The second act blues
by Diana Prince
Arguably, the most difficult part of a screenwriter’s job is figuring out what to do between pages 30 and 90 of their script – otherwise known as the second act.
This is what happens after the main character’s life has been thrust into a new direction by some major life event or decision that will make the life they knew before, nothing but a distant memory and the moment that makes their new life come crashing to a halt in an “all is lost” moment – when Marty McFly gets transported back to 1955 until he sees himself starting to disappear at the Under the Sea dance and risks never existing in the first place; when the motley crew at the center of “The Hangover” wake up to find the groom missing until Leslie Chow threatens to kill them unless they return his missing money.
In essence, the second act is the entrée in a three-course meal – the meat and potatoes…or the overpriced grilled salmon and long grain brown rice (no butter) if you live in Los Angeles. A lot of times the second act can inspire the “second act blues” because a great beginning and a great ending seem to come more easily to writers. They know where they want their character to start. They know where they want their character to end up…but it is the journey between the points (the second act) that make or break your story and tells you whether you have a commercial hit on your hands or if you should chuck that dream out the window and live out your days in a more thankful profession.
But second acts don’t only happen in scripts – we face them in real life as well, that major life event that broadsides you into a new direction. For me, it was filing for divorce after 11 years of a mostly good marriage to my best friend. As projects got financed (or didn’t) or muscle tone waxed and waned, he was the constant.
Ours was a copy-room romance, sparked in the summer of 1998 when I was a lowly intern at a major studio and he was a cocky assistant to a producer with a deal on the lot. (Yes, the myth of the days when studios paid producers’ overheads and bought pitches in the room were not only real, but some would say glorious. Tim Robbins in “The Player” was a biting satire until it was just a fond memory.) But I digress.
That wild and reckless summer of rebellion and adventure quickly turned to love and marriage. At 23, I got my fairy tale wedding to my Prince Charming. This is where the books usually say, The End. In real life though, this is more akin to the end of Act 1 because this is where Tom Hanks gets marooned on the island or Steve Martin and John Candy are forced to take every form of transportation together just to get home for the holidays (side note: the cocky assistant and I actually got temporarily marooned on that same “Castaway” island on our honeymoon and had those times where we had to tell each other that “those aren’t pillows” during our time together.)
“I do” isn’t happily ever after. It is where your journey (Act 2) really begins.
But at 23 (much like a character at the end of the first act), one often doesn’t really know who they are and what they want. At 23, one is likely to ignore fundamental differences in favor of incredible physical chemistry and all night laugh sessions with a talented writer/director with a dream and charm to spare.
That cocky assistant and I surely shared a lot of laughs. But, as time went on, we shared a lot of tears too. Eventually as it came time to look at expanding our little family beyond us and our cats, a now 34 and 39 year old couple had to make the tough decisions when faced with their “all is lost” moment. Should we continue on the path we’re on or do we love each other enough to allow our spouse to be free and pursue a different kind of happiness?
I’m not going to lie or pretend that our story is typical. We are the lucky ones. We walked into that courthouse in Santa Monica holding divorce documents in one hand and our lover/best friend/confidant/partner’s hand in the other. Sad but hopeful. Just because our institutional state-sanctioned arrangement was coming to an end, didn’t mean that the vows we took to always be there for one another had to. We could still choose to love each other with only the auspices of how that love was manifested and transforming.
Our third act is still being written. Is there still the possibility of me running to the airport to spill my guts of how much I love him in a last-ditch-attempt to get back together? Could he show up beneath my bedroom window with an i-pod connected to speakers blasting Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” and make the14 years of baggage we are both carrying simply disappear? Perhaps. Some days I think so. Other days…
The second act may be the most daunting part of the script, but it also holds the potential to be the magic of your story. This is where you get to throw every obstacle imaginable in your hero’s way and watch them (comically, thrillingly, mysteriously, dramatically) overcome them. This is where your hero discovers their true nature – shedding the weight of the things they thought they wanted in favor of going after what they really needed all along.
Yes, the second act is when your character is put through the fire. As one famous screenwriting teacher puts it, it is when you stick your character up a tree and then constantly throw rocks at them to get ‘em down. Those rocks hurt, but those rocks also make you stronger. They teach you how to duck, dive and avoid them. They bring out talents of building a shield out of leaves you never knew you had.
So even if that cocky assistant and I turn out to be “better off as friends”, I wouldn’t take back my second act blues any more than Dorothy would give back her time in Oz. I see him in many decisions I still make. He helped to form who I am and I am a better human being as a result. No matter what, I will always have the memories, the private jokes, and the scars from the rocks that hit me during that show I lived and loved.
Besides something tells me that while the marriage was the beginning of the second act of our relationship, the divorce is the beginning of the second act of my life. So while there are going to be lots of obstacles ahead, I only have to survive the next 60 pages (or years) to get to that golden third act where everything works out in the end.Tags: Divorce, Hollywood, Marriage, Screenwriter, Second act