How to Write Act II

american-act-ii-microwave-popcorn-tub-9866-pA couple of months ago I released Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story. I’ve received many nice emails and comments about it, but recently two people asked me the same question. And it’s a good one, so I thought it worthy of a full post. Here’s a clip from an email (used by permission):

I’ve often noticed that writing books get a bit too abstract at times about theme, as if it’s something impossible to hold onto or grasp. But you are so clear by making it come across so smoothly in the super structure points. There is something very smooth about your approach. I felt very grounded as I read.

This is a small point that I’ve wanted to ask a teacher for some time because I’ve noticed this situation in other structure layouts: Why is it that Act II, which constitutes at least half of the entire story (actually > 55% if Act I is 20% and Act II is 25%), have relatively fewer super structure points (i.e., Kick in the Shins, The Mirror Moment, Pet the Dog, Doorway of No Return #2). There are 4 in Act II to guide the writer for 55% of the story but 10 to guide the writer for the other 45% (Act I and III combined). And yet we’re often told that the hardest part of writing a novel or screenplay IS Act II. Is it the hardest partly because it’s harder to teach in terms of structure, etc.?

That’s an excellent and insightful question. It does seem counter-intuitive to suggest in a book about structural signposts that the least number of them occur in longest section of the novel.

But, in point of fact, this is exactly how it must be.

First of all, what is Act II all about? It’s about the Lead’s confrontation with Death. Death can come in three guises: physical, professional, or psychological. That’s what makes the stakes high enough for the reader to care about what’s going on.

Act I prepares us for this death struggle. To get readers to care about what happens, we have to bond them with a Lead character, show something of the ordinary world, have hints of trouble to come … and then we have to find a way to force the Lead through that Doorway of No Return. Why force? Because no one wants to confront Death unless they have to! (Or unless their name is Evel Knievel.)

That’s why there are several important structural beats in Act I.

Okay, now the Lead is in the dark forest. To survive and get back to the castle, she’ll to defeat the forces arrayed against her. If you want a perfect illustration of this, think of The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen is taken from her ordinary world and thrust into a contest to the death, in an arena filled with obstacles and opponents.

Now, keep these two points in mind:

1. There are innumerable actions the Lead can take to gain her objective, to survive, and to ultimately defeat the opponent.

Standing at the edge of that dark forest, the Lead might: go left, go right, go straight ahead, follow a sound, run from a sound, climb a tree, make a weapon, start a fire, form an alliance, fight off a monster—whatever it is, you, the author, get to choose.

2. Each subsequent action will, in some way, be a reaction to what’s just happened.

If the Lead breaks her leg, she won’t be running in the next scene. If her love interest decides to walk out on her, she won’t be singing a happy tune.

You may also find that a character refuses to do what you want. In one novel I tried to get a wife to go away to her sister’s house, but she would not do it. I’d planned for her to go, I tried to push her out the door, but no soap. So I had to readjust, and in this case the character was right!

In short, a more “open” Act II enables us to respond to the story as it takes shape.

This is true, by the way, whether you like to outline or whether you prefer to wing it.

Further, you don’t need as many signposts because your scenes should have an organic logic to them. Act II is largely made up of the Lead’s battle plans. We know what the objective is: defeat death! In The Hunger Games it’s physical death; in The Catcher in the Rye, it’s psychological death; in The Verdict, it’s professional death.

So the Lead, in Act II, takes an action to gain a foothold in this battle. And suffers a setback.  Now what?

She forms a new plan, takes a new step, reacting to and learning from the last one.

In this way you have a natural, logical, clear and compelling “plot generator.” You don’t need as many signposts to do that.

If you ever feel “lost” in Act II, just go back and check a few things:

• Are the stakes death?

• Is the Opponent stronger than the Lead?

• Is your Lead using strength of will to push forward?

• Is there an easier way for your Lead to solve the problem? (If so, figure out how to eliminate that possibility)

Then brainstorm a few questions:

• How can things get worse for the Lead?

• What’s the worst thing that could happen to the Lead?

• Can a new character come in to complicate matters even more?

• What are the enemies of the Lead doing “off screen”? That is, what actions are they taking while the reader is reading the current scene? (This is a great way to come up with plot complications.)

Soon enough, you’ll be back on track with plenty of ideas for organic scenes, rising and falling action, throughout Act II.

Then, at some point, you have to get the Lead through another doorway, into Act III, where the final battle takes place. There are more signposts in Act III to guide you through this section. That’s because you can’t dilly dally. You’ve got the Lead going over a waterfall. You’ve got to get him to safety, fast.  The Act III signposts have a shorter space between them, which is exactly what you need.

Make sense?

I think it was Isaac Asimov who said that he knows the beginning and the ending of his novels, but then has the “fun” of finding out how to get from the one to the other.

So go go have some fun.

And tell us how you approach Act II in your own novel writing. What challenges do you find? How do you address them?

25 thoughts on “How to Write Act II

  1. Excellent blog post. You really know how to explain things so they are understandable and clear.

    One of your questions to ask struck me: “• Is the Opponent stronger than the Lead?”

    I think that’s where I have a weakness in my plots, and that’s why I’m not fully satisfied with them.

    Thank you. I’m off to create a super-villain 🙂

    • Britt, that is a great realization to have! Your stories will become immediately more gripping. Give the Opponent more skills, tools, resources, allies, anything along those lines. Don’t forget to give the Opponent an “argument” from his/her perspective. Villains don’t think they are evil; they think they are right.

  2. Such a timely post for me– I am stranded in the middle of act II working toward the mirror moment. I’ve printed out your questions, posted them by my desk, and getting back on track now. Thank you!

    • That’s a great word, Sue: stranded. Many authors feel that way at some point in Act II. You are not alone! The questions will get you unstuck and moving again. White water ahead for your Lead!

  3. Jim, thanks for another great post – a teaching moment on a subject many of us struggle with.

    The way I approach Act II is with James Frey’s “step sheet” – basically an outline. But I begin each step with either “Action” or “Reaction” (CONFLICT AND SUSPENSE, James Scott Bell) and list Objective, Obstacles, Outcome (for Action) and Emotion, Analysis, and Decision (for Reaction). – pp.94-99, CONFLICT AND SUSPENSE.

    I love your statement on page 94, “You are now armed with the knowledge of how to construct a ‘perpetual plot machine.’ You can create an almost never-ending streams of scenes relating to the objective.”

    I was struggling with reaction beats, sequels, or whatever we call them. I got lost in the weeds in Swain’s TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, in his discussion of sequels. Your discussion of Action and Reaction in CONFLICT AND SUSPENSE was straightforward and very helpful.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Some good names you consulted there, Steve (thanks for including me, too). Yes, I do like the concept of “perpetual plot machine” which you, as the writer, drive.

  4. “I think it was Isaac Asimov who said that he knows the beginning and the ending of his novels, but then has the “fun” of finding out how to get from the one to the other.”

    That’s my approach to novel writing, though I always know a few of the major setbacks and turns the story will take in Act II. Or think I know. Sometimes they’ve changed as I write up to that section. Most often it’s the _why_ behind them that has changed by the time I reach those turns and setbacks, because I know the characters better.

    I feel the most confident, productive, and have the most fun with writing with a broad stroke plan in place, but room to be surprised while I write.

  5. Stephen J. Cannell on plotting/writing the second act:

    Because Act Two is the hardest act to plot, most people give up on their ideas in Act Two; “This isn’t working.” “This idea sucks.” Most of the time the reason we break down plotting Act Two, is that we tend to “walk” with the hero because we identify with the protagonist. We walk through the story inside his or her head.

    Once we get past the complication and are into Act Two, we sometimes get stuck. “What do I do now?” “Where does this protagonist go from here?” The plotting in Act Two often starts to get linear (a writer’s expression meaning the character is following a string, knocking on doors, just getting information). This is the dullest kind of material. We get frustrated and want to quit.

    Here’s a great trick: When you get to this place, go around and become the antagonist. You probably haven’t been paying much attention to him or her. Now you get in the antagonist’s head and you’re looking back at the story to date from that point of view.

    “Wait a minute… Rockford went to my nightclub and asked my bartender where I lived. Who is this guy Rockford? Did anybody get his address? His license plate? I’m gonna find out where this jabrone lives! Let’s go over to his trailer and search the place.” Under his mattress maybe the heavy finds his gun (in Rockford’s case, it was usually hidden in his Oreo cookie jar). His P.I. license is on the wall. Now the heavy knows he’s being investigated by a P.I. Okay, let’s use his gun to kill our next victim. Rockford gets arrested, charged with murder. End of Act Two.

    See how easy it works? The destruction of the hero’s plan. Now he’s going to the gas chamber.

    Plot from the heavy’s point-of-view in Act Two; it is an invaluable tip.

  6. Jim,
    Thanks for another great post. Love your insight about Act II being a life or death struggle, which reminded me of Moltke the Elder’s aphorism “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.” During Act II’s life or death struggle the hero’s plans will go awry, be changed, new ones made which will again be altered as they “contact” their enemy the antagonist and he or she’s actions, and so forth.

    The stakes can deepen: not just the hero’s life is at stake, perhaps a loved one’s, an entire family, or even the world. Or not just death, but damnation.

    For me, focusing on the improvisational nature of this life or death struggle, that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy, and constantly upping the stakes is key for writing through Act II.

    Focusing on the life or death struggle is a sure fire way to avoid the dreaded “muddle in the middle” novelists fear. Thanks again!

  7. Oh wow, fabulous post! I love your clear explanation and helpful examples. Your checklist is great. I’m going to apply that to my current work. I’m sure it will help tremendously.

  8. This is perfect! I’ve been struggling with my plot this entire week. It’s urban fantasy but with a murder mystery plot and I can’t seem to generate clues or figure out how to plant them without seeming obvious. But Act II is all about MC vs Death, not just solving the crime but faced with her own death as well. I’ve printed out this questions and taped them to the wall.

    I’m also going to research books on writing mysteries in my spare time. More info can’t hurt.

    • For mysteries, esp., giving thought to what the other characters are doing “off screen” is a great way to generate clues, red herrings, and so on. Hallie Ephron has an excellent book on writing mysteries, from WD Books.

  9. Love this, “Death can come in three guises: physical, professional, or psychological.”

    Never read it summarized so well. It’s an easy way to conduct a health check and make sure your Protagonist is always near death.

  10. Thanks for this post! I will print out the list of questions and add them to my writing journal. I have found so far that the journal has helped me get into my characters’ heads and motivations much faster. Now I am hoping that along with the list, it will help me through Act II.
    I look forward every day to the helpful tips I learn here.

  11. Excellent, clean, concise explanation of Act II. Sharing on FB. You are a fabulous teacher! I’m curious about something in the email… “Kick in the shins” and “Pat the dog”? I’ve never heard these terms. Are these terms you use in your new book? Perhaps milestones with different names?

    • Yes, Sue, those are names I give to two of my signposts in my book Super Structure. Kick in the Shins is about direct trouble, and Pet the Dog is an old screenwriting phrase, about the character helping someone weaker than himself, e.g., the boy in the trauma ward in The Fugitive (Kimble risks being seen in order to save the boy’s life); or Rue in The Hunger Games.

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