Two weeks ago I started a series about the Three Act Structure, a writing structure, no THE writing structure, that is commonly used by writers everywhere. If you’re telling a story, reading a story, in any media it’s likely that you use it. Not everyone uses one, not intentionally, but it’s one of those key plotting tools that helps you plan your story and helps with revisions. Sometimes you don’t even realise you’re using one.
As always what I write is not fact, it’s just how I see the Three Act Structure from what I’ve read. If you want to find out about the Three Act Structure just search it on Google and you’ll find plenty of results. My first post in the series was an introduction of sorts, my rambling view about what the Three Act Structure, as a whole, is in my mind. My second post was an in-depth look at the key plot points that I use in my First Act. This week though I’m looking at my favourite Act...
But What Is The Second Act?
The Second Act is the meatiest, juiciest part of the story. It’s where the pain problems happen, it’s where there’s the most character development and the tension is constantly changing, taking the reader on a happy joyride that keeps them turning the page. The Second Act can be as long or as short as you want it to be. There can be three obstacles for your characters to overcome or there can just be the one, or there could be ten (but that can get a little boring to read). It’s all up to you.
For some reason though a lot of people have trouble with writing the Second Act, even planning it can leave them scratching their heads in confusion. More often than not the Second Act in many stories, particularly those from beginner writers, can be weak and rambling. The writer forgets to include the rising and falling tension, to put obstacles in their protagonist’s way, or puts so many in their way it starts to feel like a ‘one thing after another’ story (kind of like the end of Return of the King).
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Why Is It So Important?
This Act is all about character development. The characters start to change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst. Their development isn’t quite complete though, that comes in the Third Act (but more on that another day). More often than not the character develops in slightly the wrong direction. But however the character changes, why the character changes, is all explained, or rather shown, in this Act. By the end of the Second Act there must be a clear difference between how the protagonist and other characters were when they first appeared to how they are now. Their attitudes, their ideas, their goals, all of it will have changed in some way. And it needs to be most of the characters that appear regularly who change, not just your protagonist or things could seem a little flat.
The Second Act is also about conflict. In the Second Act the obstacles come from all over the place; the protagonist can be their own worst enemies and cause more problems than they fix, the antagonist can keep throwing problems at them to keep them distracted from the real problems, or another person could come along and stir things up a bit. The protagonist’s goals crash up against the goals of other characters, the bad guy’s goals conflict with the good guy’s goals. They have to fight things, overcome things, even overcome their own problems. The Second Act is all about fighting and overcoming and sometimes it keeps happening and happening, repeating itself over and over as the characters head towards that final showdown in Act Three.
So What’s In The Second Act
Now, there are dozens of plot points that can be included in the Second Act, hundreds of ways that your story can go and any number of repetitions that can be made. But I have 5 points that I use when I’m planning my Second Act, 5 points that I try to hit when I’m writing. They are;
- New Situation
- Crisis Hits
You can probably see that things get worse then get better and then suddenly get worse and worse. You’d more than likely have a couple of ‘nice’ scenes in between some of the more high tension scenes, something to help the reader calm down. But that’s your choice, for now let’s get into a little more detail with each of these points.
This is where the protagonist is forced into a new situation and has to adapt to it in order to overcome the obstacle that blocks them from their goal. Usually this obstacle is introduced in at the end of the previous Act and the protagonist has to take a step into the unknown before they can properly overcome the obstacle that stands in their way. Ideally they should only fail once, when trying to use what is familiar and comfortable to them, and then succeed using new knowledge that they’ve gained. Too much failure can be annoying and repetitive for readers and writers alike. After a certain point it’s no longer telling a good story but more like flogging a dead dog in front of a bunch of school children; painful and scarring. While it’s true that sometimes readers love to hate the writer, having them actively despise you for something like that is a little bit pointless and only George R.R. Martin can really get away with it because he seems to enjoy being hated.
But yes, back to the topic at hand. This is an excellent chance for character development with everything being shiny and new for them. They can have their views of the world challenged, be forced to question everything that they once knew or even just learn to do something that they’re really crappy at. The character needs to change a little bit, move away from who they first were in some way, whether good or bad. Whether this change is good or bad remains to be seen but the change needs to happen in order for them to overcome the obstacle that’s in their way. That happens at the end of this plot point and leads smoothly on to...
Like the name of the plot point says, this is all about change. The character changes noticeably here, for all sorts of reasons. The character develops and alters to fit a new mould that they have either created for themselves or that has been pushed upon them.
Also this is an excellent point to shove in those extra sub-plots; that romance line with the girl next door, new characters who want to be where the protagonist is or want to help the protagonist get to where they want to be. There needs to be conflict there though, forcing yet more change as the protagonist adapts to these new experiences. They can be mini obstacles in themselves, things that force the characters to develop as people in order to overcome them. These are little things that continue throughout the rest of the story and the series if that’s what you’re writing. This could be the perfect place to plant the seeds for the problems of the next book. They don’t need to be big or obvious but they can be there. Of course all this changing and growing can lead to...
This is the point where, exactly as the name suggests, the characters unify, coming together to fight the most important fight of their lives (at least so far). This can be done by them either talking through their problems (although this can be a bit boring if it’s just talking without any tension), fighting it out and getting over it or being the bigger people and putting aside their issues to focus on the big picture. Usually it’s the later, the characters coming together despite what they might think of each other in order to overcome whatever the big problem of the story is. There can (and should) still be a simmering resentment and anger at each other though, just below the surface lending an extra facet to all of their interactions. However they come together, all that matters is that they have done it and plan to stay united no matter what.
It’s also generally the point where the main character finally invests in fighting the problem and being the part of the solution. Sometimes they can be practically giddy at the thought of it, might believe themselves ready to take on the Big Bad, even if they actually aren’t. Or they can still be completely unsure but know that it’s something they have to do. This is often the stage where the protagonist’s biggest character flaw comes into play, sowing seeds that come to fruit in the next plot point. Which is...
Yup that’s right. You’ve just got all your characters playing nicely together when suddenly they start fighting again. Isn’t that just the way? Yet another obstacle appears, the group separates and everything seems that little bit harder to overcome. It all links together really. Secrets or resentment finally boil over and the characters are driven apart, overwhelmed with negative feelings for each other. This division can create a problem, another obstacle in the way to their overarching goal and because they can’t work together and play nice they just can’t get over that obstacle. It threatens to be the end of it all. Sometimes it can even be the obstacle which causes the division. Even though they get past it eventually, another problem comes up and because they’re too busy being mad at each other they just can’t crack it. This threatens to become an ever repeating circle, obstacles driving them further and further apart and the reader might seriously start to think that they will fail.
This is where the story really starts to pick up pace. The tension is gearing up towards the final confrontation and our characters are beginning to realise that they really weren’t as ready as they thought. In fact sometimes this can be where the protagonist loses all hope that they will succeed, doubts every single move that they make, but will keep trucking through because that’s what has to be done. And eventually, when they stop behaving like big babies they reunite and finally beat that problem, cheering like heroes and the reader’s there cheering right with them. Things start to look up for your characters and the reader starts to believe that the characters might actually succeed. But then...
This is the big point, that boiling point, right at the end of Act Two where it’s do or die, things are going down and it’s not really clear if all of your characters will make it. It isn’t THE Climax though, the final confrontation between the good guys and the bad guys, the Big Bad versus the White Hats. No, that moment comes later, in Act Three. This is like a practice game, the match a team plays to get ready for the final game. The stakes are still high though, the other team is still tough and they still have important things riding on the match but it’s not The Match.
Don’t get me wrong though, this is an important point. It’s a chance to show that the characters have grown, that they are one unit once more and that they can kick serious ass. It’s that point in any chick flick where the leading lady puts on her big girl pants and starts making those changes that she’s been hoping someone else would make for her. This can be the point, when yet another obstacle comes up, that the protagonist and his band of merry men pull up their trousers and decide that they’ve had enough and they’re going to ride out and face it head on. This is the Turning Point, where characters have changed, mostly for the better, but they’re not all the way there yet and they’ve got this next obstacle to overcome in whatever form it takes. Whatever the reason they take it on and come out the other side, bruised but not beaten and ready to enter...
But that’s another post so keep an eye out for it soon, where I talk about Act Three and all the lovely gooey bits that go into it as you wrap up your story and finally get some closure. Maybe you’ll understand why some writers suggest starting from Act Three, knowing the ending before going to the start. Perhaps it’ll shine some light on why you felt so drained after finishing your book and explain why so many writers have to take a break after finishing a book. Finally you might see why so many writers take so long to finish even though they have the first two acts complete. Whatever you might learn I hope that it’s useful.
I hope that this post was useful too. Maybe it’s got you to think about the Second Act in a different way, given you some ideas to get over the dreaded second act slump or just fired you up to re-plan yours. Whatever you take from this I hope it’s something positive. Let me know in the comments below. Are there any points that you think still need to be included? Do you think that I’ve focused too much on some points and neglected others? Do you use a completely different structure for your second act? If so would you care to share? Is anyone actually reading this? Let me know and I’ll try to get back to each and every one of you.