Character Development, Story, Technique

Act II – Confrontation: Three-Act Structure in Screenwriting

This is the second installment of a series on writing screenplays following the three-act-structure. In this part, we’ll address all the necessary elements you need to include in the second act of your story before we deal with common problems that cause screenwriters to get stuck in Act II.

The Confrontation: Writing The Second Act Of Your Screenplay

What To Include In Act II

The second act isn’t called confrontation for nothing – this is when you get to throw all sorts of problems and obstacles at your hero. To have enough rising action and a full character arc for your protagonist, you’ll need to include these elements:

  • Crossing The Threshold: Your hero finally decides to accept the call to action. They venture outside of their status quo as outlined in Act I and now face a complete reversal in Act II.
  • B Story Character: A new character comes into focus. They will later help the protagonist to learn the theme. The B Story character can be a friendly helper, a love interest, a mentor, a foe, or even a thing.
  • Fun And Games: In this long stretch, you get to fulfill the audience’s expectations according to genre. Your hero is making progress or fails repeatedly in many action scenes – car chases, explosions, and fights, here we go!
  • Midpoint: story brings a premature victory or defeat for your hero. Either way, you raise the stakes and let the audience know the journey is far from over.
  • External To Internal: Now a trajectory opposite to the one that led up to the midpoint begins for your main character. More and more, they have to face their internal problem(s) before real change is possible.
  • All Is Lost: As the name implies, your protagonist hits rock bottom. Together with their internal struggles, an external event makes them despair.
  • Dark Night Of The Soul: In their darkest hour, your hero reflects on everything that’s happened so far. Can they – will they – go on? If you will, it’s mini cliffhanger before Act III.
Act II includes the rising action of the story.

Your main character comes out of Act I after the inciting incident called them into action, yet they resisted; now they finally cross the threshold and embark upon their journey, fully intent on solving the problem they face. But they aren’t ready yet and only find themselves in more trouble. The meat and bones of Act II is a lot of ups and downs until the halfway point, after which your hero will switch gears from the external to the internal journey and begin their transformation before the big finale in Act III.

Crossing The Threshold

Your hero pursues what they want and makes a conscious, proactive choice – the hero’s journey has begun. Adventure can begin with a physical step or a metaphorical one. What’s important is that leaving their surroundings of Act I, the main character finds a world that is the inverse of what they know: Katniss Everdeen enters the Capitol (The Hunger Games), Cooper leaves his family to join NASA (Interstellar), and Forrest starts running (Forrest Gump). 

Following Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, the protagonist is committed to the quest, which also means they seek to obtain what they think their reward will be. Little do they know things will turn out differently! As an opening of the second act, Crossing The Threshold also sets up the long part of Fun And Games.

B Story Character

In the first act, you introduced secondary characters who are connected to the external story. Now it’s time for a helper figure, the B Story character. Only once they’ve crossed the threshold can the hero notice this person, people, or thing(s). Sure, they can have met before, but now they come into focus. The B Story character will come to play a major role later, but it’s important you introduce them early on in the second act so the audience won’t have the feeling they appear out of nowhere as an instant solution to help your main character fix their flaws or problems.

Fun And Games

Now it’s time to deliver and fulfill the promise of the premise, in other words, give the audience what they want. Trials And Tribulations is another name for this section that makes up the meat of Act II and roughly 30 percent of your movie. In a nutshell, your hero has to try and fail, then do it again and again. Of course, there are many ups and downs along the way, but you either put your protagonist on an upward or downward trajectory, headed for success or failure. This will have consequences for the midpoint and in fact the rest of your second act.

Midpoint

Your story’s pivot point comes roughly in the middle of your script as well as the middle of Act II. The previous path of your hero leads to either a false victory or defeat as a culmination of their trials and tribulations. In the monomyth of The Hero’s Journey, the midpoint is an ordeal, a do-or-die moment.

The purpose is to raise the stakes and begin the shift from external to internal journey. From now on, the hero will have to address the need inside them. A Story and B Story begin to cross. This is when countdowns start, love stories become serious, major plot twists occur, or a public outing makes it impossible for the main character to ever go back to how things were before.

External To Internal

Another name for this part of the second act is Bad Guys Close In – they’ve been foiled and now come back stronger than before after the Midpoint. But your hero’s struggles are not only external but also internal. The main character still hasn’t changed and is dealing with the same problems or flaws you’ve outlined in Act I.

As for the direction of this shift from external to internal: after a false victory at the Midpoint, your protagonist will now be on a downward path towards rock bottom. If you’re following The Hero’s Journey, at this point the hero gets a reward, which is not yet the thing that will ultimately save them. In the case of a false defeat, you now give them a minor victory. Things seem to look better – just before the All Is Lost.

All Is Lost

Your hero needs another push, this time towards transforming themselves. All Is Lost is another inciting incident before the third act. Something big happens to the main character that takes everything away from them and pushes them into despair. It’s the point in the movie where a mentor or helper character dies or a love interest leaves. Your protagonist is facing their inner demons alone. Note that what’s happening to them is not necessarily their fault, yet their despair has everything to do with them. If your hero had no flaws, they wouldn’t feel so lost.

Dark Night Of The Soul

Remember your hero’s resistance to the call to action at the end of Act I? The Dark Night Of The Soul is the same: your hero is assessing the situation and thinking about giving up. Again, you can use several scenes to show how this affects their life in several areas. But as your main character ponders their past failures, they realize the common denominator. They themselves always stood between them and achieving their goal. To fix that, change is necessary. You set up this epiphany by placing the main character back in the familiar surroundings of Act I, where suddenly they feel alienated and no longer safe as before. The final battle is often fought close to home, but either way, a big change is coming in Act III.

Common Problems Screenwriters Face In The Second Act

Second act problems is the most common ailment that plagues screenwriters. Fear not, we have some fixes for what you might be struggling with in Act II.

Act II Is Boring

Yes, the second act sucks: after a great setup in Act I, you want to get to the finale in Act III as quickly as possible. What’s in between is drudgery with neither glory nor romance. Your hero’s struggles have become your own. They have to exercise will and find the strength to continue. Your job is to show what keeps them from skipping forward. Even if your hero has superpowers, something keeps them from going straight to the final fight. They have to face their own character first, as we all do. If the audience can relate to that, your second act won’t be boring. 

What Goes Where

If you don’t know how to begin Act II or have written a bunch of scenes that all seem to come later, you might have a structural weakness. The second act is a chain of events: cause and effect lead from one action to the next. If you can’t write in chronological order, assess each of your scenes. How close is the hero to their goal? How far are they from where they’ve started? What is happening externally and internally? Place the scenes accordingly under one of the story beats in Act II and see how well the end result flows like a narrative.

Weak Story Foundation

It’s common to enter Act II and begin to doubt the strength of your story’s foundation. Assuming your hero is a well-rounded character, you can test the foundation by looking at the Midpoint and work outwards in either direction from there. Remember, the false defeat or victory in the middle informs the hero’s trajectory before and after. From there you check the Threshold and the rock bottom at All Is Lost: your hero needs to be primed for the coming acts in these sections.

My First Act Goes On Forever

If you don’t have a clear break between Act I and II or have a run-on first act on your hands, you might be too busy world-building to kick off your story – or your call to action is not strong enough so your hero remains in the status quo of the first act. Remember that you can continue to add to the world in the second act, and that your first act only needs to include a few essential elements which we’ve outlined in the previous installment of this series.

Not Thinking Visually

The old adage show don’t tell holds true for Act II. Of course, dialog is a necessary interaction between characters that you can also use to convey information to the audience, but film is behavior: your hero and other characters reveal who they are through their actions. This is especially important in the second act when the hero needs to come to terms with who they are.

My Main Character Isn’t On-Screen

Whose story are you telling? If your protagonist doesn’t have enough scenes in the second act, you might have the wrong hero – or you’ve locked them up in a predicament too early. Only in the All Is Lost should they reach the end of their wit; a false defeat at the Midpoint raises the stakes and makes them continue. Check out 5 Elements Of A Great Screenplay to learn about a well-rounded main character.

Screenwriting A Series

A horizontal series sustains an arc for your main character(s) across an entire season. Naturally, each episode requires its own story arc with ups and downs, but in the grand order, when does the second act begin and end? Act II makes up the bulk of a movie or series at roughly 50 to 60 percent. As a rule of thumb, Crossing The Threshold occurs at around 20% and the third act begins more or less at around 80% of the total runtime. In a series of ten episodes, your second act would therefore stretch over episodes three to eight. 

Act II Checklist

Even if your struggles and problems with the second act were not listed above, you can troubleshoot your script with the following Act II screenwriting checklist:

  • Crossing The Threshold

Your hero leaves the status quo of Act I (if they’re not physically on the move, they at least try something new).

There is a clear break between the first and second act, showing your hero enters an inverse world in Act II.

Your hero follows what they want and decides to heed the call to action.

  • B Story Character

You introduce a new character (or thing) which represents the theme.

It is because of the new world in Act II that your hero takes note of this character.

  • Fun And Games

Even though things go up and down, your hero is headed for success or failure.

It’s Fun And Games for the audience: deliver on their (genre) expectations!

Continue to show the difference between your hero’s world before and after the call to action.

  • Midpoint

Your hero experiences a false victory or a false defeat which raises the stakes.

You set up the shift from external to internal (or A Story to B Story).

  • External To Internal

Your hero’s internal flaws are working against them.

The path is now opposite to the one before the midpoint.

  • All Is Lost

Another big inciting incident happens to your hero.

Your main character hits rock bottom.

You set up your hero’s character transformation.

  • Dark Night Of The Soul

The hero reflects their situation which leads to an epiphany.

They must now change and cannot go back to how things were before.

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Jakob Straub

Jakob is a freelance writer and storyteller. He publishes creative fiction in English and German and assists other writers with the development of plot and characters to shape their manuscripts into compelling stories. So far, Jakob hasn't sold his soul for a screenwriting deal, but he'll consider all offers.