X-Ray Specs: Act II – Arguing for a Narrative Question with a Positive Purpose

It doesn’t matter if you’ve written one script, half a script, or one hundred scripts: writing Act II is tough. It’s a slog. It’s a job. It’s a challenge, to prevent that notorious “Act II sag”—to generate enough obstacles, reversals, sub-plots, character development, sharp dialogue, and the like, to carry the story through from beginning to end.

Perhaps because the process of writing Act I, those first enthused 30-or-so pages, has all the thrill and charms of falling in love. That’s because you are: you’re falling in love with the story you want to tell, with the characters you’re creating…. But then…? You’re in love. You’re committed. You will tell this story. Now what?

There’s a secret to successfully framing Act II. It’s called the Narrative Question. Most usually (we’re talking traditional film here—not mumblecore, not avant garde), Act II presents a predicament that will be answered with “yes” or “no” by the end of Act II. Professor David Howard at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts calls this the “Main Tension” in his book, The Tools of Screenwriting, co-written with Edward Mabley.

Marlon Brando in The Godfather PHOTO: PARAMOUNT HOME ENTERTAINMENT

This Narrative Question you might even recognize as the main substance of your logline (if you have one, yet). If drafting a logline poses difficulty for you (don’t dishearten—it does for so many us), the problem isn’t in distilling the entire story (Acts I, II, III) into one sentence—it’s in knowing your Narrative Question of Act II.

The Narrative Question, or, put another way, the Protagonist’s Main Objective, mustbepositive. By positive, we don’t mean the protagonist must want to save the orphanage kiddies from leprous goblins; we mean the Goal must be “pro-social”. It must be something the audience would like to see happen. The audience, after all, is giving you its time to hear your story. Why would people want to give you their time if you’re working to give them something they don’t want?

Imagine the Narrative Question for a spec about a first-date: “Will the Loathsome Lothario successfully manipulate and seduce the naive young girl by the end of the night?” Gross! We don’t want that to happen. “Will the Loathsome Lothario discover True Love and be redeemed by the virtuous, irresistible young woman?” That we might be interested to see. It’s all in how you frame Act II.

The frame, or Narrative Question, will emerge from the spirit of the piece, which emerges from the spirit of the protagonist. And if you’ve got an antihero on your hands, you’ve got your work cut out for you: as the writer, you’ve almost got to convince the audience you’re not a sociopath yourself. Rather, you’re telling your story with the necessary critical distance from the antihero protagonist and his or her machinations (sometimes recognized by audiences as irony, which is just another word for “drama”—the difference between what the audience knows/expects and the characters think they know/can expect). Your audience has to feel you’re one of them, one of their society—that you value what they value. Which validates them. And their beliefs. At least in the West, people have always paid good money to watch their beliefs validated and reflected back at themselves in an entertaining way. (Euripedes bloody well knew this, didn’t he?)

Not convinced yet as to the necessity of a positive, pro-social, protagonist objective? Don’t take my word for it—take it from one of the Masters:

ALFRED HITCHCOCK:  “In an adventure drama your central figure must have a purpose. That’s vital for progression of the film, and it’s also a key factor in audience participation. The public must be rooting for the character; they should almost be helping him to achieve his goal. John Gielgud, the hero of The Secret Agent, has an assignment [to kill a man], but the job is distasteful and he is reluctant to do it. Therefore, because it’s a negative purpose, the film is static—it doesn’t move forward.” (Interview by Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock, page 105)

Now for some examples. Let’s consider Quentin Tarantino’s Academy Award® nominee for Best Original Screenplay, Django Unchained. It’s no spoiler to say the Narrative Question of Act II is, “Will Django rescue his wife from slavery?” This is a pro-social goal, a positive purpose, that everyone in the enlightened 21st Century audience can root for. We as a society value love, marriage, and freeing goodness from evil’s clutches; also, we’re all anti-slavery. There are numerous obstacles and complications Django must overcome, but it’s clear as crystal. It’s simple. It works.

What doesn’t work: Diablo Cody’s Young Adult. Here, Mavis (Charlize Theron) returns to her hometown to break up her high school sweetheart’s marriage—knowing full-well he’s a new father. In the story, Mavis has no one on her side who wants to help her accomplish this “negative purpose”—in the audience, Mavis doesn’t have many supporters, either. Who wants to root for someone to destroy a good man’s good life? That’s not pro-social. The film is, as Hitchcock warns, “static” just as Mavis cannot “move forward”—as emotionally, so narratively.

For an example of an anti-hero in a pro-social context, let’s turn to The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola). Yes, our main characters are gangsters…but, within their world, their time, they are the “good” gangsters. Don Vito Corleone is anti-drug; in fact, his anti-drug policy instigates Act 2 when the “bad” gangster, The Turk, attempts assassinating the Don. Narrative Question: “Will the Corleone Family be able to maintain its power and weather the Gang War?” A sub-goal for protagonist Michael is, “Can Michael avenge his father’s near-fatal attack by killing The Turk?” At first, it seems we’re being asked to root for Michael to commit murder. But even murder, when reframed as a matter of a family loyalty and righteous vengeance, an audience can get behind. Throw in some hesitation, some healthy reluctance—all the better. This is the Hamlet Trick.

If you look for it, you’ll find the Hamlet Trick again and again in films with an anti-hero seeking to accomplish a “negative objective”: the protagonist is out to kill someone who hurt/killed the protagonist’s beloved family member, lover, or friend. Family is pro-social, loyalty is pro-social, justice is pro-social, and love is pro-social, and so these values transcend the anti-social nature of the protagonist’s negative objective. And make the audience comfortable enough to root for the anti-hero.

Can you identify the Narrative Question of your script’s Act II? Can it be answered with “yes” or “no” by the time you get to Act III? Regarding stories with “yes” answers, the price for the protagonist’s victory usually hits hard and heavy in Act III (“oh, NO!”).

With “no” answers to Act II Narrative Questions, you’ll start Act III in False Resolution territory for a while—that is, until the protagonist must pull one last strategy or endure one last twist of fate and triumph by story’s end (“oh, YEAH!”).

For this reason, Happy Endings tend to coincide with “No” answers to Act II Narrative Questions, while Down Endings tend to coincide with “Yes” answers.

Act II Narrative Question: Could Elliot keep ET safe from The Government? No.

Act III: Did reanimated ET finally find his way home, anyway? Yes.

Act II Narrative Question: Did Tony Scarface Montana achieve the American Dream and become a big-time drug kingpin? Yes.

Act III: Did Tony live long enough to enjoy his success? No.

Act III Narrative Question: Could The Avengers stop bickering long enough to prevent full-scale alien invasion of Earth? No.

Act III: Did The Avengers still totally win and save everyone? Yes.

Good luck, good writing, and keep looking deeper into story—your own and others’—until when next we polish our X-RAY SPECS.

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2 thoughts on “X-Ray Specs: Act II – Arguing for a Narrative Question with a Positive Purpose

  1. IHRAO

    THIS IS LIKE DESECTION OF BEAST. VERY VERY GOOD PIECE FOR NEW ASPIRANTS STRANDED AND LOOKING EVERYWHERE WITH NO CLUE IN THAT SOCALLED 2ND ACT.VERY GOOD JOB INDEED

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