Reader Question: How to keep from getting stuck in Act Two?

The answer is almost always this: Spend more time in story prep learning about your characters!

Reader question from Mahmoud:

I always get stuck in the 2nd act and it sucks. I have great concept for a drama film and I write the first act successfully, then in the second the characters seem to shutdown, I just can’t connect with them. Do you have any idea why and do you have any solution please?

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Mahmoud, I have two suggestions. The first is a generic one: Go here and read How I Write a Script. There are 10 posts — and 7 of them deal with what I call “prep-writing,” everything from story concept to brainstorming, character development to plotting. The simple fact that I devote 7 of 10 lectures to prep-writing should give you a big clue about my underlying philosophy: It is absolutely critical to devote enough time preparing your story before moving into the page-writing phase.

[I have posted several times re this very point: Do a search of the site on “prep-writing” and I’m sure you’ll find a number of those posts.]

The single biggest contributing factor to a script’s demise is, I think, the fact that the writer does not spend enough time going into their story, doing everything that is necessary to understand the characters, grasp how and why the plot works, what the important themes are, etc. They know enough to write a solid first act, but as soon as they move into the second act, they lose their way.

So just generically, I would advise you to devote more time in prepping to write your script.

The second response is inspired by this phrase you used in your query: “then in the second [act] the characters seem to shutdown, I just can’t connect with them.”

This suggests that you haven’t spent enough time with your characters. In my experience, most characters want their story to be told. So it’s up to you as the writer to create a connection with them. If you they don’t feel like you’ve taken time enough to understand them, perhaps that’s why they’re shutting you down.

[This is another area I’ve posted about several times, so another site search would be a good idea, this time using the words “character development.”]

However for purposes of this post, let me propose three ideas re character development:

Get curious: Ask each of your main characters questions about themselves, essentially conduct an interview. I like to open a Word file per each character and do the ‘interview’ there. Here is an initial set of questions you can ask:

What is your name?
How old are you?

How would you describe your physical appearance?
How do you feel about the way you look?

Who are your parents?
Describe your relationship with your mother.
Describe your relationship with your father.

Who is the most important person in your life? Why?
Are you in love?
If so, describe your lover and your relationship with them.
If not, why not?
Describe what your soul-mate would be like?

Do you believe in God?
If so, describe your relationship with God.
If not, why not?
When did you stop believing in God?

Do you consider yourself to be an optimist or a pessimist? Why?

What do you do for a living?
If you like your job, explain why.
If not, explain why not.

In ten years, where will you be and what will you be doing?

Answer these questions:

My biggest strengths are…

My biggest weaknesses are…

I am most proud of…

I am most ashamed of…

I am most angry about…

And finally, be as honest as you can with this question:

I am most afraid of…

This last question — what are you most afraid of — can be the single most important way to zero in on the core essence of a character. As a rule, people try to avoid pain. If they know what scares them, they will go to great lengths to construct a daily life that avoids that which causes them fear. Therefore in many ways, the answer to this question is a key to understanding how and why a character is ‘constructed’ (psychologically) the way they are.

Sit with your characters: Sit down with your character in mind and consider them. And as you sit with them, write down the thoughts and feelings that you have. Don’t edit, just transpose what you experience about your characters, then into your fingers, and finally onto the keyboard or paper (if you’re writing longhand). Essentially you are giving your character room to communicate to and with you.

Consider what your primary characters’ narrative functions are: After you’ve spent a good portion of time with your characters, asking them questions and sitting with them so they can ‘talk’ to you, think about how each of the characters functions in terms of the plot. Which is the Protagonist? Who is the Nemesis? Is there an Attractor character (one who is connected most closely to the Protagonist’s emotional development)? Is there a Mentor character (one who is connected most closely to the Protagonist’s intellectual development)? Is there a Trickster character (one who acts as an ally to the Protagonist some times, and other times as a enemy)?

By identifying their core narrative function, that can provide another key insight into who each character is. Plus, in determining what each character’s primary role is in relation to the Plotline, you can stay laser focused on what their respective goals are, not only long-term, but also in terms of every single scene.

Often the most important questions you ask are of your Protagonist because it is their goals that define the journey. So one way to approach your characters is this:

  • Who is my Protagonist?

And then on to see which characters are connected primarily to the Protagonist’s emotional development (Attractor), Protagonist’s intellectual development (Mentor), who tests the will of theProtagonist sometimes as enemy, sometimes as ally (Trickster).

So the big notes: Spend more time with your characters. Dig into who they are and why they are the way they are. Get curious about them — ask them questions. Give them room to talk — sit with each character. And try to sort out what each character’s narrative function is.

As I said, I believe that characters want their story to be told. If you show each character the respect they deserve by spending time with them, asking them questions, listening to them talk, discerning what their core narrative function is, it’s likely they will not shut you down, but rather stay connected with you, allies in your page-writing process.

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