The Three Acts: Act2, Part 1

Hi, Gang. Craig with you again with a continuation of my series about Three Act Structure. Many of you enjoyed the post about Act 1, but if you missed it, here is a link.

By the end of Act 1, we should have the setting, main character(s), problem being faced, and stakes well defined.

I’m going to start today’s post with motion. While it isn’t completely required, making your character enter a strange environment adds tension and obstacles to the adventure. This happens somewhere late in Act 1, or early in Act 2. I milked the Godzilla mythos pretty heavily last time, but let’s visit it again. Your character has to deal with this issue in Japan, does not speak Japanese, and has no idea how to get around. He might be reduced to pointing at the distant destruction and yelling to go there. Might not be too productive when the Uber driver wants to preserve life and limb.

As we get into Act 2, please understand that I’m breaking it into two posts. This act makes up 50% of your story, and there is a natural change that occurs at the middle to help us along. If you’re using story structure to manage your word count, you have 25,000 words to dedicate to the first half of Act 2.

Readers understand your hero(ine), and what makes them tick. Any plan that gets made should be based upon that personality. This is the time for planning to overcome the main story problem.

Interlude here: Most humans will expend the minimum amount of effort to achieve a goal. You should keep this in mind when formulating this plan. There is a reason, and it should become clear at the end of this post.

The first half of Act 2 is all about forming any necessary teams. It’s a place for mentors, training, and allies. Maybe you’re writing a sophomoric comedy, and your main character is a fun-whore. He’s selected his target from the brides maids. He’s going to need a wing man, and a dumb plan of some kind.

This is where we introduce the obstacles he never planned on. Maybe she has a big brother who doesn’t want to see her get hurt again. If you’re writing from her POV, maybe she has a gay best friend that can run interference and offer (usually) bad advice.

We need to expand on obstacles here, too. Back to Godzilla, maybe there are local officials to get in the hero’s way. Maybe he needs a permit or something to bring equipment into the country. Maybe his gear has to quarantine for two weeks. This is one of the key points for a threshold guardian. Pick your poison, big brother, gay best friend, government officials.

This is a place to bring the protagonist and antagonist into close proximity. In Jaws they were on the entire Atlantic Ocean, but the killer shark made his presence known several times around the boat. Brody and the shark were within touching distance at one point. This builds tension, and helped sell Brody’s fears. (Note the foreign environment that I mentioned up above.)

There should be battles of some kind, and it’s okay for your main character to win some of them. We want him or her to be confident as we approach the end of this segment. This might be a great place to overcome some henchmen.

It might be useful to review what we have, because the end of this segment is important. I love the movie, “The Untouchables.” We met Elliot Ness. What made him tick was the love for his wife and kids. We met Capone and saw a bit of gang violence to help define him. (One example of which involved a kid.) Ness trained and practiced by busting an alcohol shipment that turned out to be parasols. There was a certain amount of humiliation involved, but he learned. He gathered an elite group of untouchables that would not tip the enemy off to their every move.

We got to see his success at the Canadian border when they captured the accountant’s book. Things were looking pretty rosy for Elliot Ness. Note that minimum amount of effort I mentioned. He learned some things, and got rewarded. He took that improved attitude to the train station to capture the accountant who could interpret the book. (All while placing a child at risk to reflect Ness’s motivations.)

This is where everything comes crashing down. The end of Act 2, Part 1, is total disaster. Your main character thought he was ready, but wasn’t even close. The whole plan turns out to be a failure. If you use blood and death in your stories, there is no better place to spread it around.

Maybe your man-child character is betrayed by his own wing man. This would be a good use for a Shape Shifter character.

The Untouchables saw the murder of not one but two of Ness’s closest allies. The boat sank in Jaws, and Quint died. (Both Sean Connery and Robert Shaw were mentors, too. Oh, the horror!) Ness’s family had to go into hiding.

Yoda told him not to do it, but Luke Skywalker went to face Vader before he was ready. The rebellion took the hit. Han Solo and Leia paid the personal price.

The ending of this segment has to be a disaster. Your hero cannot rise from the ashes until he’s been reduced to ashes in the first place. Make it personal, and don’t be afraid to raise the stakes.

While I’m breaking this into two posts, it is still one act. Your disaster will mark the movement into the second half, even if it exceeds the 25K word count to a degree.

This was a long post, and I apologize for that. This might be the most important segment in your entire novel, and it deserved a few more words. Can you manage this in 25-30K words? Let me hear from you today.

45 thoughts on “The Three Acts: Act2, Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Three Acts: Act 3 | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: The Three Acts: Act 2, Part 2 | Story Empire

  3. Pingback: #ReblogAlert – This Week on #StoryEmpire | The Write Stuff

  4. Superb explanation of Act II, Craig. Terrific examples, too. I use Milestones rather than concentrating on Acts, but the end result is the same. Many years ago, I downloaded an Excel spreadsheet based on the Milestones in Story Engineering, and I still use it for every book. The cool thing about is, once you plug in your estimated word count, Excel does the math for you, automatically changing the page range where certain Milestones or Acts should land.

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  5. You always pick great examples to illustrate your points, and they help a lot. This is pretty much how I set out to write a book. Doesn’t always work exactly like I planned, but the concept’s there:) And you explain it much more clearly than anyone I’ve read so far. Great post. And I love The Untouchables. One of my favorite movies.

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  6. I love the drama that comes with that disaster at the end of Act II, part I. If done well, this is the point where I can no longer put down the book. Some of my favorite books are the ones where the character fails, then fails again, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, he fails one more time. Great post, Craig.

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  7. This is a great explanation of the importance of Act 2 in any story, whether it be a novel, movie, or song. And often it’s where we deal with the sagging middle. I think if we take your ideas to heart, that can be completely avoided. Thank you so much for sharing, Craig. This is a great writing refresher!

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  8. Impressive explanations, Craig. Your examples really helped me understand. I wish I could follow your lead and plan, but I tend to write as inspired, following the characters. I always have a basic structure in mind, but it’s basic. I’m forever surprised by where my characters take me. Thank you for this excellent post.

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  9. Your examples are spot on, Craig. I really enjoyed this post.
    I’m one of those authors who writes without planning any type of structure, but I think I usually hit the marks you’ve mentioned. It’s great to see them spelled out like this,

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  10. Excellent points and examples, as usual. Thanks for the links back as well … they made it easy to give my brain a quick refresher and tie in wonderfully with this post. Definitely a post series for me to bookmark for later. Thanks for sharing, Craig 🙂

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  11. Well, when you put it like that… This is really good stuff, Craig, and breaks down the component parts so clearly that I can see it for myself now. I suppose some of this is instinctive but once you’ve detailed the process it all makes perfect sense and I’m going to bookmark this to refer to in future. Many thanks!

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  12. Pingback: The Three Acts: Act2, Part 1 – Stuff I want to read

  13. I love all the examples used, they really show what you are talking about. Getting to this point might be a favorite part of mint to write. That decision or action effects the rest of the story. Another great part to the series, Craig 🙂

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  14. HI Craig, it really is quite incredible how you manage to share this writing advise so succinctly and provide such good examples. I only see this after you point it out. Fortunately, my story lines seem to follow this sort of approach, within their genre, on their own without my having your eagle eye for structure.

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