Act Two: A Craft Essay by Ross Klavan

Ross Klavan

I’m thinking right now of F. Scott Fitzgerald, killing himself with booze and the movies and trapped in his own roiling psyche as he nods over his typewriter to conjure Gatsby buying it by gunshot in the swimming pool. He died young (Gatsby, too) about three months after he hit 44. In the novel he never finished because his life ended first (“The Last Tycoon” or, revised, “The Love of the Last Tycoon”) there’s a line in the notes that’s often quoted: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Most often, this is taken to mean that here in crazy America, you don’t get second dibs, you’d best grab the golden ring and (as Dylan cautioned) you “keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again.” But of course, we know that’s not accurate. Most people quote the line usually just to shoot it down. But I think there’s another reading, I think there might be another idea that Fitzgerald was hovering around…

“Tycoon,” published posthumously in 1941, takes place in Hollywood, in the movie business, which was then holding Fitzgerald afloat and sinking him at the same time. Story is often spoken about in terms of acts in the movies and the “Second Act” is the doozie. In books, too. Lots of people can come up with a beginning and many can cobble together an end, but the middle! That’s the Second Act and that’s where the road is not only rocky it’s full of potholes. The Second Act is where the conflict is so ripe it’s about to bust open, it’s where most of “the story” actually takes place.

“Second Act Problems” is an accepted and often-used phrase and I’m betting that anyone who’s written any kind of narrative, at some point, has known that woozy, sick-making hydra, hitting that middle section of your tale, seeing/hearing/feeling nothing and then experiencing everything from the sudden need to take a nap to a stronger series of vacant, suicidal musings. I don’t want to be too literal with this. Fitzgerald was talking, I believe, in terms of film or theater structure and in a novel this would be seen as the center, the heart, the meat of the book. I think Fitzgerald saw this lack, this absence of meaning, of complexity, of ripeness as a problem in American life and linked it to a problem in literature. Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby” is a near-perfect little story involving a criminal, a manslaughter death and a murder. Jay Gatsby, the title character, gets gunned down in a swimming pool because he’s awash in his own fantasy and his narrator, who may be the central character, at one point says of him, “he fell just short of being news.”

It’s exactly that quality that I think Fitzgerald was underlining in American life with his “careless” people who sometimes get other people dead, and it’s that quality which often shows up in our own early drafts (if not the finished product)—they fall “just short of being news.” You can spot it in crime fiction—using that odd term in the broadest sense—you start with a bang and maybe end with more bangs and a chase, but in between, things sometimes go flat and flabby like a mid-write crisis and begin travelling south.

I’ve come across a number of “tricks” to get that second act—the center of the story—a little more ripe. In film, it’s sometimes suggested that the “first act” (or the first part of the book) end on an event that so turns the tale around that the “second act” is, in many ways, a completely new story…in other words, act two is really another form of act one. Something like: Two young folks are headed for trouble and then the boy kills his babe’s father. Act Two? They decide instead of turning themselves in or just going on the run, that they’re going on a wild, murderous ride across the country until they end up shot down by the police. Or…they meet, they date, they marry…and then she notices something very strange, very dark and dangerous about him. Act Two is now based in her suspicion.

This sometimes works. At its worst, it can lead to an endless series of beginnings. It’s also true, and very often said, that plenty of people will be able to tell you the middle of your story isn’t working but only you will be able to figure out that a scene isn’t working on, say, page 85, because something went wrong with the scene on, say, page four. Good structure requires a feel for a kind of internal architecture. Other suggestions have to do with making sure your main character doesn’t go too far off course for too long or that you get the conflict, drama and emotions all turned up loud in act two—or that the comedy gets even screwier, that you’ve dropped in as much change as the piece can stand without caving in.

Like I said, those are among the suggestions and any how-to book or a session of shop-talk can clue you in with more. That’s why I’m offering only one other possibility…

When stories mostly go wrong (or perhaps it’s “when my stories go wrong”) in the so-called “second act” and elsewhere—there’s most often an obvious culprit. It’s not technical although sometimes it shows up that way—it’s possible to write a near perfectly structured story and still have it fall flat. The problem, for me, has got very little to do with craft, most of which can be learned with varying degrees of rage and enjoyment. The reason most stories go wrong—for me—is where that indefinable, unteachable connection between writer and tale is missing. Laziness, fear, fakery, self-deception, lack of soul, of heart, of music, of The Absurd, a preciousness about secrets or exposure—whatever you want to call it…that’s what hasn’t clicked. And it’s that rich connection—in writing and in life—that I think Fitzgerald was commenting upon in his remark about “second acts” and in many of his books.

Not too long after Fitzgerald dropped dead of a heart attack in columnist Sheilah Graham’s apartment off Sunset Strip, another film name used the phrase, putting just a touch of spin on it. This is a quote attributed to various sources but my favorite is the film writer, director and producer King Vidor. He was Hungarian by descent and as Hitler’s war in Europe pressed on, Hungarian refugees—many of them writers, actors, filmmakers and intellectuals—flooded into Hollywood. Many were hired until studios and workers began to balk. At which point Vidor lamented, “It’s not enough just to be Hungarian anymore. You have to have a second act.”

On the day before I finished this essay, I skirted working on it by visiting my favorite small, indie bookstore in New York City—McNally Jackson—and probably was unconsciously guided to the Fitzgerald shelf. There, a Fitzgerald “fake book” let all browsers know that if you wanted to buy the great Jazz Age poet you’d have to ask up at the front desk. So, I did: “Do you do it that way because people steal Fitzgerald?”

“Yep,” the cashier said. “Fitzgerald is one of the most stolen.”

And while I can’t quite put it together, I’m not totally sure why that fits—Crime? Pettiness? Petty crime?—there seems to be some beautiful poetry in that fact. I’ll have to work on it in the second act…

Ross Klavan is one of three contributors — together with Tim O’Mara and Charles Salzberg — to the crime novella trilogy Triple Shot. Look for the next book in this series coming in 2018 from Down & Out Books!