Thursday, April 21, 2011

Second Acts Can Suck

Notoriously the hardest chunk of story for any writer to tame, the daunting spectre of the Second Act often looms like a large and blurry bête noire between the Snappy Opening of the First Act and the Satisfying Ending of the Third. Between those distinct narrative bookends that are usually the first to form themselves in the writer's mind - because these are the things that get them juiced and keep them going when the going gets tough - lies the vast, often arid, seemingly unnavigable land of The Middle.

Its name alone is an onomatopoeic omen of the murky challenges to come: "middle" is so perilously close to its ambiguous cousin, "muddle". And not too genetically far removed from "muffle", "waffle" and thus, "wander"...

And so, it is often the place where a good story can go astray. Or, at the very least, lose steam.

Popular wisdom goes that, in order to avoid these classic Second Act pitfalls, there is just one prescription: Raise the stakes. Throw increasingly bigger obstacles in the protagonist's way.

In other words, put your hero(ine) up a tree. And then proceed to throw rocks at him/her. Start with pebbles, go to gravel, continue to work your way through the various geological mineral formations and finish with a nice, fat bolder.

According to the pundits, that'll keep the narrative moving through the marshy, mushy landscape of The Middle to usher the story artfully and effectively to its ultimately satisfying Third Act.

Here then, is about where the river stones should start coming at us. Having sailed through our opening act of major openings in Montreal, Toronto, and most recently Vancouver, our film's theatrical life is now hitting the middle of its story.

With many scheduled, if limited engagements coming up in various places across Canada, we are entering a hopefully long and steady second act. And happily for the sake of sustaining tension in the story, despite generally fantastic press and good word of mouth, all our efforts to build audiences and box office in our snappy First Act are being challenged by the movie-going audience's increasingly solicited entertainment dollar and sundry other sticks and stones in the Second Act.

Duly following the prescription for a tight, tense narrative though, we have raised the stakes by also trying to navigate our way through the unchartered and sometimes mystifying territory of the international festival circuit. And according to the rules of good storytelling, we are still winding up in more valleys than peaks, but on we trek - jumping from tree to tree and working on our stone-dodging techniques.