Moving past the second act

“In life, the first act is always exciting but it is the second act – that’s where the depth comes in.”

Joyce Van Patten

In these early days of September 2021, as kids go back to school and adults make their way back to the office, I hear a lot of people feeling… stuck. The last two years were dominated by the pandemic, but while we slowly emerge from the sense of urgency and constant crisis it created (if not from the pandemic itself), there is a sense of inertia, a feeling of ‘I am trying everything, yet nothing seems to work’. A lot of my coaching sessions at the moment revolve around this impression that there is no forward movement, and, because we live in an environment where individual effort is praised above all others, many of the people I talk to blame themselves for this lack of progress.

To me, it sounds like they are stuck in the second act of the movie.

The three-act structure

The three-act structure was described for the first time in the fourth century AD. I came across it in Syd Field’s book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. But we all know it, from watching romcoms and action movies and crime shows and sports movies…

Essentially, most stories can be divided into three acts: The set up, which revolves around an “inciting incident” (the meet-cute in a romcom, the crime in a thriller); the confrontation, where various things happen, and our protagonist may have a few small successes, maybe even think they have reached their goal, but will eventually come to a point of failure or at least non-success; and the resolution, where the protagonist comes back from setbacks to triumph.

The second act is where character development happens. Early successes turn out to be moot, and our character needs to learn new skills, and improve their self-awareness, in order to finally succeed.

And in the third act we have the climax, and the resolution, good or bad – that’s where the wedding takes place, or where Thelma and Louise drive off into the great unknown.

If you are interested, here is a great breakdown of the three-act structure of The Godfather. But 80% of the movies you have seen, quite a few of the books you have read, follow this structure. It is the most satisfying, the one that leaves the most intense sense of completion. It is the story equivalent of a perfect cadence in music.

The second act tends to occupy the biggest part of the book or movie. But in terms of time elapsed rather than minutes of film or pages of books, it is usually much longer still. Think of all this time Rocky spends jogging through Philadelphia. In The Godfather, Michael Corleone goes away for a whole year. In When Harry Met Sally, the second act goes on for decades!

When I see some of my coaching clients feeling unsure of who they are, where they are going, feeling like nothing they are trying really works, and often blaming themselves for it, I think about them as stuck in the second act of their story. Of a specific part of their story, at the very least. That feels very frustrating. Again it’s like an unfinished cadence in music, or being stuck halfway on a zip-wire. Efforts to move on or create change don’t seem to work, and eventually it’s easy to start feeling discouraged.

And yet remember – second acts take longer!

The work then is to decide what is needed to move on to third act and some form of resolution (at which point it will all start again!). Is it internal? External? Both? What support is needed? What are some of the barriers that you are likely to encounter?

Strategies to move past the second act

In stories, there is a usually a plot point that moves you from second act to third act. Sometimes it can be very dramatic, like when Apollonia’s car explodes in The Godfather. Other times, it can be an external event that triggers recognition – often a conversation with a good friend or mentor, or witnessing something that triggers an epiphany. Sometimes, it’s all internal. But in order to be believable, the second act turning point needs to demonstrate personal growth. Think Bill Murray starting to help people in Groundhog Day.

Unsurprisingly, the same is true in life. To move past your second act, you probably need some personal development and reflection. Now is a great time to reach out to your network and talk to people. Engage with a mentor or a coach. Read new articles, new books. Expand your understanding of what the world looks like, in order to expand your understanding of your place in it.

In movies there are often false victories in the second act. Protagonists rush to success, but are ultimately foiled because they aren’t fully ready, or because they haven’t defined what they want properly. Tink about the first attempt by the Rebel Alliance in Star Wars, which looks successful at the beginning but then ends with Obi Wan Kenobi’s death. Or Jerry Maguire thinking that he has signed his star player, only to have him snatched from under him because he hasn’t worked out what he stands for yet.

The same can be true in a career. Rushing to apply to any job available, or asking for a promotion, is tempting because it feels like action, like momentum moving forward. But without a proper reflection on what it is you are trying to achieve, it may well not lead you where you want.

Don’t pre-empt what victory looks like

And where DO you want to go? In movies, the second/ third act transition often comes with a realisation that the end of the story is not what you thought it was going to be. In Wall Street, Bud thinks he wants to become like Gekko, until he realises his redemption story is to destroy Gekko instead. In Three Men and a Baby, the men think they want to get rid of the baby for most of the film. Of course, they don’t really want that at all.

You may have a very clear vision in your head or where you are trying to get to and what you are trying to achieve, and your frustration may come from not getting there fast enough. Or you may on the contrary be struggling with too many options and possibilities. Either way, your time in Act Two should be spent thinking about what is really important to you, and how you may be able to achieve that. The result may be exactly what you thought it would be (Frodo does get rid of the Ring, eventually), or it could look very different. The way you get there could be what you expected, or a very different route. Revisiting both these is an essential part of your learning journey as the hero of your story!

Key take aways

“It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear…”

Sometimes it feels like nothing is moving and you can’t quite get to where you want to go. Sometimes life and work can feel like the repetitive part of Groundhog Day. If that’s the case think about the following:

  • Reframe your situation as being in the second act of this part of your story, and think about what it might take to move to a third act
  • Don’t move into action too soon!
  • Expand your perspective through talking to new people, working through things with a mentor or coach, reading and learning
  • Don’t get stuck on your definition of what success looks like, and be prepared to change and evolve as you develop your thinking

Good luck!

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