly from the end of one action to the center of the next, as in the wonderful act break in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which moves without pause from Marion clutching the medallion in snowy Nepal to the rooftops of Cairo.

Seven Samurai

2. Put the pieces together in a different order. The opening of a novel generally presents a clear sequence of events, and even if you’ve restructured the story elsewhere, you’ll often find that the order of the initial chapters remains more or less the same. In a story with a three-act structure, this isn’t true of the beginning of the second act, in which the characters have been introduced, the machinery of the plot has been set in motion along various parameters, and the resulting material can be presented in a number of ways. If the second act of a novel begins with five or six chapters that move between characters, it’s often useful to rearrange them to find the order that flows most naturally. It’s even better if you can cut or combine scenes. I’ve also learned that if you’re writing a number of different plot threads that have been left in a state of suspense, it’s best to avoid resolving the immediate problem in at least one of them until the others have gotten further along: the reader will be more interested in following Susan on a plane to Samarkand if he’s still wondering how Jack will get out of prison in Jeddah.

3. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Second acts can feel like a chore, but when properly done, they can be immensely satisfying. Since you’ve already established your characters and central conflict, this is the chance for them to really come into their own. The second act of a movie like Seven Samurai enriches the situation presented in the first act and looks ahead to the action of the third, but is also fascinating in its own right—but only because the director and writers have done the necessary work. A second act lacks the obvious payoffs of the story’s beginning and end, but the fact that the author needs to work all the harder to maintain our interest often results in surprising, unpredictable storytelling. This is a big part of the reason why the second installments in movie trilogies, like The Empire Strikes Back, are often the best: deprived of easy dramatic solutions, the story has no choice but to explore its own world, go off in ingenious directions, and give the characters room to play. Whether or not there are second acts in our own lives remains an open question, but they certainly exist in fiction. So there’s no excuse for not handling them well.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2012 at 10:16 am

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