The Second Act: Is the Middle of Your Story Dragging?
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Worried your book isn't exciting enough to maintain readers' interests?
Back in the day, I constantly struggled to write past the first few chapters of a manuscript. I knew who my protagonists were, what they wanted, and how their journeys would end, but how in the world did one fill in the gaps? I hadn't a clue, and because of that struggle, I quit on draft after unfinished draft, telling myself I just wasn't good enough to be a writer.
Fortunately, that all changed when I discovered the power of story structure — specifically, the 3-Act Story Structure!
The second act of this popular storytelling blueprint makes plotting the dreaded middle section of your book a breeze, or at least a heck of a lot easier than it was before. How so? Let's discuss just that in today's second installment of our blog miniseries on the 3-Act Story Structure!
An Overview of the Second Act...
Understanding the structure of the second act is vital to strong storytelling. If you don't know how to connect your story's introduction and resolution, you'll likely either bail on your unfinished manuscript or allow it to drag on foreverrrr as you work to connect unrelated, uninspired events to form a proper narrative.
Both of these situations are obviously bad news. Fortunately, they can be avoided with a simple understanding of story structure. So let's break down the second act of the 3-Act Story Structure today, beginning with a quick overview.
Act Two picks up where Act One left off and makes up the bulk of your book, running anywhere from the 15% - 25% mark of your story through the 75% - 90% mark. The act itself can be broken down into two distinct sections: before and after your story's midpoint, which occurs — of course — at roughly the 50% mark of your book.
If Act One was all about introduction, Act Two is about opposition. As your protagonist journeys to achieve their story goal, they’ll encounter a series of trials and tribulations that may include physical roadblocks, opposition from the antagonist or antagonistic force, tension with friends or helpers, and inner conflict.
But how your protagonist handles these trials and tribulations will depend on where they are in their journey. How so? Let's break down the nuances of Act Two, shall we?
The Pre-Midpoint Reactionary Hero...
After accepting the call to adventure found in the First Plot Point of your story, your protagonist has begun the journey toward achieving their story goal. But this journey is still quite new and overwhelming, and their core flaw or fear — the one that made them hesitate to begin the journey in the first place — still weighs heavy.
Such fragile confidence doesn't leave much room for your protagonist to entertain conflict. Unfortunately, conflict is on the way. Someone or something poses a threat to your protagonist, and this antagonist or antagonistic force isn't about to let your protagonist achieve their goal without a fight.
This throws your protagonist into survival mode. Instead of taking direct action against the antagonist, your protagonist focuses all their energy on merely surviving the conflicts thrown their way so they can get back to chasing down their story goal as soon as possible.
This happens time and again throughout the Pre-Midpoint Rising Action, yet despite all these trials and tribulations, your protagonist fails to recognize the consequences of their reactionary state, of just how much they've put at stake by refusing to take a stand — and that's going to come back to bite them. But first...
Check out these popular examples of Pre-Midpoint Rising ACTION:
- In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss trains to survive the Games. After they begin, she gathers supplies and runs for her life, facing many physical dangers before being discovered and hunted by a fearsome group of Tributes.
- In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Elizabeth refuses a marriage proposal from Mr. Collins and grows complacent after Mr. Wickham — a beloved new acquaintance — leaves town with his regiment. She then decides to visit her friend Charlotte and unexpectedly runs into Mr. Darcy, whom she has sworn to loathe for all of time.
- In The Faults in Our Stars by John Green, Augustus reveals that he worked with a cancer charity group to fund Hazel’s trip to Amsterdam. A visit to the ICU nearly prevents Hazel from going on the trip, but she is at last deemed well enough to travel and her overseas journey begins.
Exploring the Game-Changing Midpoint...
What will finally push your protagonist to engage with the core conflict of the story? The answer is simple: raised stakes. And those raised stakes will become apparent in a game-changing conflict between your protagonist and antagonist known as your story's Midpoint.
As the name suggests, the Midpoint takes place at roughly the 50% mark of your story and represents the biggest conflict yet between the protagonist and antagonist (or antagonistic force). It's during this conflict that the protagonist will come to realize the true dangers of the antagonist’s actions or intent, often as a result of their own failure.
And just like that, your protagonist experiences an integral shift. No longer can (or will) they ignore the threat the antagonist poses. They become actionary, ready to do anything within their power to subvert the antagonist's will, even if — in some cases — that means sacrificing the likelihood of achieving their goal.
See the Midpoint in Action. Check out these popular examples:
- In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss — having been hunted and trapped by her fellow Tributes — takes violent action to escape, an event that convinces her to stop running and start fighting to win the Games.
- In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the conflict between Elizabeth and Darcy comes to a head when Darcy confesses his love and proposes marriage. An argument ensues when Elizabeth refuses. Later that night, Darcy gives Elizabeth a letter that challenges everything she believes about him.
- In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel and Gus arrive in Amsterdam, only to discover that her favorite author is a miserable drunk who refuses to answer Hazel's questions. Hazel, distressed and angry, decides to live for what happiness she can get and finally admits her love for Gus.
The Post-Midpoint Action Hero...
Thanks to the events of your story's Midpoint, the protagonist shifts from reacting to conflict to actively pursuing it, knowing that directly opposing the antagonist (or antagonistic force) is the only way to protect themselves or others from harm. And thus, the Post-Midpoint Rising Action has arrived.
Now that your protagonist actively seeks out conflict, the pace of your story will pick up, churning ever more quickly toward the final climactic sequence. During this time, several significant instances of conflict should occur, each continuing to strengthen your protagonist's newfound confidence and resolve.
But despite all this progress, a devastating loss looms just over the horizon, one that will threaten to derail your protagonist’s entire journey — but more on that in our upcoming breakdown of Act Three! First...
Take a look at these popular examples of Post-Midpoint Rising Action:
- In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss works with Rue to destroy the Tribute’s supply cache and kills a Tribute in an effort to protect Rue. She later tracks down Peeta, fights another Tribute for medicine that will heal his injured leg, and makes sacrifices to keep them both alive.
- In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Elizabeth must challenge her opinion of Mr. Darcy after reading his letter and learning more about his true nature upon visiting his home. Meanwhile, Darcy makes a concerted effort to right his wrongs by helping Elizabeth’s family weather her sister’s scandalous marriage.
- In The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Hazel and Gus begin dating in Amsterdam before he finally confesses that his cancer has returned. Gus’s condition worsens significantly after they return to America. Hazel reclaims her love for her favorite book by using one of its quotes to show Gus that, no matter what happens, she doesn’t regret their time together.
Wrapping Up The Second Act...
Throughout Act Two, your protagonist has journeyed to achieve their goal, grown dramatically as a person, and faced extensive conflict at the hands of an antagonist or antagonistic force. But despite all this growth and change, there's one element of your protagonist's life that they've continued to suppress: their core flaw or fear.
That's all going to change as we launch into Act Three, with the antagonist dealing one final and unexpected blow that forces your protagonist to face this flaw or fear head on... or give up all hope of defeating the antagonist and achieving their dream.
Ready to dive in? Let's discuss the climactic chapters of your story in our upcoming breakdown of the third and final act of the 3-Act Story Structure. See you soon, writer!
Don't you love how the 3-Act Story Structure maps out the blueprint for a gripping story in simple, concrete story beats? Understanding the second act has helped me immensely in my storytelling journey. I hope it does the same for you!
Have any questions about how to avoid Sagging Middle Syndrome and make the most of your story's second act? Share them in the comments below or join the discussion in our Well-Storied Facebook group!