Struggling to get your hero from the hook to the climax?
Back in the day, I used to begin writing stories with a passion...only to have that passion sputter out and die when I had to figure out the dreaded middle. It was rare that I continued writing when times got tough, so I have a countless unfinished drafts tucked away.
And that struggle? I blamed it on anything and everything: writer's block, rotten story ideas, the notion that I wasn't good enough to be a writer...
But the truth of the matter was that I simply had no idea how to structure a story! So, of course, I was struggling. Thankfully, I've long since learned about the magic of story structure.
In the month of October, we're breaking down the 3-Act Story Structure, the most popular structure found in film and literature. It's also the structure I now use to plan every one of my novels, and I adore it.
And in today's installment, we're tackling Act Two and Sagging Middle Syndrome: the struggle writers face to figure out the middle of their stories. Need to catch up on the rest of the mini series first? Here is last week's breakdown of the first act.
Now let's get to writing a gripping adventure your readers simply won't be able to put down!
An overview of the second act...
Understanding the structure of the second act is important for more than just the hope of writing a gripping story.
If you aren't sure what happens between the hook and the climax, you can end up losing passion and bailing out before you finish the first draft–just like I did–or you may fall into writing burnout or write a story that goes on and on foreverrrr because you don't really know where you're going.
All of those situations are obviously bad news. So let's take a look at the second act, starting with a quick overview:
Act Two takes place between roughly the 15% - 25% mark of your story (wherever your first act ends) and continues until roughly the 75% mark.
The act itself can be broken down into two distinct sections: before the midpoint and after the midpoint–with the midpoint falling at, you guessed it, the 50% mark of your story.
What's your hero doing during each of these major sections? Well, let's break it down!
What happens before the midpoint?
Thanks to the events of Act One, your hero is now taking the first steps in their brand new adventure, but soon they'll discover that they have to face opposition.
That opposition may be your story's villain, the villain's henchmen, complications thanks to the villain's past actions, a larger antagonistic force (e.g. an army, a corrupt government, etc.), or even the hero's own doubts and fears.
Whatever the case, your hero doesn't want to face that opposition just yet. They're already struggling enough to take the necessary steps to work towards their goal. They just can't handle conflict on top of everything else.
So for the first half of Act Two, the hero is reactionary.
Even though they're taking actions to work towards their goal, they are only reacting–doing whatever it takes to survive–when conflict comes their way.
Depending on the genre and length of your story, the hero will probably face between two and six major instances of conflict on their journey before they reach the midpoint. Need a few examples?
You've got it, pal:
The Hunger Games. During Act Two, Katniss convinces Haymitch to take his duties as her mentor seriously (a consequence of the Capitol's past actions), learns how to act in a way that will win her the support of potential investors, and makes sure that she establishes her place as a legitimate competitor during training.
Finally, when she enters the arena, she runs from the Cornucopia with very few supplies in order to avoid getting killed.
She continues to fight malnutrition and exhaustion, faces down fireballs, and suffers a burn injury before she is discovered by the Careers and chased up a tree with no way to escape.
Pride and Prejudice. After Bingley leaves Netherfield, Lizzie gets into an argument with her friend Charlotte Lucas after she marries Mr. Collins. Meanwhile, Jane goes to London in hopes of reuniting with Bingley, but he does not come to her.
Mr. Wickham, whom Lizzie has taken a liking to, has also left Meryton with his regiment, so Lizzie decides to visit Charlotte at her new home with Mr. Collins. Unfortunately, this visit brings the unexpected return of Mr. Darcy, and Lizzie is forced to suffer his attentions.
The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel is devastated that she can't afford to fly to Amsterdam to meet her favorite author until Gus surprises her during a picnic. He tells her that, thanks to a cancer charity organization, he got them tickets to visit Van Houten.
Hazel is thrilled, but she worries that the trip will only bring her and Gus closer–and she's afraid of dying on him. Soon after, she suffers an episode and ends up in the ICU. Once she has recovered, Hazel decides to go to Amsterdam, but the doctors are worried she is too weak.
But finally, she is given permission and she, Gus, and her mother take off for the Netherlands.
Examining the midpoint...
Welcome to the biggest conflict your hero has faced thus far in the story!
The midpoint represents a big showdown between the hero and the villain or antagonistic force. The hero can no longer afford to just react; they must face down this conflict or give up their goal.
This midpoint of your novel shouldn't result in a major win for the hero. This event needs to either end in a loss or a draw. Why? Because you need to anger your hero, to make them so tired of taking the villain's crap that there's an integral shift in their perspective.
Because after the events of the midpoint, your hero's not going to be reactive anymore. They are going to start taking action instead, fully prepared to fight back against the villain. But we're getting ahead of ourselves here.
Need a few examples of powerful midpoints? Here you go:
The Hunger Games. The midpoint occurs when Katniss, stuck up the tree with the Careers below her and nowhere to go, sees Rue hiding nearby. Rue points to a hive of Tracker Jackers above Katniss's head.
Katniss chooses to cut down the hive so it will fall on the Careers below, killing some and scattering the rest, but she is stung as well and loses consciousness.
Pride and Prejudice. The conflict between Lizzie and Darcy comes to a head when Darcy confesses that he has fallen in love with her despite her circumstances, and he proposes marriage.
Lizzie is shocked by the proposal and insulted by Darcy's insinuations about her family. She calls out his arrogance and pride, resulting in an argument that leaves both of them unhappy.
The Fault in Our Stars. Conflict hits hard when Hazel and Gus arrive in Amsterdam, only to discover that Van Houten is a miserable drunk who will not answer Hazel's questions and that his assistant is the one who was corresponding with Hazel and Gus.
What happens after the midpoint?
Thanks to the events of the midpoint, the hero is now ready to face down the villain or antagonistic force as they continue to chase their own story goal.
Now that the hero is more active, the pace of the story will begin to churn faster and faster, racing towards the climax of the story.
Depending on the story, the hero will face down another two to six instances of conflict, bringing them sooo close to the climax of the story before something truly terrible happens. But again, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
Let's take a look at a few more examples:
The Hunger Games. Katniss makes friends with Rue and together they work to survive. They devise a plan to destroy the Career's supplies, but the plan goes awry and Katniss kills a tribute as he in turn kills Rue.
The next day, Katniss learns that two tributes from the same district can win, so she goes looking for Peeta. She discovers him injured and goes to the Cornucopia to fight for medicine, barely surviving when she is attacked.
When Katniss and Peeta are both well enough, they go hunting and foraging for food. But soon the lakes and streams begin to dry up, forcing them to move towards the center of the arena, where they'll have to face Cato, the strongest Career tribute.
Pride and Prejudice. Darcy leaves a letter for Lizzie that makes her question everything she has ever believed about him. She returns to Meryton and acts coldly towards Wickham, knowing now who he really is.
When Lydia goes off to Brighton, Lizzie decides to head out on a journey with her aunt and uncle. They visit Pemberley and learn that Darcy is well-loved by his servants, only to have Darcy arrive home.
He entertains her and her family until a letter arrives, detailing how Lydia has run off with Mr. Wickham.
Lizzie hastens home, but all hope seems lost. Later, she learns that Lydia and Wickham were discovered and got married thanks to the financial generosity of her uncle. But then she learns that it was Mr. Darcy, not her uncle, who sought them out and paid off Wickham.
Finally, Bingley returns to Netherfield and begins courting Jane once more, eventually asking for her hand in marriage. Lizzie learns that this was once again Darcy's doing.
The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel, feeling distressed after meeting Van Houten, decides to start living for what happiness she can get. She finally allows herself to truly fall in love Gus, and they share a night of intimacy. But later he tells her that his cancer is back, and it's spread throughout his body.
They return home, and Gus's condition worsens–even as Hazel's gets better. Gus decides to hold a pre-funeral for himself and in her pre-eulogy, Hazel reclaims her love for Van Houten's book by using a quote from it to explain to Gus how she would not trade their time together for the world.
Wrapping up the second act...
During the second half of the second act, our hero has overcome their doubts and fears and has drawn close to reaching their goal. Everything is looking up–but something terrible looms on the horizon, unbeknownst to the hero.
This is where the second act comes to a swift close.
In next week's post, we'll dive headfirst into the third and final act of the 3-Act Story Structure, tackling the most devastating event in your hero's journey and the climactic conflict that follows.
It's sure to be a fun time, so make sure to stop on by!
Isn't the 3-Act Story Structure just so awesome?
Maybe I'm nerding out a bit, but I just love how this structure takes all of the confusion out of storytelling. The blueprint for a gripping story is laid out in concrete steps that you can easily follow without having to worry that your story will sound boring or recycled. It's great!
Have any questions about story structure, or the second act in particular?
Share them with me in the comments below!
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Kristen Kieffer is a writer of fantasy fiction and the creative writing coach behind She's Novel. She's made it her mission to help aspiring authors write sensational novels because obliterating expectations is her jam. Her other passions? Coffee and Tolkien, of course!