Writing Discussion

Story Structure: Analyzing Act 2

Here’s a short series analyzing the three act story. Click here for Part 1:  Analyzing  Act 1.


Act 2

And here we arrive at the dreaded middle. This is where the action happens. All that ooey gooey conflict gets into gear. It’s the largest portion of the story, and because of that let’s break it into two parts. When writing, I find it’s more manageable to think of it as two portions instead of one huge chunk of writing.

Act 2 takes up roughly 60% of your story, or about 72k words, or 262 pages (in times new roman) or 288 pages (in courier): with double spaced paragraphs, 1 inch margins, based on a 120k novel. Math is deliciousness isn’t it?

Act 2 – Part 1

  1. The protagonist reacts to the new situation. He/she might still be trying to run away, or return to the old life (if possible), resisting the change that is necessary. If the protagonist faced off against the antagonist right now, he/she would lose.
  2. Ends at the mid point reveal: You give the reader a glimpse of the true forces at work behind the story. The protagonist discovers that an ally is really working against him/her. This could change the direction of your protagonist’s path once again – or at least change the nature of their resolve. ie. Dorothy glimpses the wizard behind the curtain.

Act 2 – Part 2

  1. The protagonist takes action. By this point, the protagonist should know what his her flaw is, and know what he/she has to change, lose, or gain, in order to succeed. The protagonist is making an effort to change, to get strong enough to defeat the antagonist, and is making plans to do so.
  2. The false resolution: You think it’s over, but it’s not. This is a mini climax before the actual climax. You fool the reader into thinking that the story’s done, then yank the rug out from under them.
  3. The black moment: All hope is lost for the protagonist. It seems there is no possible way the protagonist can succeed against these odds.
  4. Ends at plot point 2: The moment when the protagonist learns a lesson, gains some great reward, or makes a realization, that will allow him/her to succeed (AKA the hero returns with a boon *Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler). This also marks the climax of the novel.

Mind you, I even though I’ve stated the protagonist takes action in Act 2 part 2, that does not mean the protagonist is passive before the midpoint. The action taken preceding Act 2 part 2, may not be in the right direction, it may also be counterproductive to the ultimate goal, but the protagonist should still be ‘doing’ something.

Let’s look at “The Matrix” as an example.

Act 2 – Part 1

Hero reacts to his new situation: “I’m going to learn jujitsu?” Neo learns about the matrix, and is taught basic survival skills. Those skills are tested. He succeeds sometimes (hinting that he will succeed in the end), but he fails over and over. He’s nearly killed. He can’t do what the others can do. He puts other people’s lives in peril. He doubts what people think about him.

Midpoint reveal: The Oracle tells Neo he’s not the One destined to save humankind.

Act 2 – Part 2

The protagonist takes action: Neo and the gang decide to rescue Morpheus. They come up with a plan and execute it.

The false resolution: The rooftop with the helicopter. Neo saves Trinity’s life all by himself.

The black moment: Neo is killed by Agent Smith. Surely he’s not the One, if he’s dead?

Plot point 2: Neo realizes that the matrix is just a computer program (knowledge he must use), and if it is just a program, he can manipulate it (because he is a genius hacker – that was established at the start of the movie in Act 1). He comes back to life, which no one has ever done before.

So as you can see, the threads are starting to come together! The ending should be simultaneously surprising but logical. The trick to is to make the reader doubt your character will succeed. A few red herrings wouldn’t hurt either.

Conversely, if you are writing a tragedy (in the Shakespearean tradition). In act 2, the protagonists should seem to be succeeding against the staggering odds (Romeo and Juliet make a plan to get out of Verona), and for a moment the protagonist does succeed (they are married), before his flaw dooms him (Romeo’s premature suicide in the cemetery) to his untimely failure or demise (Juliet also commits suicide).

How is this useful for editing?

Check the pace of act 2. Are the stakes continually being raised? Are the challenges getting tougher? Have I equipped my protagonist with the tools he/she needs to succeed in the end? Can I throw in a false resolution? Is there a black moment? If not, how can I make things so bad it seems hopeless? Do I know what ultimate lesson my protagonist needs to learn?

Wow, does it actually sound like I know what I’m talking about? LOL just so you know, I believe that there are no unbreakable rules when it comes to writing. This helps me, but if it’s not something that works for you, don’t force it.

What else should you add in Act 2?

Onwards to Act 3!

9 Comments

  1. Great series, and yes it sounds like you know what you’re talking about.

    One of the easiest ways I’ve found to describe the 3-Act structure is…

    1- Put protag in tree
    2- Throw rocks at him
    3- Get him out

    Act 2 is probably my favorite Act because I get to beat the crap out of my characters with rocks.

  2. So, within the structure of the 3-act format, there are sub-structures, I see? For something as large and complex as a novel, of course, this makes sense. (I’ve heard the “tree-rocks-tree” summary of the format before, too… but the addition of the sub-structures is a lot more useful than just “throw rocks at protag”.)

    In particular, the “equip your protagonist with the tools to win in the end” is pretty important. I believe this is also part of the essential foreshadowing that we need to be doing. Foreshadowing is important throughout, of course. But at this stage it’s of the level where it’s saying “this is going to be important later on, but you don’t know it yet” where we’re giving the protag the tools s/he needs, but not identifying them as such. It shouldn’t become completely clear that these are the requisite tools until the end of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3 (where we have those epiphanies).

    1. T.S. Bazelli Author

      Ahh yes you’re right. The protagonist may be learning or gathering tools, and they may not know what they’re useful for, but as the writer, you should.

      I find that when I examine my story this way, it’s easy to spot which scenes need to be shuffled, and what scenes still need to be added. It’s surprising how little room there is (even in 120k) to get all the elements I need in there (esp. if you throw in multiple subplots). I can see why a lot of fantasy novels get so huge…

      1. And you know… I don’t know what the problem with that is… I lurves me some huge fantasy novels. Typically, the huger, the better. Unless they suck (which has only happened a handful of times in my life, ever), in which case length doesn’t matter because I probably won’t finish reading regardless.

      2. T.S. Bazelli Author

        I’m always sad when I get to the end of a great book. I always wish there were more, so I don’t have a problem with it either. On the other hand, a longer book might be a harder sell to publishers (though there are always exceptions).

      3. You’re right about the latter… but if we the readers are demanding the longer books, you’d think they’d want to print and sell them to us, and demand them of the writers.

        I think I read somewhere once, however, that larger books are significantly more costly to produce… which may be part of why they prefer shorter books.

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