What are the sorts of narrative beats that go into Act 2 of a story? To illustrate, let’s dip into the Oscar-winning film, No Country for Old Men. This thriller directed by Joel and Ethan Coen is a masterclass in tense, exciting storytelling. The film’s Act 2 is a great example of how to write this most important part.
- ACT STRUCTURE
Before we wade deeper in, let’s establish exactly what the second act is. In a typical three-act structure, Act 1 introduces the characters and the world, Act 2 is where the majority of the story and its conflicts and complications unfold, and Act 3 brings it all to a climax and resolution. Think of Act 2 as the stuffing in your turkey.
- THE GOAL AND THE PROTAGONIST
Act 2 has the protagonist face mounting challenges as he or she attempts to reach the ultimate goal. Take Llewellyn Moss, for example. He stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong, and his goal becomes survival, and pursuit of a suitcase filled with two million dollars.
To complicate matters, Moss is relentlessly pursued by the menacing Anton Chigurh, played by Javier Bardem. This pursuit becomes the driving force in the story, creating tension and suspense. As Moss creeps ever closer to the elusive suitcase, Chigurh remains just a step behind.
- SUBPLOTS, THEMES AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
The second act also introduces or develops the subplot. In No Country for Old Men, the aging Sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, is played by Tommy Lee Jones. His character arc and his attempts to solve the case adds story depth and vulnerability to his character.
The film uses Bell’s character to explore deeper themes like the nature of evil, advancing years, and the changing world around him. His monologues and interactions with other characters in Act 2 give us insight into his struggle to adapt to the violence he faces.
- THE MIDPOINT
Act 2 usually contains a midpoint that shifts the story in a significant way. In No Country for Old Men, the midpoint is the tense hotel showdown between Moss and Chigurh. It’s a pivotal moment where the stakes are raised, and the narrative takes a darker turn.
- THE CLIMAX OF ACT 2
As Act 2 nears its conclusion, the tension escalates, readying us for the final climax that is to occur in Act 3. Moss and Chigurh’s confrontation at the Mexican border is a tense scene that encapsulates the culmination of their character arcs and conflicts.
So, there you have it, the essence of writing the second act of a story, skillfully exemplified in No Country for Old Men: Keep your protagonist’s goals and challenges in focus, introduce subplots for depth, and remember to showcase character development, conflict, and escalating tension. As you continue your writing journey, study and dissect films and books that you love to gain inspiration and insight into the craft of writing this crucial act.
Act 2 escalates the conflicts and tensions that are hinted at in Act 1. It forms the meat of the story, and prepares us for the climax of Act 3.