The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 8: The Second Half of the Second Act
Now that we’ve passed the midpoint, things are starting to heat up in our story. The second half of the second act is where your plot really starts popping. Your main character caps the dramatic event at the midpoint with his decision to stop reacting and start acting. Almost always, this is born of a personal revelation, even if the character can’t yet quite put it into concrete terms. As of the midpoint, he’s becoming someone new. He’s realizing his full power and stretching his wings to discover what he can do with that power. His crippling inner problems are still getting in the way, but, at the very least, he’s realizing that he has to do something either about or in spite of them.
Because the second half of the second act will lead right into the slugfest of the climax, this is the author’s last chance to get all his playing pieces into position. We have to set up the line of dominoes that will knock into the final major plot point at the 75% mark, and we do that by creating a series of actions from the main character. Although he’s not likely to be in control of the situation, he’s at least moving forward and calling a few shots of his own, instead of taking it and taking it from the antagonistic force.
What is the second half of the second act?
The second half of the second act begins (just as the first half did) with a strong action from the character. He rises from the drama and trauma of the midpoint and grits his teeth. He immediately responds with an action that fights back. This can be a direct response to the antagonist, such as Kel’s intensified attacks on the nobles in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn; an awakening from ignorance, such as Prince Dastan’s search for the truth about the dagger in Prince of Persia; an intensified drive toward the primary goal, such as the beginning of the Sparta Tournament in Warrior; or an inner squaring of the shoulders, such as the return of the militia after an especially brutal attack by the British, in The Patriot.
The series of actions in the second half of the second act mirrors the series of reactions in the first half. In a sense, of course, the character is still reacting (if you peer too closely at the line between action and reaction, it can become blurry very quickly). But the emphasis is on his own inner purpose now, rather than his need to raise his shields and duck his head. He’s not in control of his destiny, but at least now he’s trying to do something about his lack of control.
Where does the second half of the second act belong?
The second half of the second act begins with the midpoint and spans 25% of the book to the beginning of the climax at the 75% mark. This is a good chunk of the book, and the character needs every bit of that space to get himself in gear. He has lessons to learn and problems to face, so that he’ll be ready to confront the antagonistic forces (both inner and outer) in the climax. Don’t skimp on this part of the story. But also be wary of having him change too much after the midpoint. His final personal crisis will occur in the climax, and you don’t want to lessen the impact of that moment by allowing the character to fix himself up too soon. Use this part of the book to prep him for his final battle and foreshadow the inner demons he’ll have to face.
Examples from film and literature
As always, the masterpieces of talented storytellers can teach us boatloads about how to apply this important element of structure to our own stories. Let’s take a look at our chosen books and movies.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): After being pushed completely off balance by Darcy’s proposal and subsequent justification of his other supposed misdeeds, Lizzy spends the second half of the second act realizing she’s misjudged him and that, indeed, she’s falling in love with him. Her actions in this segment take place more on an internal platform than an external one. She is actively realizing her mistakes and owning up to them (first privately and then more or less publicly in her attempts to treat him with respect and kindness when they accidentally meet at Pemberley). This is a good example of how the second half of the second act can be used primarily as a time of catalytic epiphany and self-realization.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): After spurning Old Man Potter’s attempts to buy him off, George comes to grips with his life in Bedford Falls and moves forward. He and Mary have four children, and he remains home during World War II (“4F on account of his ear”) and continues to protect his town from Potter’s avarice and manipulation. Thanks to his renewed commitment to the Bailey Building & Loan, in the aftermath of Potter’s failed attempts to corrupt him, George is able to put his life into pretty good order during this second half of the story. Of course, viewers already know this is only the calm before the storm of the climax.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): After having the misfit Dragon Army dumped on him at the midpoint, Ender spends the second half of the second act rising to the challenge. He knows he’s been put at an unfair disadvantage, and he knows Graff and the other instructors are deliberately testing him by pitting him against other, more powerful students. But instead of caving to the pressure, Ender squares his shoulders and rises to the challenge. Thanks to his refusal to stand down, Dragon Army becomes the best army in Battle School.
Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): After finally finding himself in a position to track down the Acheron, Captain Jack Aubrey’s series of actions in the second half of the second act take him down a surprising road, when his best friend, surgeon and spy Stephen Maturin, is accidentally shot. For the first time in the film, Jack chooses to break free of his obsessive pursuit of the Acheron, in order to take Stephen to dry land where he can be operated on in order to save his life.
The second half of the second act offers more possibilities for variation than perhaps any other segment of structure in the story (and that’s saying a lot!). Let’s reexamine the possibilities, so we can then apply them to our own stories.
1. The second half of the second act begins with the dramatic turning point at the 50% mark.
2. The midpoint begins a series of actions on the main character’s part. Even though he’s likely still reacting in a sense, he’s no longer reacting from a place of ignorance. He’s no longer entirely on the defensive without the ability to attack in his own right.
3. This segment is often a place of revelation for the main character. He sees things—himself as much as the antagonist—more clearly after the midpoint.
4. His actions can be as much a period of inner revelations as actual aggression against the antagonist. Sometimes his attack on the antagonist is actually nothing more than a complete and deliberate ignoring of the antagonist.
5. Some of his problems will be resolved in this section, but the major problems—both inner and outer—will remain to be solved during the climax. Often, the problems that are solved in this section only serve to exacerbate or bring clearer focus to the true underlying conflicts.
The second half of the second act begins your race to the climax. This is your last chance to get everything set up for the excitement of the climax. Pay particular attention to your character’s inner transformation and his relationships with other key characters. After that, buckle your seat belt, because here comes the climax!