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Act Two is summed up by the greats such as, like, you know, Aristotle — as “Rising Tension” or “Progressive Complications.” Or in the classic screenwriting formula: Act One is “Get the Hero Up a Tree,” and Act Two is “Throw Rocks at Him.” (And for the impatient out there, I’ll reveal that Act Three is “Get Him Down.”)
All true enough, but a tad vague for my taste.
Here’s the thing. The first half of Act Two, which we will call Act II, Part 1 (30-60 minutes in a film, pages 100-200 in a book), is the most variable of all the acts. I can give you very specific story elements, even give them to you in a relative order, for every other part of a story, but Act II:1 can be maddening. That is, I think, because what happens in Act II:1 is totally dependent on what KIND of story you’re telling. Is it a mystery, a fairy tale, a reluctant witness story, a mistaken identity story, a mythic journey, an epic, a forbidden love story, a Chosen One story, a magical day story, several of the above, or something else entirely?
Each one of those story types has its own particular structure and story elements besides the general key story structure elements we’ve been talking about, and Act II:1 is where you most often see those specific story elements come into play.
Here are the general story elements that you will usually find in Act II, Part 1, no matter what genre or story pattern you’re working with.
The beginning of the second act of a book or film (30 minutes or 30 script pages into a film, 100 or so pages into a book) — can often be summed up as INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD or CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.
We’ve met the hero/ine in their ORDINARY WORLD, and we know something’s missing for them, even if they’re not quite sure what, themselves. They’ve received a CALL TO ADVENTURE, and may have resisted it. But now it’s time for them to leave their comfort zone and go off into the SPECIAL WORLD to go after their heart’s desire.
This step might come in the first act, or once in a while somewhat later in the second act, but it’s generally the end or beginning of a sequence: landing in Alaska in The Proposal; flying down to Cartagena in Romancing the Stone; flying to Rio in Notorious; landing in wintry New Ulm in New in Town. As you can see from those examples, it’s often the beginning of an actual, physical journey, but the Special World can be much closer to home than that. In Meet the Parents it’s the in-laws’ house; in While You Were Sleeping it’s the warm, noisy, rambling Callaghan house; in Four Weddings and a Funeral it’s a wedding (really, a whole season of weddings!). Entering the Special World is a huge moment and deserves special weight.
Dorothy opening the door of her black and white house and stepping into Technicolor Oz is one of the most famous and graphic filmic examples … Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole is a famous literary example. The passageway to the special world might be particularly unique, like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; that between-the-numbers subway platform in the Harry Potter series; Alice again, going Through the Looking Glass; the cyclone in The Wizard of Oz; the blue pill (or was it the red pill?) in The Matrix; the tesseract in A Wrinkle in Time; the umbrella Mary Poppins uses to travel with (and indeed, you can just study the Mary Poppins books for all kinds of great examples of passageways between worlds). You may not be writing a fantasy, but it’s still useful to look at more colorful examples of the INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD moment to inspire you to capture that feeling of an adventure beginning, even in a much more realistic story.
There is often a character who serves the archetypal function of a THRESHOLD GUARDIAN or GUARDIAN AT THE GATE, who gives the hero/ine trouble or a warning at this moment of entry; it’s a much-used but often powerfully effective suspense technique that always gets the pulse racing just a little faster, which is pretty much the point of suspense. At the very least a guardian at the gate will give the hero/ine conflict in a scene.
(While we’re on the subject, I highly recommend (again) Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and John Truby’s Anatomy of Story for brilliant in-depth discussions on archetypal characters such as the Herald, Mentor, Shapeshifter, Threshold Guardian, and Trickster/Fool.)
If this has not already happened in Act One, the very early in the second act, the Hero/ine must formulate and state the PLAN. To review: we know the hero/ine’s GOAL or OUTER DESIRE by now (or if we don’t, we need to hear it, specifically). And now we need to know how the hero/ine intends to go about getting that goal. It needs to be spelled out in no uncertain terms. “Dorothy’s PLAN is to journey to the Emerald City to ask the mysterious Wizard of Oz to send her home to Kansas.” “Margaret and Andrew’s PLAN is to pretend they’re married and learn everything they can about each other during the weekend with Andrew’s family so they can pass the INS marriage test on Monday.” “Anna’s PLAN is to pay Declan to get her across Ireland to Dublin in time for her to propose to her boyfriend on Leap Day.”
Notice in the above examples that when I spell out the PLAN, I am also summing up the CENTRAL ACTION of each story: journey to Oz, pretend to be married, get across Ireland. This is so key to storytelling I wish I could somehow physically implant it in the brain of everyone who reads this book. Writers so often have no idea what the Central Action of their story is, or the Plan, and it’s the lack of these two things that is almost always where a story falls flat.
As we’ve already discussed, it’s human nature to expend the least amount of energy to get what we want. So the hero/ine’s Plan will change, constantly — as s/he first takes the absolute minimal steps to achieve her or his goal, and that minimal effort inevitably fails. So then, often reluctantly, the hero/ine has to ESCALATE (or CHANGE) THE PLAN.
Also throughout the second act, the antagonist has his or her own goal and plan, which is in direct conflict or competition with the hero/ine’s goal. We may actually see the forces of evil plotting their plots (John Grisham does this brilliantly in The Firm), or we may only see the effect of the antagonist’s plot in the continual thwarting of the hero/ine’s plans. Both techniques are effective.
This continual opposition of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.
(I’m giving that its own, bold line to make sure it sinks in.)
The hero/ine’s plans should almost always be stated (although something might be held back even from the reader/audience, as in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca — that Bogey was a sly one). The antagonist’s plans might be clearly stated or kept hidden — but the effect of his/her/their plotting should be evident. It’s good storytelling if we, the reader or audience, are able to look back on the story at the end and understand how the hero/ine’s failures were a direct result of the antagonist’s scheming.
Another important storytelling and suspense technique (and I mean suspense as it plays out in any genre, not just thrillers) is KEEPING THE HERO/INE AND ANTAGONIST IN CLOSE PROXIMITY. Think of it as a chess game: the players are in a very small, confined space, and always passing within inches of each other, whether or not they’re aware of it. They should cross paths often, even if it’s not until the end until the hero/ine and the audience understand that the antagonist has been there in the shadows all along. In Romancing the Stone, a romantic comedy/adventure, you see protagonist Joan Wilder, and villain Zolo, and comic villains Ralph and Ira, all passing within spitting distance of each other, constantly. It’s a great suspense technique in itself. In While You Were Sleeping, Lucy is always running into her apparent antagonist, Peter’s brother Jack, at the hospital, as both of them are constantly visiting Peter.
Act II:1 is also where you really need to deliver on THE PROMISE OF THE PREMISE. That is, if you’re writing a fantasy, you need to give us scenes that give us the experience of wonder and magic. If you’re writing a comedy, you better be making us laugh. If you’re writing any kind of romance, here’s where we want to see and feel the hero and heroine falling in love, even if from the outside it looks more like the two of them are trying to kill each other. Think of the EXPERIENCE you want your reader or audience to have, and make sure you’re creating that experience; it’s one of your primary jobs as a writer.
The hero/ine’s ALLIES will be introduced in the second act, if they haven’t already been introduced in Act I. One of the great pleasures of Act II, Part 1 is experiencing the BONDING between the hero/ine and the allies, the team, the mentor or the love interest — or all of the above.
In fact, there is often an entire sequence you could call ASSEMBLING THE TEAM which comes early in the second act. The hero/ine has a task and needs a group of specialists to get it done. Action movies, spy movies and caper movies very often have this step and it often lasts a whole sequence. Think of Armageddon, The Sting, Mission Impossible (I mean the great TV series, of course), The Dirty Dozen, Star Wars. But you also see the team being assembled in fantasies like The Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Lord of the Rings. One of the delights of a sequence like this is that you see a bunch of highly skilled pros in top form — or alternately, a bunch of unlikely amateurs, losers that you root for because they’re so perfectly pathetic. I had fun with this in The Harrowing; even if you’re not writing an action or caper story, which I definitely wasn’t in that book, if you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters, the techniques of an Assembling the Team sequence can be hugely helpful. The inevitable clash of personalities, the constant divaness and one-upmanship, and the reluctant bonding, make for some great scenes; it’s a lively and compelling storytelling technique that you can see at its best in Four Weddings and a Funeral (in fact almost all of the films of Richard Curtis have stellar ensembles).
There is also often a TRAINING SEQUENCE in the first half of the second act. In a mentor movie, this is a pretty obligatory sequence. Think of Karate Kid, and that priceless Meeting the Mentor/Training sequence that introduces Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.
There’s often a SERIES OF TESTS designed by the mentor (look at An Officer and a Gentleman and Silence of the Lambs). It could be the antagonist who is putting the heroine through tests (there’s a great sequence of this in While You Were Sleeping). And when there is no mentor, it may be life itself that seems to be designing the tests and challenges (well, and doesn’t life do exactly that?). Look at how Fate slyly intervenes in Groundhog Day, and in a more subtle way, in French Kiss.
Another inevitable element of the training sequence, and common to Act II:1 in general, is PLANTS AND PAYOFFS. For example, we learn that the hero/ine (and/or other members of the team) has a certain weakness in battle. That weakness will naturally have to be tested in the final battle. Yoda continually gets angry with Luke for not trusting the Force … so in his final battle with Vader, Luke’s only chance of survival is putting his entire fate in the hands of the Force he’s not sure he believes in. It’s a lovely moment of spiritual transcendence.
Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of this weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle in the third act. An absolutely beautiful example of this is in Dirty Dancing. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Baby can never, ever keep her balance in that flashy dance lift. She and Johnny attempt the lift in an early dance performance, Baby chickens out, and they cover the flub in an endearingly comic way. But in that final performance number she nails the lift, and it’s a great moment for her as a character and for the audience, quite literally uplifting.
Of course you’ll want to weave Plants and Payoffs all through the story. You can often develop these in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do one read-through just looking for places to plant and payoff. One of the most classic examples of a plant is Indy freaking out about the snake on the plane in the first few minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The plant is cleverly hidden because we think it’s just a comic moment: this big, bad hero just survived a maze of lethal booby traps and an entire tribe of warriors trying to kill him, and then he wimps out about a little old snake. But the real payoff comes way later when Sallah slides the stone slab off the entrance to the tomb and Indy shines the light down into the pit — to reveal a live mass of thousands of coiling snakes. It’s so much later in the film that we’ve completely forgotten that Indy has a pathological fear of snakes — but that’s what makes it all so funny. (Of course, it’s also a suspense builder in this case: the descent into the tomb is that much more scary because we’re feeling Indy’s revulsion.)
I very strongly encourage novelists to start watching movies for Plants and Payoffs (and I’ve included a whole section on the technique, Chapter 32). Other names for this technique are Setup/Reveal or simply FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle). Woody Allen’s film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, does this beautifully with the long buildup to the entrance of Maria Elena, the Penelope Cruz character. Penelope completely delivers on her introduction and I knew she was a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for that one. (In fact, she won.)
The Training Sequence can also involve a “Gathering the Tools” or “Gadget” Sequence. The wild gadgets and makeup were a huge part of the appeal of Mission Impossible (original TV series) and spoofed to hysterical success in Get Smart (original TV series), and these days, CSI uses the same technique to massive popular effect.
In a love story or romantic comedy, the Training Sequence or Tools Sequence is often a Shopping Sequence or a Workout Sequence or a Makeover Sequence, or a combination of all of the above. The heroine, with the help of a mentor or ally, undergoes a transformation through acquiring the most important of tools: the right clothes and shoes and hairstyle. It’s worked since Cinderella, whose personal shopper/fairy godmother considerately made house calls. See the original Arthur for the world’s loveliest example — can I have John Gielgud for my fairy godmother, please? But there are practically infinite examples: Miss Congeniality, Clueless, Maid to Order, My Fair Lady, New in Town, The Princess Diaries — we love this scene. Use it!
And the fairy tale version of Gathering the Tools is a really useful structure to look at. Remember all those tales in which the hero or heroine was innocently kind to horrible old hags or helpless animals (or even apple trees), and those creatures and old ladies gave them gifts that turned out to be magical at just the right moment? Plant/Payoff and moral lesson at the same time.
I’d also like to point out that if you happen to have both an Assembling the Team and a Training sequence in your second act, that can add up to a whole fourth of your story right there! Awesome! You’re halfway through already!
In a thriller or romantic suspense or urban fantasy or mystery — or in a fantasy like Harry Potter or The Wizard of Oz — there will be continual ATTACKS ON THE HERO/INE by the antagonist and/or forces of opposition. These will often start subtly and then increase in severity and danger. In a lighter romance these attacks can come from the antagonistic love interest, as in While You Were Sleeping, or the rival for the love interest’s hand (Made of Honor).
In a detective story, which is often also the structure of romantic suspense, paranormals, and urban fantasy, Act Two, Part One often consists very specifically of INTERVIEWING WITNESSES, FOLLOWING CLUES and LINING UP THE SUSPECTS, very often interspersed with ACTION SEQUENCES and ATTACKS ON THE HERO/INE. You will want to weave in RED HERRINGS and FALSE LEADS. And there’s another convention of the genre you’ll want to look at, which is THE DETECTIVE VOICING HIS/HER THEORY. Mysteries are by nature convoluted, because there are so many possible explanations for what’s going on, so don’t be afraid to have your detective or amateur sleuth just say what s/he’s thinking aloud. Your reader or audience will be grateful.
If you are using mystery elements, you will definitely want to break down several classics to see how these elements and sequences are handled. Murder on the Orient Express, Silence of the Lambs, Sea of Love, and Chinatown are great examples to analyze.
Also in the second act of many genres, you may be setting a TICKING CLOCK, which I’ll talk more about in an upcoming chapter on suspense techniques. Note that a clock can be set at any time in a story, not just in Act II.
And you’ll also want to be continually working the dynamic of HOPE and FEAR: you want to be clear about what your audience/reader hopes for your character and fears for your character, as I talked about in Elements of Act One.
A screenwriting trick that I strongly encourage novelists to look at is the filmmakers’ habit of STATING THE HOPE/FEAR AND STAKES, right out loud.
In The Proposal, the INS agent states the penalty for falsifying a marriage: Margaret will be deported, but Andrew faces a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison. Yikes.
In Sense and Sensibility, numerous parallels are made between Marianne and Colonel Brandon’s tragic love, who ended up basically a prostitute who died in the poorhouse. Talk about fear and stakes! Very realistic for the period.
The writers often just have the characters say flat out what we’re supposed to be afraid of. Spell it out. It works.
All of the first half of the second act is leading up to the MIDPOINT. This is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any story — a huge shift in the dynamics of the story.
It’s so important that I will let you all take a breath now and deal with it in the next post.
And if you'd like to to see more of these story elements in action, I strongly recommend that you watch at least one and much better, three of the films I break down in the workbooks, following along with my notes.
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I do full breakdowns of The Proposal, Groundhog Day, Sense and Sensibility, Romancing the Stone, Leap Year, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Sea of Love, While You Were Sleeping and New in Town in Writing Love.
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