Writing a good story is a hell of a thing. Think about your favorite movie, or the greatest book you’ve ever read. I guarantee you there was a point at which the writer or writers want to douse the screenplay or manuscript in gasoline, light it up, and go start a new life as a lumberjack. And it’s a pretty safe bet that point came right around the middle of the story.
When you set out to write a story, you’ve got your characters, you’ve got the spark of an idea—you can just dive right in. The early going is easy. Your momentum will take you through the whole first act of the story. It’s the second act that drives writers to drink. I’ve shelved many a project midway through as I got bogged down in the “Act Two Doldrums.”
Recently, while in the throes of a particularly rough bout of writer’s block, I re-watched The Empire Strikes Back and came away with two observations, the first of which was that all I really want in life is to be as sexy as Harrison Ford circa 1979. The second and more relevant observation is that this movie is a clinic in how to construct a compelling second act. And its lessons are applicable no matter what genre you’re working in; Star Wars is an epic space fantasy, but the storytelling principles it’s built on work just as well for romantic comedies about hip, modern folks looking for love or pitch-black noir stories about sad, alcoholic cops.
The key to a strong second act (and to The Empire Strikes Back’s success) is answering the following three questions:
- What are the consequences?
By the end of the first act, your protagonists are committed, and there’s no going back. By the end of A New Hope, neither Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, nor Leia Organa have the option of returning to their ordinary lives. Luke and Leia’s homes are gone. Han has chosen his friends over his life as a smuggler, and by helping strike the first major blow against the Empire, they’ve all three become heroes of the Alliance. There’s no walking away now.
In the second act, it’s time to step back, pause, and take a look at what that commitment really means. No matter what kind of story you’re telling, there’s going to be consequences.
In The Empire Strikes Back, the consequences hit hard. The heroes we last saw celebrating on a verdant moon are now freezing nearly to death on an inhospitable ice planet, with the Empire closing in. It’s pretty striking how grim the first twenty minutes of this movie are. But such are the consequences of leading a ragtag group of freedom fighters against a galaxy wide empire. It ain’t all going to be medal ceremonies and applause.
Luke and Han spend the entire movie dealing with the consequences of decisions they made in A New Hope. In the first movie, Luke decided to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like his father. In the second, he finds out how hard this road he’s chosen really is. Yoda’s training is demanding beyond what he believes is even possible. When he heads to Cloud City to save his friends and use his Jedi training to defeat Vader and avenge his father, he utterly fails . Vader’s revelation that he is Luke’s father is the final blow: the heroic story Luke had been telling himself since he first talked to old Ben Kenobi back on Tatooine has been smashed to bits.
Han doesn’t get off any easier. It was a triumphant moment in A New Hope when he showed back up to save Luke’s skin at the Battle of Yavin, but all the heroism of that gesture isn’t going to get Jabba off his back. Thanks to Boba Fett, Lando, and the Empire, the consequences of putting his friends first catch up with Han before he can deal with them himself.
This all applies to Leia as well, despite the fact that she doesn’t get near as much to do as Luke and Han. But she’s personally involved now: by the end of A New Hope, Luke and Han aren’t just her fellow soldiers, they’re her friends. She’s a tough-as-nails Alliance leader who can face torture and stand up to Vader himself, but now it’s not just her own life at risk, it’s the lives of two people about whom she cares deeply. In Empire, the cost of this war becomes very personal for her.
A strong second act is all about looking back at what’s happened so far and exploring what the consequences of the protagonists’ actions might be. It’s also a great time to explore who these protagonists really are, which brings us to the next question:
- What’s behind that mask?
In one of the most important scenes in The Empire Strikes Back, an Imperial officer visits Darth Vader in his meditation chamber. The officer (and the audience along with him) sees the back of Vader’s bald head as his helmet is lowered down onto it. The skin is pale, veiny, and discolored. This is our first visible sign that yes, there is indeed a human beneath all that armor. There’s a face behind the mask, and if what we just saw is any indication, it’s not the face of a man in top health. This is a vulnerable and humanizing moment for a character who, up until now, might as well have been a robot. It doesn’t make him sympathetic, but it does make him real.
Not all masks are literal, of course, and the second act is the time to peel back the figurative ones the characters wear. In the first act, we see the characters as they’d like to be seen; in the second, we see who they really are.
Han was all swagger in A New Hope, his confidence unshakable. In Empire, we learn that even Han Solo can’t take everything in stride. He improvises and hustles as best he can, but to no avail. He’s left petulantly shouting “It’s not my fault!” as the Falcon’s seemingly endless hyperdrive malfunctions continue. In the end, somber and defeated, he’s led off by his captors to face those consequences we talked about.
Luke starts off as a guy who figures he could take on the world if given a chance. Full of the dumb courage that comes with naivety, he presents himself as fearless. Under Yoda’s strenuous training, however, that mask slips. As the going gets tough, we see an impatient kid who’s easily frustrated and is ready to give up when he doesn’t achieve the immediate success he’s accustomed to. Several times, he shows himself unwilling to trust the wisdom and insight of someone with centuries of experience. He doesn’t come off as much of a hero, and ends the movie maimed and humbled, having failed in everything he set out do.
Leia again gets short shrift, but she too gets her share of vulnerable moments as she wrestles with her feelings for Han, gives in to them, then watches as he’s taken away from her.
Crisis reveals people for who they truly are, hence the third question:
- What’s the worst thing that could happen?
A good second act begins and ends with crisis. Crisis is the key to everything we’ve been talking about. It’s what allows all the exploration of consequence and character.
The Empire Strikes Back begins with the Empire finding and crushing the Rebels’ main base, leaving them scrambling to regroup. It ends with all our protagonists brought to their lowest point. Luke has lost his hero narrative, Han has lost his freedom, and Leia has lost a friend and lover.
The first crisis ups the ante from the end of the first act; the second crisis sets our heroes up for a comeback in the third. And in between? It’s all about enforcing consequences and peeling back masks.
The middle section of a story can be hard to navigate, but if you’re looking for a road map, you could sure do worse than The Empire Strikes Back. To all the writers out there, when you get stuck, ask yourself: what’s my story’s equivalent of the bounty on Han’s head? Or Luke’s insistence on taking his weapons into the cave? Or Leia’s desperate and futile blaster shots at the fleeing Slave I?
Then do that.