A Neat Trick For the Act Two Slog

by James Scott Bell

Stephen J. Cannell

The late Stephen J. Cannell was a hugely successful TV writer and developer. Among his hit shows were The Rockford Files, The A-Team, and 21 Jump Street. Later, Cannell became a bestselling novelist, writing stand-alone thrillers and a series featuring LAPD Detective Shane Scully.

Cannell held the Three-Act structure to be foundational. He wrote:

What is the Three-Act structure? Often, when I ask a writer this question I am told that it is a beginning, middle and an end. This is not the answer. A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end. The Three-Act structure is critical to good dramatic writing, and each act has specific story moves. Every great movie, book or play that has stood the test of time has a solid Three-Act structure. (Elizabethan Dramas were five act plays, but still had a strictly prescribed structure.) The only place where this is not the case is in a one-act play, where “slice of life” writing is the rule.

Since we are not writing novels about having lunch, what do we need from each Act? It’s not complicated.

Act One = Getting the reader bonded with a Lead. Cannell put it succinctly: “Act One is a preparation act for the viewer or reader. They are asking who is the hero. Do I like this person? Is this guy a heavy? Do I care about the relationships? What is the problem for the hero? Is the problem gripping?”

Act Two = Conflict gets progressively more difficult. Here Cannell suggests that a bit of backstory suddenly revealed can be used to create complications. E.g., the baby the woman thought was her own when she left the hospital in Act One was actually switched by a nurse. He also reminds us that both protagonist and antagonist must be in motion, making moves to try to gain the advantage, not “standing around.” At the end of Act Two, things are looking dark for the Lead.

Act Three = An ending can be upbeat or downbeat, but it needs to clearly resolve the story problem.

As we all know, that long Act Two can frequently become a slog. There are many possible reasons why this happens, which we don’t have time to go into here (I will modestly suggest that Plotman, superhero of the writers’ world, has the answers). Cannell suggests one way to get you going again:

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 he 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.

Boom! (Of course in Act Three Rockford gets out of it. This is a series, after all!)

I call Cannell’s trick the “shadow story.” The shadow story is what goes on “off screen” (or “off page” if you will). I like to make shadow story notes to myself throughout he writing (I use Scrivener for this, but you can also use the Comment function in Word). Just pause every now and then and ask what the main characters not in your current scene are doing and planning. What are their motives? Secrets? Desires?

Your shadow story will give you more than enough plot material to get you through that long middle portion of your novel.


43 thoughts on “A Neat Trick For the Act Two Slog

  1. Thanks for this, JSB. I need to get my antagonist back on the page, and figuring out what he’s been doing while my two protagonists are pursuing their own stories should be the nudge (okay, kick in the backside) I need.
    Happy Sunday.

  2. Thanks for this discussion. I realize the value of the three-act structure, but sometimes it is taught in a dry manner that I can’t connect with so I really appreciate how you approach it and teach on it. I can really see how that trick is going to help me on a particular story I’m working on—it is easy to start floundering and that’s a concise way to get yourself back in the game of act 2.

    And Stephen J. Cannell was a huge part of my life growing up. As a child of the 70’s-80’s (IMHO the best era of television), I watched Cannell-based Black Sheep Squadron, Baretta, Riptide, Greatest American Hero, Rockford Files, Hardcastle & McCormick–just a few of the shows he had his hand in.

    And while it may sound odd, I felt a bit of affinity or attachment to him because I loved at the end of his shows how the stack of papers would curl up and form a “C” for his brand. I just loved that. That, combined with the typically great music for these shows, meant I loved to sit and watch the closing credits too.

  3. Great discussion, Jim. Thanks for the link to Cannell’s article, and the reminder to use the shadow story to prevent a boring linear plot line in Act Two.

    Good advice!

    • I agree, Steve. And I also like the term shadow story . . . it sounds like the title of a thriller all by itself.

      I’m going to take this time here, Steve, to tell you I really enjoyed your post yesterday. I read it on my phone from my dad’s hospital room and didn’t have time to comment. Dad fell, and when he’s discharged this week, will go to rehab, then to an assisted living place. So, I’m in the throes of decision-making for him since last Monday.

      Thank goodness for technology, so I can at least keep up with y’all!

      Happy Sunday to ya!

  4. Good morning, Jim. I love Stephen Cannell’s wisdom and am also a fan of his energy, work ethic, and nuts-and-bolts approach. And am also a Rockford Files fan, so that example really worked for me 🙂

    I like the term “Shadow Story.” I’ve found whenever I get stuck in a novel, taking a moment to think about how the villain reacts really helps. Early on, the hero is reacting to the villain’s actions, but somewhere in Act II the villain begins reacting to the hero and gives him a kick or three in the shins (pace you 🙂 Gets things moving nicely.

    Thanks for another handy post! Have a wonderful Sunday.

  5. I should invest in Scrivener one of these days. Comment boxes litter my manuscript with nuggets to remember about the shadow story. Hadn’t heard the term before, but that’s exactly what I do. And here I thought it was my own unique process. LOL

    Don’t forget to delete those comment boxes before submitting the manuscript! Been there, done that. 😉

    Happy Sunday, Jim!

  6. “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.”

    Jim, you and other TKZ mentors gave me that great epiphany some years ago. Once I went inside the antagonist’s POV, that changed the whole way I wrote and resulted in my first publishing contract.

    Here’s an early TKZ guest post I wrote about the realization: https://killzoneblog.com/2017/09/its-10-pmdo-you-know-where-your-villain.html

  7. I enjoyed Mr. Cannell’s books and am a huge Rockford fan. He hit the act one objective (get the reader bonded with a Lead) out of the park with Rockford. Having James Garner cast as his protagonist character made for unsurpassed likability imo (when I learned of James Garner‘s passing I felt sadness almost as if I had lost a personal friend).
    The canal description of three acts structure is useful. Your post makes me think about the wonderful aspects of what canal created and how Acuras showcased it in Rockford files. Cannell’s gift to create tremendous supporting characters is something that comes to mind.
    I think it was the actor Stuart Margolin who brought the uniquely con-man “Angel“ to life, Isaac Hayes interacting with “rockfish“, Tom Selleck as a fellow PI (episode “white on white and nearly perfect“), carl(?) Reiner as the farm league Quarterback, and I don’t recall the actresses name but did an incredible job as sky Aquarius.
    I may have some of the details wrong and apologize for rambling on but your post brought back my appreciation of Cannell’s creation and the incredible synergy between the writing and actors. It seem like I was watching it yesterday. A forever favorite.
    Thanks for the teaching and memories…

  8. I love the term “shadow story.” I need to get inside the antagonist’s head and figure out what he/she is thinking.

    Confessions of a pantser: When I started my first novel, I didn’t know who the villain was going to be. I had several characters in mind, but I was half-way through before I decided on the bad guy. Then I had to go back and add scenes that would provide the clues that pointed toward him and red herrings that pointed at others.

    Great information. Thanks!

    • That’s always been an issue for mystery writers, Kay. I’ve heard one pantser say, “If I don’t know who the villain is, it’s a sure thing the readers won’t!” I don’t quite buy that. Knowing the villain and the motive first gives ample opportunity for the shadow story to emerge, creating clues and red herrings.

      Of course, as you did, one can write the draft, then go back in and plant. Personally, I find that harder to do. But to each his own!

  9. Excellent post.

    I also use the shadow story on my secondary characters because I believe a lot of great plot twists come from them. Sometimes, I even follow my protagonist out of the room (out of the scene) just to see how she will react, gives her depth as well.

    Got to get plotman some day.

  10. The second movie in the original STAR WARS trilogy wasn’t called THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK for nothing.

    As a teacher, I’m not a fan of the three act structure for a novel. It’s too general for a story that’s at least 60,000 words, and new writers really flounder with such a generalized blueprint. My suggestion has always been to go to your keeper bookshelf and pick out a book similar to the one you want to write. It must be by a writer who started publishing within the last ten years because narrative and reader expectations change, and Nora Roberts and Stephen King can get away with things us mere mortals cannot.

    Sit down with some paper by your side and start reading. At the end of each scene, write down what it was about and what info the writer shared. This can be very general like “John talks to Mary (Tom’s wife) about Tom’s drinking problem and discovers that Tom’s drinking buddy is Fred, the enforcer for a criminal gang.” What this scene suggests to the reader: “Tom isn’t the squeaky clean suburban husband John thought he was.”

    I did this before I started writing my first novel. I chose a Dick Francis novel because I wanted to write a suspense novel. Man, was that exercise an eye opener about novel structure.

  11. Thinking back, I’ve used dual protagonists and antagonist scenes to keep things moving, not in the same book, though. The picaresque novel isn’t plotty; all I need to do is move the hero to a new town or situation. The Kafkaesque dystopian book could never have run out of unpleasant encounters to plague Horus Blassingame with. That “beginning-middle-end” sophistry has always bothered me. It’s fake wisdom.

      • What’s fake is the pretense that “every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” has much meaning in itself. I’ve seen that said a lot in various shallow commentaries. But, as Cannell says, “A lunch line has a beginning, middle and an end.” Obviously what is real and meaningful is the different content: intro/difficulties/resolution.

  12. Shadow Story. Yep. And one reason I’m back to 3rd Person for my current WIP. The Antagonist gets his own scenes to make his moves. I have a tab/chart of just the Antag’s moves.

    BTW, I continue to think of my stories in 4 Parts vs. 3 Acts. Of course, Act 2 is divided in two by the Midpoint/Mirror Moment. Works for me.

    • Right, Harald. That’s one of the great advantages of third person in suspense. You can leave one point of view at a moment of crisis and hop over to the other one, leaving the breathless readers wondering what happened!

      And approaching Act 2 in halves, with the Mirror Moment in the middle is a great strategy.

  13. Oooh! I love this! Great tip, and timely. I just hit the second act in my new manuscript and asked that same question, “Now what?”

    Now, I know what. Ha ha

    Thanks again for giving us another informative and helpful post.

  14. This will help a lot. I’d like to know what the characters standing next to the protagonist think. My current WIP is in first person so this Shadow Story (or as another person calls it: Shadow Journal) may help flesh out those characters a lot! Especially since my antagonist isn’t even on screen until the end.

Comments are closed.