Tag Archives: Second act

Structuring Act I, etc.

Building Structure

Building Structure

In his book, The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the first act of any story is a block of dramatic action, which begins on page one, is inflected by the inciting incident within the first half of the act, and ends at the first turning point. The primary function of the first act is to set up the dramatic context for the entire story, introduce the protagonist as well as other important characters, their world, and the goal – that which the protagonist must achieve in order to save the day, restore the balance, fulfill his or her potential.

Dramatic context

Establishing the dramatic context of the first act means setting up characters, the situation they find themselves in, and the premise of the story: Who is the protagonist? What is at stake? What is the goal? What are the initial obstacles in the way of achieving this goal? And more concisely, what is the dramatic question of this act? Indeed, the dramatic question encapsulates these concerns in one precise sentence.

Syd Field provides us with a powerful example of this in his book. In the film Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells us in a standup monologue, “Annie and I broke up and I—I still can’t get my mind around that. You know, I—I keep shifting the pieces of the relationship through my life and trying to figure out where did the screw up come. You know, a year ago we were…in love…” The first act, and indeed, the entire film revolves around that short statement. The film examines the “pieces of the relationship” and tries to answer the question where “did the screw-up come?”

Pilot Question

This illustrates an important aspect of the dramatic question: in the first act there are really two questions: one which quizzes the entire story (how did the screw-up happen) – what I call the pilot question, and a smaller one which concerns itself with the single act; for example, when, how, why, and where, did Alvy and Annie fall in love?

The Value of the Dramatic Question for Each Act

Identifying the dramatic questions of the first act allows us to hook into the dramatic questions of the second and third acts in turn. In the second act of Annie Hall, for example, the dramatic question might be, when, where, and how did things begin to go increasingly wrong for the couple? The third act’s dramatic question might well ask, what is the final straw that finally breaks them up? Our task as writers, therefore, is to lay out the answers to these questions – a process which involves writing material that addresses each question, scene by scene.

Summary

Encapsulating the needs of the first act (and indeed, the second and third acts in general) in terms of a dramatic question helps us focus on the dramatic context of our story and propels us to write material that is purposeful, concise and which keeps our entire story on track.

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How to Strengthen the Middle Part of a Story

In The Screenwriters Workbook, Syd Field reminds us that the second act of your story, being the longest and the one containing the most conflict and complications, needs special handling. Here, novice, or even experienced writers, are most likely to wonder off track and end up at a dead end. The midpoint, or the moment of illumination, as we’ve discussed in an earlier post, is that moment in which the Protagonist receives new information that allows him or her to proceed from a changed moral or ethical perspective to the second turning point. In the first half, the Protagonist pursues the goal based on negative traits. In the second half, he or she realizes that the best way forward is through the activation of positive traits inherent in his or her personality.

The Pinch

Dividing the second act into two sections allows for additional structure on either side of the midpoint. Field calls this structure the “pinch” in that it brings together the threads in each half in a way which keeps the story on track by driving the action on to the mid-point, and plot point II.

An Unmarried Woman

In An Unmarried Woman, the young, unhappily married Erica (Jill Clayburgh), enrolls in art classes and has an affair with her teacher, Saul. Against her will, she falls in love with him, then discovers she is pregnant. Torn between her lover and her husband, she decides to leave both and raise her child on her own.

The inciting incident occurs when Erica’s husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), asks Erica for a divorce. This leads to the first turning point when she begins art classes and meets Saul (Alan Bates). Pinch I marks the start of her relationship with her teacher. The mid-point occurs when she finally has sex with him. Pinch II describes her realization that she has fallen in love with Saul, while plot point II occurs when she discovers that she is pregnant with his child. These events clearly illustrate the strong relationship that both pinches share with the first and second tuning points respectively — often one of cause and effect: in An Unmarried Woman, Erica’s sexual relationship with Saul is a direct result of her starting art classes (tuning point I), while her realizing that she is pregnant with his child (turning point II) follows from her having fallen in love with him (pinch II). Including these structural entities not only ensures consistency in narrative incident, but also ensures that you have something to aim for as you seek to structure the longest part of your story.

In Summary

Pinches occur on either side of the mid-point. Each is strongly related to the turning point nearest to it, helping to ensure narrative consistency.