Writing Discussion

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!


Writing Discussion

“Plot is about what happens, structure is about timing.”

There are various story structures including the five act structure, heroes journey, but the basic three act structure still appeals to me most right now.

I’ll be going through an analysis of the three acts. It’s one thing to look at a diagram, but another to translate it to something my brain can make sense of. This will be a very clinical approach to dissecting story. You have been warned!

Act 1

If you follow screenwriting guidelines, act 1 should take up roughly the first 20% of the story. So if you are writing a 120k novel (typical fantasy novel length), this would be around the 24k mark, or 87 pages if you are typing double spaced, 12 point Times New Roman (275 words per page), with one inch margins. This is roughly around page 96 if you are using 12 point Courier (250 words per page). I like numbers.

What happens in Act 1?

  1. Establish the normal life of the protagonist.
  2. The inciting incident: Something disturbs the normal life of the protagonist. A seed of trouble is started, and the protagonist is dragged into it.
  3. Plot point 1: The point when there is no return to a normal life. The story takes another direction.

Not all novels have a hard stop between acts. Act 1 can end before the 20% mark, but back story and world are established after. Some stories begin at plot point one, and I find this is more common in thrillers, suspense, and mysteries.

However (just my opinion here) before the 20% point, even if you are technically in act 2, it would be a good idea to introduce all crucial character back story elements and make sure readers understand the world your character inhabits, because gosh, 87 pages is a sizable chunk of that novel!

Let’s look at the movie “The Fugitive.”

Normal life: We see Richard Kimble at a party. He is shown to be a wealthy, celebrated citizen, and brilliant doctor.

Inciting incident: Kimble’s party is interrupted when he is arrested for the murder of his wife and sent to jail.

Plot point 1: Kimble decides to run away from the police pursuing him, and find out who murdered his wife. Before this point he could have turned himself in to the police. Plot point 1 is where he became a fugitive. Some people may argue plot point 1 is at a different point in the movie, but in this case there is no hard stop between acts. But, you get the idea right?

Other key points to include in Act 1:

  • The reader should know what the stakes are for the protagonist.
  • If the protagonist is an average person, hint at their strengths (that could allow them to win against the odds at the end). If the protagonist is a hero, then you should hint at their weakness (the flaw that could allow them to be defeated).
  • Introduce the antagonist as soon as possible. Without the antagonist there would be no conflict, no story. The antagonist is not necessarily a person. I’ve heard it said that the protagonist is only as strong as the antagonist, so make your foe as terrible as possible.
  • Save the cat scene? If you want your protagonist to be sympathetic, have your protagonist save someone or something helpless, while risking peril to him/herself. There are other ways to make your character sympathetic, but this technique is one of the most common. Back to the Fugitive: Kimble saves a wounded criminal from an overturned bus, though a train is barreling towards them, and he has time to escape. This criminal likely would have left him to die if circumstances were reversed.

So when editing… how is this useful?

Scenes can be rearranged. Think about when plot point 1 happens. Is it too late? Is it too early? Have I established the world in the first 20%? Have I hinted how the protagonist will win or lose at the end of the story? How close did I begin to the inciting incident? Have I shown what the protagonist has to lose? Have I shown what or who my protagonist is up against? Is my antagonist enough of a badass? LOL

What else would you include in act 1? What’s your story structure of choice?

Continue to an analysis of Act 2.