I’m well into Act Two of my new feature screenplay now, and we all know that’s the tough part!
One of the most difficult things about feature writing is deciding the quality and the sequence of events in Act Two. The temptation is always to expand the hero’s world – to throw additional, unrelated problems at the hero to complicate their lives. In fact, the strongest stories contract the hero’s world throughout Act Two until the only things in it are problems related to their central desire.
Rick in Casablanca is a black marketeer and all-round shady character. The writers could have digressed into a sub-plot about his black market adventuring – it would have shown us more of his character and increased the action and excitement – but they don’t, because it doesn’t relate to his desire (Ilsa).
Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk is a scientist, and the writers could have bolted on a sub-plot about him treating sickly Brazilian orphans – it would have made us like him even more, and shown how good a scientist he is – but they don’t, because it doesn’t relate to his desire (defeating the monster within).
In both films, every event, every scene from the second act onwards is a step forward or back in achieving that single desire. Rick has his bar searched, then shut down, risks arrest, lies to the authorities and kills a senior Nazi – but all in pursuit of Ilsa’s happiness. Bruce conducts dangerous scientific research on himself, flees the military, crosses continents and is reunited with his lost love – but all in pursuit of freedom from the Hulk within.
So, as you seek to complicate your hero’s life in Act Two, ensure that everything you throw at them arises from and relates to their innermost desire, and you’ll build a stronger and more focused story.