The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 6: The First Half of the Second Act
Every segment of a story offers its own challenges, but perhaps none leaves writers more bewildered than the second act. Beginnings and endings are tough to get right, but at least we have a checklist of things to accomplish. The middle of the story, on the other hand, is a yawning blank. We feel like we’re entirely on our own as we try to move our characters toward where they need to be for the ending to work. Fortunately, if we pay attention to solid story structure, we’ll find that the middle of the story has a checklist all its own.
Because the second act will be the largest part of your story, comprising roughly 50%, I will be breaking it down into three segments, which will we’ll discuss in three posts. Today, let’s take a look at the first half of the second act, which will span the distance from your first major plot point at the 25% mark to your mid-point at the 50% mark. This first half of the second act is where your characters find the time and space to react to the first major plot point. Remember how we talked about the first major plot point being definitive because it forces the character into irreversible reaction? That reaction, which will lead to another reaction and another and another, launches your second act.
What is the first half of the second act?
That first major plot point is going to hit your character hard. His life is no longer running on the same smooth path it always has, and he has to do something about it. If we look long and hard at the first major turning point in a book, we realize that it’s actually the character’s reaction to the event that changes everything and creates our story. Even when the first major plot point incorporates a life-altering tragedy (such as the murder of Benjamin Martin’s second son and the burning of his plantation in The Patriot), the characters could conceivably go on more or less as they had before. It’s their reaction (Martin’s becoming the “ghostly” militia leader who terrorizes the British army) that allows the chain of events to continue—and create a story.
For next quarter of the book, until the mid-point, your protagonist is going to be reacting to the events of the first plot point. He’s taking action, but all his actions are a response (in one form or another) to what’s happened to him. He’s trying to regain his balance, trying to figure out where his life is supposed to go next. In my medieval novel Behold the Dawn, the characters spend this part of the book on the run from the bishop who wants them dead. In Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows, the protagonist spends years reacting to the orders of his master. In Ben-Hur, the title character is forced into a reactionary role, as a galley slave, after he’s unjustly captured and sentenced in the first major plot point.
Where does the first half of the second act belong?
The first half of the second act will begin immediately after the first major plot point. Your character will act out in response to the events of the plot point in such a way that he can never go back to the way things were. The antagonistic force responds, and again the character is forced to react. The cycle repeats itself as many times and with as many variations as necessary until the story reaches the mid-point.
Examples from film and literature
Once again, let’s look to the masters to discover how the first half of the second act should be constructed to best complicate the plot, progress the character’s arc, and keep readers reading.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813):After Bingley dumps Jane and he, his sister, and Darcy leave Netherfield Park (the first major plot point), Lizzy and her sisters have no choice but to react. Jane goes to London to visit her aunt and to try discover why Bingley left. Lizzy, in the absence of Mr. Wickham, pays an extended visit to her friend Charlotte (the new Mrs. Collins). While there, she again meets Mr. Darcy and is forced to react to his attentions to her.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): George’s life could have progressed exactly as he wanted it to, even after the inciting event in which his father dies of a stroke. But when he reacts to Mr. Potter’s attempts to close down the Building & Loan by agreeing to stay in Bedford Falls and take his father’s place, his life is forever changed. For the next quarter of the movie, we find George adjusting to life in Bedford Falls. When his brother Harry (who was supposed to take George’s place in the Building & Loan) gets married and takes another job, George is again forced to react. He marries, saves the Building & Loan during the Great Crash, and opens up Bailey Park—all reactions that build upon his initial decision
to protect the Building & Loan.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977):After joining Bonzo’s Salamander Army, Ender has to struggle to stay afloat in Battle School. He learns to fight—and win—in the zero-grav war games. He makes friends and enemies and sets in motion the events that will eventually cause the standoff between him and Bonzo. Everything he does in the first half of the second act is a reaction to his presence in Battle School, in general, and in Salamander Army, in particular.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): Captain Jack Aubrey and his crew spend the first half of the second act reacting to their second sighting of the Acheron. After turning the tables on the enemy ship, Jack subsequently loses her during a tragic accident at Cape Horn and is forced to come up with new plans and new ways of managing his crew until they reach the Galapagos Islands—and the mid-point.
Now that we’ve got a good idea of what should occur during the first half of the second act and now that we’ve studied how excellent stories put this segment to work, what can glean for our own stories?
1. The characters should react promptly and strongly to the events of the first major plot point.
2. Since their lives and plans have been turned upside down (or at least significantly altered), they have to find new ways of dealing with the world in general and the main antagonistic force in particular.
3. Their reactions should be deep and varied enough to fill the next quarter of the story.
4. Their reactions must be dominos, moving the plot forward and deepening the weave of scenes, subplots, and themes.
5. Usually, this is the time in which the character will gain the skills or items necessary for his final battle in the third act.
The first half of the second act is where you deepen your development of character and your foreshadowing of important elements. Even in fast-paced action stories, this will be the slowest and most thoughtful portion of your story as you finish building the foundation your characters will stand on during the climax.