Just Effing Ask Julie Gray: Tension and The Rhythm of Screenplay Structure

Script consultant Julie Gray is a veteran story analyst of some of the biggest production companies in Hollywood. The author of Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas, Julie has taught story at Warner Bros. Studios, The Great American PitchFest and Oxford University. Contact Julie here.

Dear Julie,

Starting the second act, how should the rhythm change? If the first act ends with a great deal of tension to set up a crazy journey, should the second act start with a contrast to where the first act ended? I see that technique a lot, but wonder if you have a take about that contrast or change to mark the beginning of Act II.

-Brian in Los Angeles

Dear Brian, the tension in your script should increase in intensity throughout. Try not to differentiate too much between the first act and the second act, but rather see your whole script as a crescendo. Each obstacle and conflict raises the stakes; everything is just getting worse and worse (and funnier and scarier – dependent upon your genre).

To take it back to what I think you are really asking – what to do after a really high, tense point of drama or conflict; what comes next? Why, a breather that further complicates things of course. Think of the rhythm of your story, and the structure that punctuates that rhythm as a dance: Slow, slow, quick quick, slow.

screenplay structureThink of your script as a song, with a chorus and a bridge and the lyrics that tie those things together and continue to build. You just cannot sing “…where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio….” without DYING to also sing the next part. You just – you can’t. Your script should read in the same way. So PHEW your big end of Act I, beginning of Act II cliffhanger/obstacle just happened – but – but what comes NEXT? I HAVE to turn the page.

So again, try not to differentiate so much between acts as much as know that every single scene is a build to the next – an elaborate dance, a song that must be sung until it reaches it’s conclusion.

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