Second Act Trouble

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

Among the many, many smart things F. Scott Fitzgerald said, surely the least smart is, "There are no second acts in American lives."

I'm not sure what he meant by "second acts" but in Hollywood, the second act of any script is the hardest part to write. The first act is all set up and complication, the third act is all resolution and climax – but the second act is a little bit of both. The second act is where things change and shift, where the conflict gets tough, where the plot thickens.

The second act is also when the characters do their changing, when they face up to some major challenge (Can I set aside my fear of heights long enough to save my baby from the tall aliens? Or, I have inexplicably and in a vaguely unmotivated fashion fallen in love with a woman I previously hadn't noticed, and/or had only thought of as a friend. Now what do I do?) and throughout the act, they find themselves and their circumstances transformed. The great thing about American lives – in movies and in real life – is their capacity for transformation. We pick up and move west. We face our fears. We start over. We disrupt the wedding. We build new. We get born again. You know, second act stuff.

More often than not, when a script fails, it's because it has second act trouble, which is a polite way of saying it doesn't have one. It goes pretty straight from set up to conclusion, without any messy complications in between. It's a natural mistake to make. That's sort of the life we'd all like to live – or, I should say, that's the life I'd like to live – all set up and anticipation, followed by an eventful and satisfying conclusion. Without anything in between. Act One: see the main character gorge on doughnuts and French fries, see the main character gain weight and belt sizes, then, suddenly, Oh no! You have to run a marathon. Dissolve to: Act Three. Hooray! You won the marathon.

One of the tricks we use, when we're really up against it and can't think up anything credible or interesting, is to keep the love-interest characters physically separated for most of the second act – you get one stuck in an elevator or maybe put the other one on a boat or something – or you keep them emotionally separated with some silly misunderstanding – I thought you were married! Or I thought you only wanted my money! Or something like that – and then, when the you've written the acceptable number of pages (around ninety, maybe less) you get the elevator working again, clarify the situations, and get the characters together.

One of the reasons, I think, that second acts are so hard to write is because Fitzgerald was wrong and second acts are what we live through every day. Our lives – well, okay, mine, but I suspect I'm not alone – are all second act, all change and struggle and complication and minor triumph. So when we sit down to write a story, we want to finally, finally, get a little control over the narrative, skip the hard part. Or, if we can't skip it, then make it a lot simpler to manage. Make it about a misaddressed letter or a misunderstood remark or a pleasant realization or something – I don't know – something easy to fix.

It's possible to write a script with no second act, but it's impossible to live a life that way. Which gives the term "second act trouble" all new meaning.

That's it for this week. Next week, the bad one. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long