Concerns on the second act

Oh, the second act, the place to distinguish good writers from the bad. When talking about feature films, second act is the journey, it starts when your main character steps up to face the outcome caused by the INCITING INCIDENT, at the end of the first act. The second act is the place where stakes rise and obstacles pop up out of everywhere in order to make our hero’s path more challenging. Yet, the principle for a second act is CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT. The problem is: how to apply these necessities into a short film?

You’ll find attempts to squeeze a second act in short films, but honestly, how many complications can you get? How much can you develop something in the midpoint of these 10 minutes? You can’t. As in the feature films, most screenwriters fail to present a honest second act to their short films, mostly because they apply the 101 suggested for feature films.

I Love Sarah Jane, by Spencer Susser is one of those. Apparently it is a character-driven film, which relies on a strong second act, and that is nearly impossible in a short film, as i aforementioned, you need to place your character into complicated situations and you can’t include many in your available time. Boy likes Sarah Jane, but she’s a wall of a girl and the rest of the boys are alpha, beta and gama, respectively. Our boyscout is the loser, obviously. You shouldn’t develop your characters without moving the action, if you stop your film for a character’s speech, metaphorically speaking, it will be an AA meeting instead. And loose those chains a bit, a zombie is no tormentor chained. A bad development, like this one, makes you ponder. If that’s her dad, how didn’t she make a move before? There’s no strength in our loser’s lines to make we believe he changed her mind.

Turns out, the second act is not about randomly throwing traps at your main character, all the events must build a logical crescendo of character development and obstacle arduousness. Tougher and deeper, as good sex should be.

Previously, i’ve commented how films based on a magical amulet tend to succesfully create a satisfactory second act. The main reason for that is that those aren’t character-driven films, films like The Black Hole, by Phil and Olly, use human beings as mere tools for storytelling, meanwhile the main character are the amulets themselves. In this case, a portable blackhole in a paper sheet. See yourself, as a human being, you do several things, even simultaneously, like scrolling down this article and filling your hand with Doritos. But an object is a tool, it has a proper designated function, doesn’t matter if you bought that screwdriver with 64 different functions. Keep it simple so your reader can recognize it easier. As these amulets have a single function, the second act is straightforward. Repeat, repeat and repeat. Still, the stakes must increase everytime. Even in films like Spider, the toy spider does what it is supposed to: prank people.

The other reason is that as the object has a single function, you only need to show it once for the sake of introduction, so you set a fast rhythm to your narrative, afterwards is all about repeating until the consequences of its unceasing use lead the narrative to a point of no return, from which the human guide must find a way to clean up the mess. This closes the second act.

Besides being a power point presentation as i strongly criticized in the last article, it is still a decent illustration of a structure absent of a second act. What? No second act? This is against the law of physics!  Calm down, my friends, it is completely plausible. That’s what i call as a ‘punch-line short film’; as you may see, this film is all about the change of the sign, there’s no depth, besides learning that the beggar is blind there’s no character development. It’s the chicken crossing the road. But it doesn’t mean that your short film must be as bad as the example or the joke. In my article about the first act, i’ve commented how character-driven plots rely on longer first acts, due to that sometimes the best choice is to send your main character to the point of no return forthright, as the example of the daughter whom must find out what to do with her recently deceased mother’s body.

Still, don’t lose your faith in the old style, as you may realize by watching The Ghosts, sometimes you can create a great second act without squeezing or using the other resources i listed. Just keep it classic if it improves your story. Remember, that you’re the one working for it, not the opposite, the story is your boss and you should grab the best of it.



2 Responses to “Concerns on the second act”

  1. 1 Marcus Harton July 15, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    How do you fill a second act into a short film. You really don;t have that much time to develop character or to through complex problems at your protagonist.

    • 2 Phillip Gruneich July 15, 2012 at 3:16 pm

      It’s tough. The second act as we know from feature films only applies on films with objects as main character, exactly because they don’t get complex, they just repeat and complicate.

      The best way to work with character development is removing the second act, delaying your film and converting your inciting incident into the climax, the point of no return, meanwhile you develop your character through conflict.

      I might be able to give you some less generic feedback if you’re willing to share some points of your story. Here or at the contact form ;)

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