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.
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.