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Why does the second act 'reaction' and then 'action' need to be drawn out?
I subscribe to the school of writers who like to (and often must), outline their stories before writing them. For a long time however, I did not use the 3-act structure. My mentality on that has now changed, and I find myself playing catch up.
One part in particular of the 3-act structure has me somewhat stumped, and I was hoping for some help on it: the second act.
I'm very much someone who needs clear steps. The first and third acts have these steps, and it's easy to build these acts as a result. The second act does not. The most I've been able to get in the way of steps is as follows:
- Character reacts to Point of no Return.
- Unclear 'phase' in which the character continues to react.
- Midpoint, which starts the character acting to win, rather than reacting to survive.
- Second unclear 'phase' in which the character continues to act.
- Darkest Moment, where the character fails.
Everything after the darkest moment is perfectly clear to me. It's those two phases which I have trouble with. I understand that they are there to bridge the gap to the Midpoint first, and then the Darkest Moment (usually preceded by a seeming victory). But I'm not seeing them as needed. Why can't the outline be as follows:
- Point of No Return.
- Character reacts to Point of No Return, struggling to survive.
- Character acts to win against the antagonistic force.
- Seeming victory
- Failure, leading to darkest moment.
That makes sense to me, but everything I've seen says that the second act comprises roughly 50% of your story, and that the reaction and action before and after the midpoint are super stretched out. Why do they need to be so long?
The "Why" is that we want the MC (Main Character, or Main Crew) to undergo some sort of struggle in order to get from the end of the Act I to the beginning of Act III. Because that is what makes the story interesting; A seemingly difficult problem, it cannot be a walk in the park (or maybe it is but it is a very dangerous park to walk in, and a thousand miles long).
My approach is to follow a slightly different 4 act structure, which is really the 3AS with the second act broken in half. Initially (while my story is being conceived) I imagine these as 4 acts of equal length, each 25% of the book. For consistency with the 3AS, call those Act IIa and Act IIb.
At the end of Act I, I expect the MC to be leaving her "normal world," physically or mentally, to solve the problem that grew out of the Inciting Incident.
The specific purpose of Act IIa is to add complications and roadblocks to her life. There is no straightforward way to solve the problem. One way to accomplish this, which I frequently use, is to make my MC very good at something we'll call her superpower (it doesn't have to be magical), and very bad at something else we'll call her super-weakness.
Take the current TV series Young Sheldon; the MC is a hyper-genius at science, and clueless incompetent at interpersonal relationships. The stories tend to write themselves; they are 80% about Sheldon's super-weakness, his screwing up relationships for himself and others, but spiced up with 20% of his superpower (which is what we are watching for).
I should note the ratio doesn't have to be 80/20. In the TV series Elementary, about a modern-day Sherlock Holmes we have a very similar motif; Sherlock is a genius but struggles with relationships and his own arrogance and loneliness. His mystery solving superpower is much more prominent, but his super-weakness that causes him to fail personally is there in every show. call that a 20/80 ratio of super-weakness to super-power.
That is the basic dynamic of many stories: The hero's superpower is on display and those are exciting scenes, but it isn't very useful in solving her main story problem, and her super-weakness is making her fail.
So she has problem after problem in Act IIa, and makes very little progress on main problem, in fact she may be reduced to working on a sub-sub-issue of her main problem, and by the end of Act IIa, she is in despair. She can use her superpower all she wants, but it won't get her anywhere. Say her superpower is computer hacking, but there is nothing to hack, she has no clue WHO to hack.
There are many ways to construct Act IIa, as a series (or overlapping series) of Try-Fail stories, perhaps that make matters even worse. Or injure or trap the MC.
In Act IIb, we have to unravel these complications, somehow, and we do that with a desperate Try that succeeds. Not for the main problem, for some sub-issue or side-issue. But she has a small victory, the beginning of growth in her super-weakness category. This success gives her hope.
Act IIb should not be a cake-walk,but she uses her new understanding like a thread to pull up a string, then uses the string to pull up a rope. She unravels the complications of Act IIa, growing her super-weakness enough so it is no longer a disability. And that leads her to a place where all that remains is the main story problem, which she can finally confront. (It doesn't have to be a villain, or even a battle, but it should involve taking some high-stakes risk).
If you want, the solution can, finally, require her superpower. That may be so because using her new-found skill clears the way for her superpower to be useful, or perhaps because both skills are needed to navigate to the final confrontation.
I am a discovery writer. But one thing that enables that is understanding the structure of the four acts, and the lengths of the four acts. I can write up to the Inciting incident pretty easily; and I know that is 10% to 15% of the way into my story. Which lets me know approximately how long the story should be.
The consequence of that is, I always know as I am writing, within 5% to 10%, what kinds of scenes I am looking for. In Act IIa, I am looking for complications and stumbling blocks, and situations where my hero's super-weakness is making her fail, and not just on random throw away scenes, but screwing with her plans and making her rethink and revise. Near the end, she is out of ideas, and the only thing that will save her is coming to a realization about her super-weakness.
In Act IIb, I am looking for scenes that, increasingly, help her overcome her super-weakness, and resolve the issues she created in Act IIa. Near the end, she should be at a point where she can finally take a big risk, to put herself into a position to confront the main problem, the formerly unbeatable problem.
That is what happens in Act III, followed by her return to her normal world, or beginning her life in her new normal.
As a discovery writer I typically then rewrite, lengthening or shortening half-Acts. I have turning points in the middle of each of the four Acts; so my story is in 7 parts, each around 14%-15% of the story. I rewrite to get them all to the right length for pacing.
If you outline, you can pre-plan to make these the same way. Act IIa is for complicating factors, and should generally be failures, tinged with clues that will lead to understanding, when she puts some or all of these clues together by the end of Act IIa.
Act IIa is 25% of the story, so break that into scenes, however long you make them, enough to cover 25% of the total word count you want. (Look at other scenes you have written). Maybe five scenes, maybe a dozen, it depends on the writer's style. And plan her descent into misery and despair. At the end of Act IIa (midpoint of the story) she should be desperate, out of ideas, not knowing what to do, how to escape, or how to move forward.
But you also plan, for Act IIa, the reveals of the clues she may or may not understand at the time, but these will allow her to have (finally) a good idea at the beginning of Act IIb, one last thing to try, and that works. And gives her hope. Maybe it didn't work perfectly, but it worked, and she learns something from that, and gets better at unravelling the complications of Act IIa. If she has failures in Act IIb, she learns something from each, tries again and succeeds.
Act IIa is mostly a downslope for the MC's mental state, with minor bumps up.
Act IIb is mostly an upslope for the MC's mental state, with minor bumps down.
I'm all one for structure, and awareness of structure, but some of these paint by number descriptions of the three act structure strike me as going a bit far. Just as you say, one gets stuck trying to figure out exactly what is supposed to happen at every one of these points.
At the other extreme is the simple principle that readers keep reading as long as they care what happens next. It may be that the three act structure is, in fact, the only structure which keep people caring what happens next, or it may not. But it is certainly not true that any and every plot that hits every mark on the three act plot structure is going to keep the reader reading. You could hit every mark and still not have the reader care a whit. So maybe the focus should be on what keeps the reader caring.
It seems pretty clear that in any story we care about, the hero must be called to adventure and must accept the call. That is act one.
It seems pretty clear that at the end of the story, the hero must either succeed or fail or reach a different and more satisfying resolution than they set out to find. That is act 3.
In the middle, there must be struggle. We do not care about a competent confident hero who goes out and does the job successfully without opposition. So Act two is about struggle. And it seems pretty well established that there must be two kinds of struggle: a practical struggle against opposition, and a internal struggle against the self. It also seems that there must be some sacrifice involved in both struggles.
You can probably put a lot more specifics around those, but I'm not sure if they hurt or help. But I don't believe that is where the problems with middles lies.
Let us say that the middle -- act 2 -- is a series of struggles, and that those struggles probably need to escalate (because is it boring to see Superman defeat Lex Luthor and then rescue a kitten from a tree -- it needs to be the other way round). It follows that some part of the external and internal opposition has to be engaged in each struggle, and that they must provide more serious opposition each time round.
It follows almost of necessity that at some point in this process the hero is going to look themselves in the mirror and say, am I the sort of person who is willing to take this risk, make this sacrifice, etc. In other words, I am not sure that the mirror moment really needs to be contrived. I think it is inevitable if you have an escalating series of struggles.
And here is where I think things go wrong, for both outliners and pantsers. If your act two does not have a series of escalating struggles, it is probably because your hero's circumstances in act 1 and their circumstances in act 3 are not far enough apart. There is not enough to struggle with between their starting state and their ending state. In other words, I think that most of the craft here is making sure that Act 1 and Act 3 are far enough apart from each other. Achieve that, and act 2 almost writes itself. But it is often hard to get that distance correct.
And maybe this is what James Scott Bell is getting at when he says you should write your story from the middle. In other words, that the nature and extent of the struggles in Act 2 are what make the book work or not, and so that hero in Act 1 needs to be low enough, and the goal in Act 3 high enough to create the necessary steepness of slope up which the hero must scramble, and on which they will inevitable at the midpoint stop and ask themselves if they want to go on.
Another angle to consider is that personal growth is easier to realistically portray through a series of try-fail cycles. There are multiple fails in Act II, and multiple successes. These show the character learning (growing).
Characters don't usually grow from an inciting incident (Act I) or a climax (Act III). Most character growth seems to occur in Act II. It's sometimes called the 'fun and games' section of the story. There is room to play in Act II--both for you as a writer and for the characters. A lot of world building can be shown through Act II, through whatever journey the character takes there.
Also, learning to love in one way or another can be an important part of a story. Learning to love can be to a person or bonding to a philosophy or movement or what-have-you. This emotional transformation occurs in Act II. And whatever love a character develops in Act II contributes to the tension in the climax in Act III.
Examples: Luke becomes a Jedi through practicing the force in Act II (that's fun and games), but he also learns to love the rebellion in IV (and he comes to love Han, too, and Han comes to love him). He comes to love his father in V. Falling in love takes time. He grows as a Jedi but also as a human being.
I believe Act II is where most of the interpersonal discovery and relational breakthroughs occur. I believe that having these emotional and transformative character changes leads to a more satisfying story.
The above ('Answer one') is an emotional and relational way to think about the three act structure and the role of Act II. However, your question focuses on plot points and is posed with 'the character.' In other words, you might not be focusing on interpersonal dynamics. You might not care about Answer One.
So. A more 'plotty' way to think about lengthening Act II is this: A satisfying story shows the journey for multiple characters. Yes, the Main Character, who may be the viewpoint, but also the surrounding characters including the Main Antagonist. Each has their own goal toward which they are acting. Arwen wanted to help Aragorn. Her father wanted to protect her. Galadriel wanted to resist the ring while also wanting the ring, and so on. The Ents had goals. The kings had goals. Goals, goals everywhere.
The interplay of these take time to work out, and that's Act II, and it all leads to the climax in Act III.
I don't have a lot of respect for the three-act structure for exactly the reason you've run into: It doesn't get you any mileage out of the second act. In fact, I'm going to go further than that: The 3-act structure suggests that there's one structure that's appropriate for every story. I don't think that's the case at all!
There are as many ways of structuring a second act as there are stories. Some stories have incredibly obvious structures that stick out as you watch them, giving them a rhythmic sense of deliberately moving forward and a poetic parallelism between parts of the journey. Others have very ad-hoc structures, where the only thing that really defines one section of the story from another is that one necessarily leads to the other. And there's everything in-between. This is where both the challenge and the fun of figuring out your second act comes in: You get to decide what your own structure is going to look like!
As an example of a story with a very structured second act, consider the movie Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. In this movie, our hero Scott is trying to grow closer to his girlfriend. But she isn't ready to commit to a relationship yet because of all of the exes she's had over the years. So, in the highly stylized, video-game like world of the story, Scott needs to personally confront and defeat each of the exes. The structure is incredibly straightforard: Act 1 is establishing the quest. Act 3 is overcoming the finial, most powerful ex - and Scott also overcoming his deepest personal fears, ones that go deeper than losing his girl. And act 2 is broken up, like clockwork, into one chapter per ex. Each ex is introduced with a particular character and way of battling Scott. Scott figures out what he needs to do to overcome them. And then, at the chapter's climax, they fight. Along the way, each fight gradually sheds a little more light on what Scott's true problem is, making the reveal that he needs to dig deeper than impressing his girlfriend to complete his quest land very satisfyingly.
The fact that this movie follows such an obvious and predictable formula is not a bad thing! On the contrary, it gives the story a very strong sense of momentum. We can track Scott's progress very easily, making the anticipation of the final battle all the more exciting. The pattern each ex follows makes each chapter have a strong sense of parallelism, making comparing what each ex means to the story a very natural way of exploring it more deeply. And the fact that there's an underlying theme of deeper self-acceptance gradually revealed across each chapter makes its slow reveal much weightier. It's one of a small number of elements that transcends the structure, cementing it as the most important theme of the story.
On the other hand, you have stories that are very ad-hoc in structure. Instead of following any kind of episodic approach, they allow each event to naturally build into the next one. Terrey Pratchett's novel Going Postal does this. At the start of the novel, the oddly-named Moist von Lipwig, a petty criminal, is strong-armed by a powerful despot into taking one of the most unpleasant jobs in the story's world - getting the city's long-dilapitated post office back up and running. At first, this seems to be the story. The post office is broken down, von Lipwig needs to get it running again, short and to the point. But as von Lipwig and the post office gain traction, they are attacked by mysterious assassins, making it clear that someone powerful wants the post office to fail. This builds up into a mystery that takes up the next portion of the story and leads up to von Lipwig discovering a cutthroat capitalist whose modern communications empire is threatened by the post office. In the final part of the story, von Lipwig and the evil businessman go toe-to-toe, building up to a final competition that will decide forever whether the post office or the evil corporation gets to be the most powerful company in the city.
Unlike Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, this story doesn't have a clear episodic structure. Each of these developments bleed into each other, and there's no clear specific moments where we transition from one to the next. But each plot point happens as an inexorable consequence of the previous. Terry Pratchett knew he wanted us to start at a small post office and end up battling a corrupt mega-conglomerate, and so he used his second act to organically build the bridge from one to the other.
Theses are just two examples. There really isn't a right or wrong way to structure your second act. But deliberately deciding how you're going to do so breaks your second act down from one monolithic, impossible-to-wrangle blank page into multiple sections you can tackle confidently, and a carefully-planned structure will build your story up satisfyingly.