Three Act Structure: Act II

Act two is really the story, as act one was only the introduction. It consists of a series of obstacles or problems which the protagonist must overcome or solve to reach her story goal. Make the problems too easy to solve, and act two lacks any real conflict and thus drama. (Drama is conflict.) As the author, stick it to your protagonist, really drag her through the mud. Don’t play nice as god of the story. The more the protagonist struggles, the more the reader will identify with her, for what reader doesn’t understand hardship? The obstacles should also become larger and harder to overcome as the story progresses. The protagonist will become stronger and more capable after overcoming each obstacle. Thus, to truly challenge the protagonist, the problems must get harder. No use repeating the challenges of eighth grade; you’ve done that. Now you’re ready for the challenges of ninth grade. Similarly, Bilbo Baggins has outwitted Gollum and escaped his cave. No use making Bilbo encounter another riddle session with another Gollum. Why? No suspense. We know Bilbo is very capable of winning. How about making Bilbo next confront a huge, intelligent, fire-fuming dragon! Let’s see Bilbo outsmart it and escape its dark dwelling.

Plot point two falls in the middle of act two. The reason for it is to hold the reader’s attention with a major shift in plot direction, to shake the reader’s drowsiness by the this point and curtail a growing boredom with the story. The second act will nearly end with the protagonist’s dark moment, when things could not get worse for the protagonist and when the odds of achieving her goal are overwhelmingly against her. As a cruel god of this world, the author has placed the protagonist at her wit’s end, giving her no real chance to prevail. She will be crushed. The author has taken nearly everything from her. Only plot point three at the end of this act shifts the plot in a new direction, providing the protagonist a ray of hope.

Given that act two is the longest section of the overall story (the same length as acts one and two combined), luring the reader forward through it is a challenge. Two techniques are the ticking bomb and raising stakes. The ticking bomb can be literal. The villain plans to build a bomb, is building it, and is delivering it to a final destination. The timer probably won’t start its countdown until act three. James Bond had better learn of the bomb, and then find it. In act three, he had better snip the right wire before the timer reaches zero.

Or the ticking bomb can be figurative, referring to other time limits or deadlines. The protagonist must achieve his story goal within a limited amount of time. A lot of tension will be absent, if he has all the time in the world. Consider having to buy avocados for a party this evening. If you have all day, no real pressure. If the store closes in five minutes and you can’t find a parking place, a great deal of pressure. Deadlines always create stress, if you need to meet one but don’t have sufficient time. The same holds true in stories, as the reader vicariously feels the protagonist’s stress. So what else can create a deadline, besides a ticking bomb reaching zero? A train is heading through a mountain pass toward a bridge it must cross, except the bridge is ruined. The protagonist must rescue his wife from the train before it reaches the bridge. The bridge becomes the deadline. The Titanic strikes an iceberg and begins to sink. Two lovers must leave the ship in a safety boat before it entirely sinks. Total submersion is the deadline. Hence, a vehicle moving toward a destructive end creates a deadline. Other deadlines exist, and original stories find new forms of them.

Another tool for attracting a reader through act two is raising the stakes, which is just another way of saying increasing the protagonist’s potential loss. As an angry god in the story world, the author puts more and more at risk for the protagonist. Initially, John may lose his job if he fails to reach his story goal. Later, he will lose his marriage too. Harry Potter’s story goal is to defeat Voldemort. If he fails to, Voldemort will kill all non-magicians, stripping Harry of their existence. Voldemort will also oppress all magicians, which will adversely affect Harry’s friends. More of his friends may die, thereby losing them. Later, Harry has the very real risk of losing his own life. Rowling keeps stacking the ugly consequences and raising what is at stake if Harry does not fulfill his story goal. A valuable exercise for any author is to consider other forms of loss besides people and the protagonist’s own life. Although readers relate to these losses, the possibilities are not limited to these alone.

The next article addresses Act three.