This is the second instalment on the subject of story structure, and covers the difficult Second Act.
Finding the content for Act One is relatively easy. There’s exposition that needs to go in: introduce the hero and the other main characters, setup the story world, and then blow it all apart with a big problem. Then let the hero simmer in the dilemma it creates until they are brave enough to tackle the story quest. What is challenging about this Act is writing this exposition in an exciting way that piques the readers’ interest. If you fail, the reader may well not read on past the first paragraph or first five pages.
Act Two is different. It’s all about the conflict between what the hero/heroine wants and the antagonist forces in his/her way. It’s a long Act and it needs lots of content. It needs a hero/heroine fired up with a goal or purpose and an action plan, even if that plan is just to survive. And it needs an obstacle course of escalating problems to frustrate the hero from achieving his/her goal.
The two main turning points at either end of the second act are the Act One Break (TP2) and the Act Two Culmination (TP4). Together these two turning points hold the second act together. The first sets the hero/heroine on his way in a new world with a purpose. The second is the culmination of his/her attempts to solve the story goal and usually reaches a point of apparent defeat. At this point the hero/heroine may experience an epiphany moment where he finds what he must do differently to succeed in Act 3.
At the mid-point of the second act there is usually a Mid Point Shift (TP3). This is normally a major culmination of the previous sequence: a false victory, or false defeat, or major revelation that changes everything. The hero will normally respond to this event by driving forward into the second half of the act with a renewed vigour and determination.
But these are not the only plot points of the second act. Each main sequence will have its own goal, obstacles and culmination.
In the first sequence of Act 2, (s3), the hero/heroine takes their first steps towards their overall story goal. They are in an unfamiliar world, they meet new allies and enemies and learn new skills. They come into conflict with the forces of antagonism, but those forces are not fully aware of them yet. So for example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke and Obi-Wan travel to Los Eisley, Spaceport to find a pilot to take them and the Death Star plans to Alderaan. They recruit Hans Solo and Chewbacca. The sequence ends in a shoot-out escape from the spaceport in the Millennium Falcon. This sequence culmination is the ‘Reality Check‘ (P4): a reminder of the dangers that the hero/heroine faces in this strange new world.
In the second sequence of Act 2, (s4), matters escalate and the stakes are raised. After their spectacular escape from Los Eisley Spaceport and fighting off imperial Star Destroyers, they head to Alderaan to deliver the Death Star Plans to Leia’s father. Matters slow down as Obi-Wan trains Luke in the force. Unbeknown to them, however, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin force Princess Leia to watch the destruction of Alderaan by the Death Star. When they emerge from lightspeed Alderaan has been destroyed. They need a new goal. This is the Mid Point Shift (TP3).
In the third sequence of Act 2, (s5), our heros encounter the antagonists head on. They are caught in a tractor beam and taken to the Death Star. When the stormtroopers search the Millennium Falcon, they hide away. Then while Obi-Wan goes to disable the tractor beam, Luke discovers princess Leia is onboard . Their new goal is now to rescue her. Luke, Hans, and Chewbacca rescue the princess, but only by escaping into a chute leading to a trash compactor. This is a Major Set-back (P5): the trash compactor threatens to kill them.
In the fourth and final sequence of Act 2, (s6), matters worsen and slide into a crisis. Luke is attacked by a creature in the trash compactor, but survives. And with the help of R2D2 our heros escape death in the trash compactor and fight their way back to the Millennium Falcon. The fourth sequence ends with a false victory. Our heros escape from the Death Star, but not before Luke witnesses the duel between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan sacrifices himself to let Luke and the rest escape. This is the Act 2 Culmination (TP4).
The sequences and plot points of Act two can be summarised as follows:
|Sequence No||Description||Ends with TP/P|
|First steps||Reality Check (P4)|
|Escalation & Raised Stakes||Mid Point Shift (TP 3)|
|B Story & antagonists||Major Set-back (P5)|
|Slide into Crisis||Act 2 Culmination (TP4)|
Are these the only sequences of Act 2? Not necessarily. It depends on the story. But four second Act sequences are quite common among most average length movies. Novels, however, usually contain more complexity than their related movies, and therefore there is no reason why the number of sequences shouldn’t increase or the sequences themselves become more complex as they have to deal with more detail.
Note the pattern of the sequences. There is a natural flow to the pattern. They start with simple first steps, then escalate with raised stakes to the Mid Point after which the forces of antagonism close in and create a slide into crisis. The Act 2 Culmination is therefore usually a low point for our hero, before the fight back begins in Act 3. This is one of the most common story patterns, but it is by no means the only story pattern possible.
For example, in tragedies the polarity of the last two sequences normally reverse. The Major set-back becomes a Major Success, and the Slide into Crisis becomes a Rise to Success. So with a tragedy the Act 2 Culmination is usually a high for the hero. It is only in Act 3 where the hero falls into a tragic ending.
Whether you believe that understanding the structure of a story is important or not, it is important that you understand the flow of your story pattern and the highs and lows for your hero. A story without highs and lows is going to be boring. Therefore to create these story patterns you need strong turning points and plot points.
In the next blog, I’ll look at the big moments of the third Act. If you missed the first blog on the big moments of the First Act you can find it here. Any questions?