Here There Be Dragons

I’m a hack, a terrible writer.

This is a horrific novel. My god, I never could write in the first place and someone gave me a contract.

 This part of the book is a wasteland that sucks all the energy from my soul. Nobody cares about these characters, and I hate them myself.

I’m gonna write The End on this stupid career and get a job mowing the sides of highways. At least I can look back and see positive results.

Many writers reach that point in the oft-dreaded second act. It’s where we stall, put off going to the home office or computer, and wonder why we ever invested so much time getting to that part of the manuscript.

Whether your own second act is fifty percent of the novel, or in my case crawls out of a dark, dank hole at the 30,000 word mark and taunts me until somewhere past 60,000, it’s a struggle for many authors, no matter how many books they have out.

And we wonder why the same thing happens every single time. It does for me, even though I’ve set everything into motion and breeze through the first 30,000 words. Then I hit the wall. The pace of my writing slows, and I force a thousand words at each sitting, but it isn’t pleasant.

One foot after the other. Keep on. Write something. I’ll be through this slow wasteland in thirty days if I just keep on keeping on.

The second act is the confrontation point in which your established characters and antagonists are on set, and in my case seemingly wandering without direction, as the protagonist says to hell with it and sits down with a cigarette and a glass of scotch.

Wait, that wasn’t the protagonist, it was me halfway through the last novel I wrote.

At this point, your characters are reacting to what’s happened in the first act and are now pursuing their assigned goals, whatever they may be, and if you don’t outline, it could be anything.

Here there be dragons.

Many times this part of the work in progress is a yawning blank wasteland requiring dedication to complete. Look at it this way, no matter what kind of novel we’re writing, the easy part was the first leg of a roller coaster ride that pulls us to the top. It’s fairly fast, because the author knows where s/he’s going, starting the excitement with that idea that leads to…something.

At the pinnacle of this elevated point of our amusement park ride, we look back from the lead car to those behind to see our hero, secondary characters, supporting members, and of course, the bad guys either out in the open or in some kind of concealing costume (hopefully not clown suits).

But when we reach the top, the ride doesn’t head straight back down, though we wish it would. The incline is shallow, but quickly turns to the left, a slight jolt in the plot if you will, but now we’re just cruising along in the wasteland.

The ride may be flatter than the opening chapters, but those on this roller coaster fill the air with excitement, anticipating what’s to come as they interact with each other and push the plot forward. This is where our hero develops a relationship with any secondary characters that we introduce and motivate.

Not every part of the story has to be about the protagonist. This is the time we can shift viewpoints, to see through the eyes of those other characters, and even wriggle inside the evil mind of the antagonist.

Maybe that’s what they’re doing back there in those cars.

Someone calls from behind. “Where are we going?”

The author shrugs. “Hell if I know. It’s the middle of the story. You tell me.”

We’ve arrived at the point where the characters will clash, providing much needed action at this juncture. Others go to work together, knowing there’s a drop ahead and preparing for it. They’ll agree we have a solid story structure, even though the author is doubting the entire project. Past a peeling sign proclaiming we’ve reached 50,000 words, halfway point, there’s another clatter of wheels on the rails as the cars lean right.

Yep, it was about time for a twist.

We’re building toward the climax, the rushing drop to the end, but before we can get there, a couple more things need to happen. Those folks behind the lead car will evolve and develop in order to push the story forward. They’ll collude, fall out with one another, or even branch out on their own for a short while until the author reels them in.

This is where an even more detailed world will develop as the entire cast of characters reacts to what happened back with that first major plot point in the first act.

But now as authors we need to be persistent and keep things interesting. Despite our misgivings, we show up for work because something needs to happen, because dialogue and discussion alone can’t hold our interest, and Michner-like descriptions get old fast.

So what does the author want out of the second act?

To get through into the third act, the fun part.

Hotamighty! Though persistence, either with our writing or the characters doing what they’re supposed to do, plot points converge. We finally look ahead from the cars and see nothing but sky, horizon, that razor edge of the drop and with it, exhilaration, action, and the big reveal in a mystery, or in thrillers, and that fast, breathtaking plunge to justice, Act Three.

The faded wooden sign reads, Over 60,000 words. We’re through it!

The third act writes itself with that fresh rush of adrenaline, and the manuscript soon flashes away in an electronic firehose of bits and bytes to its final destination. Weeks or months later, after copy edits, we open the file and read what we eked out in the course of several dismal weeks.


It works!

The first act sets everything up, and despite what we recall, the plot points and characters don’t mill around in the middle of the book because they hold our interest and make sense. It successfully leads to that exciting ending that satisfies.

So are you there right now? Still stuck slightly beyond that rotting sign that reads Act II, and creeping along one sentence at a time? I’ll leave you today with an alleged discussion that occurred at the Algonquin Round Table.

A few guys are talking about the same three act premise in screenwriting.

One asks, “How’s the play going?”

Another answers. “I’m having second act problems.”

Everybody laughs and another comments. “Of course you’re having second act problems!”

In summation about this discussion on Act Two, here’s a quote from Lone Waite, a character in Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster movie, The Outlaw Josey Wales.

“Endeavor to persevere.”

You’ll get through it.

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About Reavis Wortham

Two time Spur Award winning author Reavis Z. Wortham pens the Texas Red River historical mystery series, and the high-octane Sonny Hawke contemporary western thrillers. His new Tucker Snow series begins in 2022. The Red River books are set in rural Northeast Texas in the 1960s. Kirkus Reviews listed his first novel in a Starred Review, The Rock Hole, as one of the “Top 12 Mysteries of 2011.” His Sonny Hawke series from Kensington Publishing features Texas Ranger Sonny Hawke and debuted in 2018 with Hawke’s Prey. Hawke’s War, the second in this series won the Spur Award from the Western Writers Association of America as the Best Mass Market Paperback of 2019. He also garnered a second Spur for Hawke’s Target in 2020. A frequent speaker at literary events across the country. Reavis also teaches seminars on mystery and thriller writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to writing conventions, to the Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort, SC. He frequently speaks to smaller groups, encouraging future authors, and offers dozens of tips for them to avoid the writing pitfalls and hazards he has survived. His most popular talk is entitled, My Road to Publication, and Other Great Disasters. He has been a newspaper columnist and magazine writer since 1988, penning over 2,000 columns and articles, and has been the Humor Editor for Texas Fish and Game Magazine for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Shana, live in Northeast Texas. All his works are available at your favorite online bookstore or outlet, in all formats. Check out his website at “Burrows, Wortham’s outstanding sequel to The Rock Hole combines the gonzo sensibility of Joe R. Lansdale and the elegiac mood of To Kill a Mockingbird to strike just the right balance between childhood innocence and adult horror.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review) “The cinematic characters have substance and a pulse. They walk off the page and talk Texas.” —The Dallas Morning News On his most recent Red River novel, Laying Bones: “Captivating. Wortham adroitly balances richly nuanced human drama with two-fisted action, and displays a knack for the striking phrase (‘R.B. was the best drunk driver in the county, and I don’t believe he run off in here on his own’). This entry is sure to win the author new fans.” —Publishers Weekly “Well-drawn characters and clever blending of light and dark kept this reader thinking of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.” —Mystery Scene Magazine

17 thoughts on “Here There Be Dragons

  1. Another reason I like to write one-act plays! No second act angst. Oh, I’ve seen it. My first screenplay had that. I never finished it. I may go back and kick it back to life.

  2. Yep, at the 30k freeze right now and working through it. It may not get done as fast as I want it, but it’ll get done.

  3. Such a fitting analogy, Rev. Even with an outline in hand, this is me in the second act, every time. Gotta keep on keeping on, and eventually I’ll hit that Act III rush and reach the end.

  4. And this is why outlining can save your sanity. The path upward might not be totally clear, but you have checkpoints to reach and logical steps between them. The yawning chasms along the way should be under the hero’s feet, not yours.

  5. Great analogy, Rev. A great place to play with an expanded outline, seeing how much trouble you can get the protag into as you make your way from one signpost to the next. Exploring during the first half, setting up the mirror moment, then going on the attack during the second half until you set up the second doorway.

  6. Your description of the Middle Desert is spot on. Glad to know the angst is mutual. Misery loves company and all that…

    I’m in the beginning of Act II and had what I hope is brilliant plot idea. I’m storming along to the next signpost. We’ll see how long the momentum lasts before I hit the doldrums.

    However, I’ve discoverer Plottr. Without going into detail, it is the best tool I’ve used so far. Loving the timeline feature and templates for a variety of genres. It gives me writing prompts in the places I usually flounder, as well as a host of other nice features.

    So, I’m plowing forward. 🙂

  7. I used to struggle with the second act until I read a book (sorry, I can’t find it in my library and don’t remember the title or author) that gave me concrete advice about what to do in that second act. It recommended that in the first half of the second act, the character must apply the strategies/behaviors that have made them successful and covered their fears (you know, those ones you intend to change) in three separate incidents. But those strategies/behaviors fail, making everything much worse. At the second act mid-point, the character finally acknowledges that it’s time to change, to try something different. (This is Mr. Bell’s mirror moment.)

    For the second half of the second act, the character will attempt the new behaviors, but those new behaviors come at a cost. Friends/allies don’t like the new behaviors and abandon the character. Needed supplies/resources are withdrawn or denied. Ideally, there will be three of those incidents. But having survived the losses associated with the change, the character will have the one critical thing they need (whatever the change was) that will give them the ability to defeat the baddie and win the day.

    With these concrete signposts in hand, I now know where I’m going through the muddle in the middle. It’s become so much easier to write that section.

  8. Even with the skeleton of my story in place, I hit that dang wall every single time at the same point. The storm clouds are parting now. Yay! Should be a smooth ride to the finish line. 🙂

  9. I loved writing every word of the second volume of my mainstream trilogy (186K) – but then I’m an extreme plotter, and I knew where we were going every minute of the way, but not HOW. And figuring out the HOW to go with the what is quite enough excitement. And amazing.

    Because now it’s not a wisp of an idea, but a fully fleshed-out drama with scenery and a score, and I don’t stop until it is right.

    The story only matters to me WITH the words.

    Works for me; other folk have their own writing method. Some must actually prefer panic, since they leave themselves open for it each time. Adrenaline junkies? Go for it if that makes you feel alive.

    I don’t tell other people what to do – I’m always curious why other people feel the need to tell ME I write ‘wrong.’

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