The dreaded, the terrible, the unthinkable second act. Oh, how writers of all kinds everywhere loathe it. It’s the place your pacing, story, and steam tends to wither, and you’re left staring down the barrel of “well now what?” There is, however good news. As much as it feels insurmountable sometimes, the second act is where the meat of your story is going to happen, and it comprises about half the book (or screenplay or. . .), so it’s best you get comfortable with it and embrace the suck because no matter what you thik, it’s not going away.
While the three act strucure does, in fact, break the book into three segments, there is a tendency to imagine that it is three equally-sized segments, and that’s one of the places people fall down. The second act is, in fact, the meat and potatoes of your story with the first act being a light soup and the closer being dessert. Yeah, I went there. I’m hungry, and it’s lunchtime, so you get food metaphors. Live with it. All joking aside, the second act is the densest part of your story and it’s also the most important. The reason the second act gets no love is also because it’s the hardest to write.
The first act is your love letter to your story. You have just fallen for it and are all twitterpated and excited and in love. Think the whole spring scene in Bambi. It’s extremely exciting to write because chances are your creative juices are flowing, and it just feels wonderful because it’s all shiny and new. It’s the new puppy, the shiny new car, that moment where you realize you and this other person have a connection.
By contrast, the third act is where you’ve been married sixty years and are comfortable sitting on the porch holding hands. You have that sense of finality in a good way, and everything makes sense. It’s the dessert that’s exactly the right size and finishes out your dinner. Your favorite pair of jeans that you’ve been wearing long enough that they feel soft as butter and are stretched out juuuuust right.
Then there’s act two. It’s when you realize that the relationship you’re in is actually going to take work. The shine has worn off a little, and you realize you’re dating an actual human being with flaws. And you have to work on those flaws together before you can get anywhere. So how do you do it? Well, you could get the literary equivilant to couples’ counseling (a book coach) or you can sit down and have a frank conversation with it. Metaphorically, I mean. It won’t actually talk back, I hope.
As I said in the beginning, the second act should comprise about half your book as far as ratios. It may be a little more or a little less depending on the story and what you need, but it will be bigger than acts one and three. Without question. It’s where the majority of the conflicts surface and where it reaches its peak.
When working on your second act, your first goal is to reach the Midpoint of your story. It’s not to get to act three, but instead you’re writing for that central point in your outline or plot. The Midpoint is the moment in the plot at which the conflict between protagonist and antagonist is at its peak whether the protagonist knows it or not. So, if you’re using Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet (about which I have written before), it’s the point in the story where everything is great or everything is terrible. However, even if everything is great, the antagonist is moving in the background, and the conflict is at its climax at this point.
To use Star Wars as an example, the Midpoint of the first movie is the destruction of Alderaan. We have learned the Death Star is capable of incredible acts of destruction, an entire people has been erased, and Princess Leia is about to get executed. And, to top it off, the Milennium Falcon is caught by the Death Star’s tractor beam. Everything is terrible! The conflict here between the protagonists and antagonists is at fever pitch at this point in the story.
This is your goal with the second act. Get to the Midpoint. Keep ramping up that conflict (even if it’s somewhat in the background, and the main characters don’t necessarily know it) until you reach that space where it’s at the peak. From there, you can sprint toward act three. But your first goal will be to set things up to reach the midpoint. Which means your pre-Midpoint beats (as per the Beat Sheet) are Breaking Into Two, B-Story, and Promise of the Premise (also known as “Fun and Games).
During these parts of the story, the lead-up to the Midpoint, you can either heap troubles onto your main character or have them blossom. The B-Story often refers to romance, so falling in love here is a great lead-in (and can get you a lot of mileage in the word count), and the “fun and games” part of the story is when your main character is doing the things you set up during the beginning. They’re learning to use the Force, they’re hunting down the Macguffin (that they’ll collect or finish or acquire at the midpoint!) or they’re gathering their forces. You can use this segment to set up threads for yourself to pull on in the post-Midpoint part of act two, also. Open up new characters, have some new revelations appear, and change the game a little here and there as the character pushes on toward that big climactic moment.
The world of the post-Midpoint second act is far less happy. It’s typically much darker in tone and comprises the Bad Guys Close In, All Is Lost, and Dark Night of the Soul beats. The tone changes after the midpoint because the conflict has reached its peak point, and the antagonist is onto them. From the midpoint, it rolls downhill in terms of tone, growing darker and more desperate through this space. If you’ve set up threads in the pre-midpoint phase, now is the time to pull them and unravel the tapestry that is the main character’s life. Tear it all apart. Break up the team and send them to different places, kill somebody off (again, even, if you did it to launch into act two), and make your main character confront the shortcomings that made them balk at entering act two.
This part of the book usually feels desperate and painful, and if you’re stressed during it, that means you’re doing it right. This is where you slaughter your darlings and, moreover, you make it hurt. It can be extremely difficult to write, but it sets them up for triumph in act three. Going back to Star Wars, this is where Ben Kenobi faces Darth Vader, the main characters get stuck in the trash compacter, Ben Kenobi sacrifices himself for Luke’s escape, Luke processes the death of his mentor, Han leaves the group because his part’s done—he’s getting paid and going home, and Luke and Leia know the empire is tracking them. Time is running out on the rebellion, and everyone knows it.
Now, you can certainly have light moments through this intense and difficult act (and you should, if you can manage it, to break up tension). But collectively, this is the part where the story should feel like everything is falling apart at the seams to set you up for recovery and (hopefully) triumph in the third act.
If all of this feels like a lot that’s because it is. This act is half your book, so it contains a lot of the meat and important points of growth and change for your character. It is only because of act two that your character completes the journey that will take them into being who they need to be in order to charge through into act three. This crucible that is act two—and make no mistake, the second half of act two is a crucible—is what shapes your character into the person who can do what needs to be done in act three.
Act two gets a bad rap because it’s really the hard part of your story to get down on the page. If you go into it without a clear picture of where you’re going and how you’re getting there, you’re going to get waylaid somewhere before the Midpoint and never enter into the action-pact second half of the act. If I had to stick a pin in the place people tend to grind their gears on (myself included), it’s in the “Promise of the Premise” section just before the midpoint because our sights aren’t set on the Midpoint. They’re set on the beginning of act three which causes us to kind of gloss over a lot of this part of the book.
Recognizing that act two is, in fact, half the damn book was a bucket of cold water over me in a way. Coming to that understanding made me realize I’d been looking at this whole thing all wrong for years, and I hope that you come to that same conclusion. Act two can be just as exciting as acts one and three. Like any good entree (welcome back, food analogies), act two offers you some deep satisfaction and meets the cravings you set up in act one. It’s not act three you should be looking toward as the exciting part of the meal. Sure, it’s dessert, and everyone loves dessert, but if you just have the salad course and then a slice of pie, you’re probably going home hungry.
Give act two some love. Roast it low and slow and smother it in garlic and herbs. You’ll end up glad you did because when you finally do get to your dessert, you won’t go at it like a raccooon on a dumpster. You’ll have set up your pieces and can then watch the story unfold for you as all the hard work you put in wraps up. And act two isn’t so awful as we all like to claim it is. Sure, it takes more work, but like any good relationship, it’s worth it.