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Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Lesson 11 of 18

Step 5: Write Acts 2 & 3

Hal Ackerman

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft

Hal Ackerman

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Lesson Info

11. Step 5: Write Acts 2 & 3

Lesson Info

Step 5: Write Acts 2 & 3

All through act two of juneau two things are happening. Two things were happening in act two. Number one it's driven by are continuing pregnancy and that is a narrative thing is driving the story as as the linear movement. As time passes, she becomes more and more pregnant. The other thing that's happening is her relationship with bleeker. It is complex, you know, they clearly have liked each other. But now she's getting more and more pregnant and he's having seemingly ah, life outside of hers, he's going to the prom with somebody else and she is beginning is having a relationship with this with this couple. Now, this couple have their own kind of internal seen o gram going on at the beginning. I think their names are mark and vanessa and they they are like the perfect couple, but there's a little something that quite as perfect as we would hope about that couple. She is kind of goofily, almost loving desire ing to be a mother and their home. It becomes a metaphor of their lives. Every...

thing is so perfectly done. It's almost laughable. Mark way seizes a frustrated musician. It's got this great guitar he's got, you know, this fantasy of himself becoming a rock'n'roll musician and as their story progresses, journos relationship with them. Individually and but but she she comes much closer with the guy and her stepmother is worried about this you know she's saying you know there are things that you don't understand about that's going on you can't you can't have this kind of a relationship and she you know she's thinks that she can she's kind of cocky about it but but she is wrong and there is there is a scene a very important again a very important functional scene in the middle of act two this is a very important moment act two again when we talk about function two again if you think about that slinking has almost like a triangular of structure to it it starts at the end of act one and this is true of juno it's true of the godfather and it surges you can say upward to this midpoint here I put a triangle here it's like a little mountain inside job there's a instructor used a lady's name was how it's super and he talks about this one our turning point and so I call this point hush because if you put all the letters backwards it looks like howard supers one hour a turning point but who cares uh the important part the important thing that we want to know that we want to understand about this midpoint is that is a moment where a character takes control for better or worse of his or her own destiny very important. And I want teo, I want to talk to you. Even though we have juneau up here. I want to talk about how that works in the godfather. Because it's it's very. You know, we have our that the godfather, signor graham in front of us in at the end of act one and, oh movies. In addition to all these other things we're talking about, I like to think about movies have what I like to call a well unifying structure or structural integrity of the ways of thinking about it in the godfather. All the back one takes place in new york. All back two takes place in italy. All of act three takes place. Back in new york, there was the very first movie I ever seen. A grand. It was called desperately seeking susan like a a thousand years ago. But it's the end of act one, you get banged on the head and takes a new identity and a back to get banged on the head and returns in our old identity. So they all have a kind of, um oh, all moves. Do you have a kind of internal structure to them? So movies oh, ac one is on morning, act two is afternoon factory is night they're different different ways of thinking about that, um the godfather middle act takes place well, michael is all of it cuts back to new york for the godfather himself but all of that to michael is in italy. He goes there because he's killed these people and he has to escape. Okay uh so when we think about our slinky again um the end of act one he's done this act that has his honored for his father his father has never wanted to do that his father has always wanted to stay out of the business. So there's a two conflicting things going on and it's important for us to remember also that there are always two opposing forces going on inside of our movie at all times all times is the forward thrust of what the protagonist wants and is the pushback against it from things that are internal to the protagonist like in jaws he's afraid of the water but has to kill the shark and the external things like in the godfather when michael has gone to italy to escape but he and his identity needs to be kept secret but now it falls you meet, he sees apolo nia and that thunderbolt happens right? And if you remember in the scene these guys are kind of walking around they come to this in and they're talking in a very guy like way about this bro, you know, talking about what a great figure it isn't on the innkeeper is listening and he's being less and less pleased with what he's hearing and we start to realize maybe even before these guys realize that that it's her father that they're talking about his daughter you know and and michael quickly realizes it and has to do something has to do something to make it right and almost every scene there's kind of like it's kind of like a transaction you're giving something to something that you can get back you're trading something and in this in this moment here in this in this moment here to be of the mid point back to in order to make it right for the father for the insult that has been heaped upon him the ways in which they're talking about his daughter he gives up something he gives up the truth about his identity he says who he is and he says people would pay a lot of money to know this and what he wants in return for giving this confidence their father is to get back the chance to court her in the proper manner the reason this is such an effective midpoint is that it leads inevitably to the low point in the story which is abalone getting killed because by his revealing his true identity he gets to court her by getting to court her he gets to marry her by getting to marry her their relationship exists by giving up his identity people now know who he is and abalone is father at a certain point comes and says it's become too dangerous for you here you have to have to leave and this is when and meanwhile abalone one is very excited about coming to america and when you learn how to drive become a real american so that's you know that's that's um charming it's understandable she's a young girl of course you want to drive there's nothing suspicious about that at all but other things have happened because we have flashed back to new york and in in new york don corleone learns that michael has has done what he has done uh also in new york it's got sonny gets killed so way keep the big danger going on you killed brutally if you remember that scene outside you know and the highway along I thought the toll booth body is riddled with bullets so we know that what michael has done at the end of act one is having its strong consequences all along here right now we're told that michael is in danger they have to leave um and um babylonia is now killed now before abalone is killed we see the contrast between the way michael is with her and the way he has been with his performer girlfriend diane keaton uh that relationship was kind of cool was not passionate at all but with abalone, a he's become a different person. So what she represents, what europeans to him in that story is the possibility of redemption, the possibility that he will become the man that he might have become when he said that's, my family it's not me, that that is who he was, who his father would want him to be. That is who we would hope you'll have a chance to be. Teo, get out of that life to be reclaimed, to find his soul again. But because that this thing happens at the midpoint, because that information gets revealed in order for him to accomplish something that is gigantically meaningful to him. So what we have to understand is that while it is serving our own function very well, as a writer in this case poses coppola's functions very well. It also must serve the characters absolute immediate function, and need the reason he did that is not so. The writer can cause something else that happened later on, although structurally it does. The reason he does it is because he has been thunderstruck by this girl. That is why he does what he does. And as we are writing our stories, it is so important that whatever it is we know has toe happen in our story. Has to happen from the careful with the character wants that very first circle that I put on the board in the previous step, when we crossed out the theme that we wrote desire that every scene that we write in our story must be generated by the characters, desire, where he or she absolutely is driven by. I don't know what the theme of this is. I know what the theme of that moment is, but I know what drives that scene, which is that michael is been thunderstruck by a bologna, and the only way that he could possibly get out of the circumstance and the predicament that they're untrue, ord comments about this girl to her father could be is by his giving something by him, giving that father his pride back, his respect back and the way that he can do it. The on ly thing, valuable enough that he can trade for it, of equal value, is his identity, and he does it, and he does it, and the result of his having does that does that leads to the big what I call the big gloom at the end of act two, the scene that ends our second act is really the most important scene in the story. It is the moment at which the protagonist is as far away as possible from the thing that has driven him or her from the very beginning thing that propelled that character into action thing that he or she most wanted thie characters now as far away as possible from it in act three of a story, one of two things will happen. Either the character will find some way of getting past that and ultimately achieving what he or she wants or will be defeated. Uh, and um so it is that it is a time where we have to bring our character beyond the point where here she ever has been before we have the character must be absolutely depleted and find some of the things that for a successful completion of this quote, what we would call a happy ending, the character has to find a way of transcending the things that in previous lifetimes have defeated him. So in jaws he can't be afraid of the water anymore. He or she or he's gotta conquer that fear. He's got to do absolutely depleted he's gotta be out there on the bow of that ship with the ship going down with the people he's on it being dead or almost dead on with a shark bearing down on him with open jaws and just having, you know, their rifle in the oxygen tank and a cz disposal. In a movie like like you know like like splash that I mentioned earlier he has got to recognize that okay? She waas a mermaid but I'm still in love with her and I'm gonna you know, take that leap of faith and believe I can jump into the water and somehow exist under water in the movie juno where all that she has wanted was to give her baby to a couple that will love her that's the one thing that was the most important thing to her the absolute most important thing thing was driving everything that couple falls apart and she can't believe it she's begging him please don't do this don't do that please you can get back together please don't do this but all over pleading is comes to not they separate they are just you know you know he says you know it's all happening too fast you know he's becoming behaving kind of like a jerk you know she says you know you're too old to be kurt cobain or some line like that but you know he he he's not exactly a bad guy but he's not a good as good a guy as he needed to be uh and and they separate and at the end of act two she is devastated because it's and here's his is a really important thing it's when we where and when we place the events because if that happened t mark two weeks after the deal was made and she's only three months pregnant, it wouldn't have so much so much significance because, oh, she can find somebody else but it happens it's structure that happens when she is eight and a half months pregnant and now what? And now what now that does does joon I'll have a decision, but so does you know the mother who is now not a mother who was forming a life with her husband that's going to be ideal but if she accepted it's going she's going to be a single woman, a single mother and so general rights of things as if you're still in way don't really see what that note she writes there but each of them has to transcend and find a way of coping with what they thought was going to be one thing but turns out to be something else each other so vanessa has tto be a mother but not nearly in the way that she imagined that she would be and in the end way see her holding that baby and you know when we see juno stepmother and you know what I look like? You look like any other mother scared out of your mind or make she's scared shitless, I guess um and um there's a there's a nice thing that I like to call the reward or deal equation. Very important emotional thing for us to think about, which means that at the end of a movie, whatever the character is rewarded with should equal the ordeal that that character has been forced to endure. And if the character is given mohr, then he or she has suffered for the ending feels unearned feels to hollywood. It feels like to gift wrapped too easy sometimes as writers were guilty of doing that because weeks so empathize with our character that we want to give him or her whatever it is she wants without making them pay the price. But we must we must we must, even if it's a story about a character that is very much like us, drawn from our own lives, what we want nurture and help and protect it is gigantically important that we make that character be depleted. Rocky at the end of that movie it's not like he comes out unmarked, untouched unscathed, his nose is broken and seven broken before he can barely stand his blood. He's bleeding is I got cut, but and he could barely see but finally he could say toe adri and I love you he was never met. He was never a man before. He could never say that before. Now that he has given everything, he can finally say that juno and bleeker can finally maybe you can confess love to each other she can recognize that it's very pointed she will never see that baby bleeker has chosen not to see the child at all so there's a price that has been paid now the fathers and the support of character the whole time he says, you know you you'll be back here another time when when you're ready gives, he gives her that but she learns what kind of a girl she is and it's not a pure message it's not like, oh you're perfect or your wonderful or you'll never make mistakes, it is not that it is you can you can deal with the mistakes that you will make and you will make them, but you have the strength to cope with them and you can rise beyond it. So the more sophisticated and in depth emotionally movie is, the more that character will be allowed to suffer and reveal the things that we've talked about in the earliest steps in our cringe exercises toe actually contend with those things that's a gloss over them it's very important as writers that we recognize that these have to play out and that that the character will either win or lose and also that and the theme of a movie can be played out in the way in which the movie ends because the movie can end without the character without the character achieving what he or she wants which can carry within it the theme of that story or the poignancy or the emotional kick of that story in a movie like erin brockovich she fights for something and she wins she defeats that aluminum you know that that that that company but in a very similar movie that's called silkwood character beth carrots so quit also about true story it was played by share she's trying to do the same thing with caramel with company kerr mcgee she realized that they are poisoned their people by with plutonium and she does not triumph. What happens at the end of that is that they grease or breaks and she goes over the mountains a true story and is killed before she could reveal it eventually becomes revealed. But the theme of that story the emotion of that story is revealed not in her triumph but in her defeat in the kind of way so we can use the events of our story that carry the emotion of our story in many different sophisticated wait it doesn't have to be direct doesn't have to be hero triumph victory it could be hero defeat but triumph in defeat depending upon what what how we want to tell a story in a kind of way uh when I leave you with here is thinking about the expression that you want to see on the faces of the people that come out of the movie theater after just having seen your film, what do you want them to look? You want to be gleeful, ecstatic that school you wanted to be thoughtful, to want to be shattered? All those things are in your hands, by the way, in which you fashion your story and it all begins with, you know, with those first thoughts about whose story is it? What does the character want? How far is that character going to do to achieve what he or she wants? What prices that character going to have to pay? And how will that character be different at the end than he or she was? I was at the beginning of your story, so these questions that are asked when you begin this process way back here and step three will play themselves out in step five, when you were writing steps four and five when you were actually writing your screenplay, any questions about any of the things that we've talked about? I've been that perfect guy sometimes dazzle myself with my brilliance. Anything at all, it doesn't have to be about screenwriting could be about astronomy. I'm a full service professor when you mention about the reward ordeal, like you said that whatever suffering that they endured, not completing, mash it. Course it. Ok, put that part. Yes, yes, like in the movie, rocky. Okay. He wants to go the distance with the champ. That will mean he's, not a loser. Okay, if if he kind of danced and, you know, shocked and drive your all time and never got hit and it went up, you know, if you see that was just escaped and he wound up standing, we would not feel he earned the reward of not being a loser because he wasn't challenged nearly enough. The fact that he gets beaten and pummeled the fact that he is down on the ground. People in this corner saying, stay down, stay down. You've taken too much of a beating, the fact that his eye has to be cut so that he can see the fact that his nose gets broken. All these things happened to him. These are the this is these are the ordeals that he endures in order to gain the thing that he wants. So those things ought to be equal, if if the if what the character endures is not equal, so what the character gains, it will feel like an unearned reward. So we want to make that characters suffer, you know, and I said, it's, difficult for us to do because we love our character, we want to protect them, just like it's, our child, and we want to protect them from danger. But the thing is that if we protect them from danger, then the audience has no responsibility. If the audience feels the character is safe and untouchable, they don't have to worry. But you know what? The you ever got it like a children's puppet show, you know, there were children, computer thie characters back is turned. They're the bad guys think about and all the kids say, watch out, watch out, he's, coming up behind you. Well, we want the audience to feel that same way, uh, a little bit more sophisticated, lee, but we want to keep our character what I like to call the discomfort zone. We want to keep them in danger the whole way and make them pay the price for what they get. I'm going to make it too easy.

Class Description

The most overwhelming, yet critical step for the screenwriter is the first draft. Staring at a blank sheet of paper can induce "writers block" faster than any other challenge facing a screenwriter. Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft will equip you with a roadmap for tackling your initial draft and guide you to the next steps on the scriptwriting journey. 

In this class, Hal Ackerman will teach you how to jumpstart the writing process and complete a written first draft of your screenplay. You’ll learn how to:
  • Organize your ideas into scenes and acts
  • Approach character development and dialogue
  • Take next steps after the first draft is complete
Hal has been teaching screenwriting to students at UCLA since 1985. He has sold material to all the broadcast networks and authored well-known books on the art of screenplay writing and selling In this class, he’ll offer actionable insights on developing your concepts and turning your ideas into a compelling and complete script.

Screenwriting: The Art of the First Draft is your opportunity to learn how to conquer one of screenwriting’s greatest challenges and get your ideas developed and down on paper. 

Check out our complete collection of filmmaking classes here


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Hal Ackerman is the Man!!! Loved this course and will be watching it again. Mr. Ackerman is one of those people who truly wants to help you get better at your craft. He's encouraging yet realistic about what it takes to write a great screenplay. I highly recommend this interesting and helpful class.


After taking a number of other screenwriting courses, I can tell you that Hal Ackerman's course, The Art of the First Draft, is the BEST EVER!! His methodology of teaching is fantastic. He takes you on this journey from start to finish in a way that you WILL KNOW how to write a script by the time you finish this course. I liked how he used examples throughout his training to help you better understand screenwriting. If you really want to learn how to be a good screenwriter, then I would highly recommend taking Hal's course. You won't be disappointed.


I've read a lot of books on the subject and I've been to a few seminars. Hal Ackerman's class is genuinely one of the best and the most helpful classes I have experienced. What makes the class so great is that every concept has you putting pen to paper or fingers on keyboard right away. Ackerman really has tools that are called to be used. Thanks for the wonderful resource.