Tell me the truth.
Between the beginning, middle, and end of your screenplay, which is the hardest to write?
The middle, right?
The middle of your story stretches out like a vast expanse of blank pages. Blank pages are scary in general.
But blank pages from Act Two are downright terrifying.
One way to tackle this problem is to figure out how Act Two ends, aka your hero’s “all is lost moment.” If you do that, the middle of your screenplay will be much, much easier to finish.
So what’s the key to creating the perfect “all is lost” moment?
Craft a painful, emotionally charged series of scenes which somehow brings your hero closer to his goal…even though, on the surface, he appears to be the furthest from it.
Those three essentials—pain, emotion, and paradox—are basically all you need to create a second act ending which is effective and powerful. In short, one with impact.
Combined, each of these elements re-engages audiences, right when their interest is about to flag. That’s why it’s so crucial to get this plot point right.
So, let’s examine these “all is lost” essentials more in depth, shall we?
Act Two Ending Essential #1: Pain
As a writer, you’re probably inclined to be kind to your hero. After all, he’s usually the character whose essence and history most mirror your own personality and experience.
But you must resist that urge. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut:
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
While this is true throughout your script, it’s especially true at the end of Act Two, during your hero’s “all is lost” moment.
By being cruel to your hero, you’re being kind to audiences, who expect to experience a roller coaster of emotions. The “all is lost” moment is the “dip” which makes your hero’s eventual ascent during Act Three all the more powerful.
In all likelihood, your first set of ideas of how to end Act Two is probably the equivalent of a paper cut. You need to find a way to turn it into a gaping wound (which is, needless to say, genre-appropriate).
And after that…
Throw salt onto your hero’s wounds
Unstinting pain, that’s your primary order of business at this stage of your story.
Take BRIDESMAIDS. The screenwriters, Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, created a truly horrendous “all is lost” moment for their heroine, Annie. At the end of Act Two, Annie:
- is demoted from her position as Lillian’s maid of honor
- wrecks her blossoming romance with Officer Rhodes
- gets fired from her job at the jewelry store
- is ousted from her apartment by her two comedically creepy roommates
- completely ruins her friendship with Lillian
Notably, Kristen Wiig also starred as Annie. Even so, Wiig treated her character with sadistic hands. When writing and revising your own screenplay, you should follow Wiig’s lead: be merciless to your hero.
That’s not to say that you must wound your hero on multiple fronts in order to create an effective “all is lost” moment. A single deep gouge can be equally as powerful.
Look at SPEED. At the end of Act Two, Jack Traven experiences only one major loss. But it sure is a doozy.
The death of Jack’s best friend and police partner, Harry, is enough to take Jack out of commission. (At least temporarily.)
Why did this loss pack such an emotional punch?
It was a powerful moment precisely because of the way the action film portrayed Jack and Harry’s friendship…
…which brings me to…
Act Two Ending Essential #2: Emotion
Your hero’s “all is lost” moment must elicit some significant degree of emotion from audiences. Otherwise, it’s about as useful as a flat tire.
As far as emotional reactions go, tears are great, but not always probable. Wide eyes and an involuntary gasp work equally well.
Whether expressed through tears or gasps—or something in between—if successful, your “all is lost” moment recharges audiences’ emotional investment in your hero’s success all over again.
Sadly, this is where amateur writers make a fatal mistake
They assume that audiences will automatically care about whatever tragedy befalls their hero at the end of Act Two. But this isn’t the case–even with death.
Whether your hero experiences a personal loss or a setback which seriously jeopardizes the stakes, you must show–not tell–audiences how and why this state of affairs matters to your hero.
As an example, let’s examine Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES. Towards the end of the second act, Watson is seriously injured in a factory explosion. Obviously, he’s in a great deal of pain.
But Watson’s suffering doesn’t automatically produce a moment of emotional resonance for audiences. This event has resonance specifically because the film took the time to show audiences how meaningful Watson’s friendship was to Holmes.
Here’s a helpful exercise: watch the film. Then, write down all the ways it showed audiences Watson’s significance to Holmes. Now, imagine the movie without those small, but critical, details.
Without them, do you think Watson’s Act Two injuries would’ve had the same emotional effect?
Even if your hero experiences a setback which puts an entire city, country, planet, or galaxy into serious jeopardy, it’s still imperative to give audiences a reason to care about such tragedy.
As Scott Myers explains in an interview with Script Magazine:
I read a lot of scripts and one recurring issue I find, regardless of genre, is a lack of emotional resonance. There can be all this huge stuff going on in the plot, literally in a sci-fi story at the scale of blowing up an entire planet, but if there aren’t points of connection for a script reader to the story’s characters, where we actually feel something authentic for them, then the effect can be so much noise. That’s why I have this writing mantra: Substantial Saga / Small Story. That is whatever the big story is, what I call the Plotline, there have to be some intimate subplots and dynamics going on which engender a human connection between the reader and the characters.
To make that human connection between audiences and your characters, demonstrate the value of your hero’s Act Two loss. That way, your “all is lost” moment will have emotional impact.
That way, you’ll have audiences right where you want them–eating from the palm of your hand.
Act Two Ending Essential #3: Paradox
This, perhaps, is the trickiest aspect of the “all is lost” moment to understand.
You and I both know that your story climax is just around the corner. Assuming your story ends on a positive note, your hero’s victory is a mere 15 pages away (give or take).
So, then, how can your hero be the furthest away from his goal at his “all is lost” moment?
In truth, he’s not. It just looks like he is.
See, your hero’s Act Two defeat, as negative and unpleasant as it is, often is exactly what your hero needs to push past his demons, to give up his crutches, to overcome his innate resistance to change.
Because your hero has hit rock bottom, he’s desperate enough to take the path of most resistance and confront the very thing he was trying to avoid.
In the process, he’ll blossom into the person he always wanted to be.
This epic defeat contains the seeds of lasting victory
If you examine the end of Act Two from this perspective, then success is not as far off as your hero imagines—he just has to hang in there a little while longer.
It certainly doesn’t seem that way. Not to your hero, and certainly not to the audience.
Therein lies the paradox!
There are multiple ways this paradox can manifest itself. We’ll explore one of them here: the paradox of unfettered growth.
In this type of paradox, the hero is typically reliant upon the support of his mentor or on the assets of his employer.
But to vanquish the villain, the hero will have to let go.
Like most people, heroes are often resistant to change, and correspondingly, are reluctant to part ways voluntarily.
At the “all is lost” moment, however, the choice is taken out of the hero’s hands. His mentor might die; his organization might cut him loose. Either way, although this is a devastating moment for the hero, it paradoxically contains the seeds of future victory.
STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE is a classic example. Until he’s killed by Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi instructs Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force. But Obi-Wan won’t always be at hand to fight Luke’s future battles for the restless rebel.
Even though Obi-Wan manages to communicate to Luke from beyond the grave, Luke still has to learn to rely on his own instincts and to refine his mastery of the Force. As counterintuitive as it may seem, Luke’s development is facilitated by Obi-Wan’s death because this loss forces Luke to grow.
To put it another way, Luke’s separation from Obi-Wan in the first film helps prepare Luke for the trials he must endure in the second and third.
In the commentary for RETURN OF THE JEDI, George Lucas summarizes this idea quite nicely:
There is a point, where the hero has to be left alone, on his own two feet, without anybody there to help him…at some point…all the props have to be taken away, and he has to face the evil monster alone.
That’s the power of the “all is lost” moment. It forces your hero to face the monster all alone, to prove his heroic mettle. And in doing so, he’ll prove he’s worthy of his Act Three reward.
Act Two Ending: Beyond the basics
It’s time to put my cards on the table.
This article only scratches the surface of how to write a powerful Act Two ending.
If you’d like to learn more, check out my comprehensive writing guide, Trough of Hell: How to Wrap Up the Middle of Your Story with Maximum Impact.
With this screenwriting guide, you’ll learn:
- how to use 4 different pain types to inflict maximum damage to your hero (and why you should)
- 3 methods to make the trough of hell more emotionally intense—without altering a single beat of the “all is lost” moment
- how a hero seems to be the furthest away from his goal, when you and I both know he’s about to accomplish it in 15 pages (give or take)
- 7 common ways to end Act Two and how to overcome the unique challenges each presents
- how to enchant audiences by combining multiple trough types
- the trick Peter Jackson used to increase the emotional weight of THE TWO TOWERS
- why the most effective way to hurt your hero—even in an action movie—doesn’t involve blood, burns, or bruises
- 5 different forms of betrayal you can use to split your heroes apart
- how to use setups and payoffs to extricate your hero from dicey situations (like capture and death)
- the secret sauce to turning allies into foes (think Dr Nichols in THE FUGITIVE)
- what stuck out the most to Johnny Depp when filming THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL…and why it matters to you, as a screenwriter
- the STAR WARS secret which will help you achieve galactic screenwriting dominion
- 5 cliché-free ways to show your hero’s post-trough distress
- how to pace your story with panache
- how to handle problems specific to thrillers, action movies, comedies, and romantic comedies
Never Get Stuck in the Middle of Your Story Ever Again
Conquer Act Two…for good. Write your screenplay with more ease, more speed, and more confidence.
Buy Trough of Hell today!
All Is Lost Hero by Sylvain.Collet