A common complaint among writers is, “I’m stuck in the second act.” We all know that feeling when the initial exuberance has worn off, progress has slowed, and the way forward is no longer clear.
Often the trouble is not in the second act at all. Like a drip from the ceiling, the second act is where the problem is noticed, but not where it originates. When a writer is bogged down in the second act, it often means he or she has failed to do the necessary work in the first act.
In the first act, the writer must establish a main character with a goal that he or she will do anything to attain. Both the character and his or her goal must be clear to the audience. The character’s obsessive quest to achieve the goal is the power that drives the story. If the character is not sufficiently motivated by the importance of what he or she seeks, the story will falter in the second act. Dorothy’s goal to return home from Oz is an example of a character with an important goal.
The goal need not be important to the audience as long as its importance to the character is clear. In a class for high school writers, one student pitched a story about three teenage boys trying to obtain beer for a party. While most adults would not consider this a grand quest, it was clear in the story that nothing else mattered as much to the three characters as obtaining the beer. Their obsession with this goal drove this story to a hilarious conclusion.
The goal can be tangible (winning the game, rescuing the princess, discovering the lost ark) or intangible (earning respect, finding love, repaying a debt), or a combination of the two. Intangible goals are usually tied in with the character’s reasons for pursuing the goal. While few of us may ever confront an evil monster, we can all relate to a character who wants to do something to garner praise and admiration.
Character and goals must be powerful because in the second act, the writer will place obstacles between the character and the goal. If the goal is not important enough to the character, or the character is not committed enough to attaining the goal, then the story won’t have the energy to get through the second act. If Dorothy decided that the wicked witch was too powerful to confront or that she liked Oz just as much as she liked Kansas, then there would be no reason to see the story to its familiar conclusion.
There are other ways to get bogged down in the second act, which we’ll address at a later time. But if you’re having trouble in the middle, go back and make sure you have a strong start. A character who will do anything to attain a goal is essential to keep a story moving and the audience involved.
Lance Thompson is a script doctor, ghostwriter, and actor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.