how to write a flat character arc the second act

How to Write a Flat Character Arc, Pt. 2: The Second Act

The Second Act is the beating heart of your story—and that’s just as true in a flat character arc as it is in a change arc. The Second Act is all about loosing the character into an unsettled world. He is forced to react to the major event at the First Plot Point and grapple with the Lie. But then everything changes at the Midpoint, when new knowledge about himself and/or the world allows him to start taking action by going on the offensive.

In comparison to a positive change arc, the difference in a flat character arc’s Second Act is that the emphasis is not on the protagonist’s discovering and confronting his own inner misconceptions. Rather, the Second Act in a flat arc is where he will be discovering the Lie embedded in the world around him. He will have to figure out, first, whether or not he wants to take on that Lie, and, second, how he can best use his Truth to obtain his goal, triumph over the antagonistic force, and uproot the Lie from the lives of those around him.

In Character Arcs, Jordan McCollum divides the flat arc into three sections: “the Good Beginning, the Tempting Middle, [and] the Ending.” The Second Act is the Tempting Middle. Your character may already wield the Truth, but the Second Act will see him placed under siege by the Lie. He will have every reason to take the easy way out and surrender his Truth to that Lie, or perhaps even just pack up his Truth and walk away from the Lie without ever trying to confront it. In short, just because your character’s arc is flat doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.

The First Plot Point

This major scene is the first turning point in your story. It marks the end of the First Act and the beginning of the Second. It’s that first “doorway,” through which your character must walk. He will leave the Normal World of the First Act and irrevocably enter the new “adventure” world of the story.

The First Plot Point functions very similarly in both change and flat arcs. It will be a major (probably catastrophic) event that will upend your character’s world and force him into a reaction that will pit his personal Truth directly against the world’s Lie.

Up to this point, he will have been seeking to avoid a confrontation. Maybe he just plain doesn’t want to deal with the conflict. The world’s going to hell in a handbasket, but it’s not his fight. Or it could be that he spent the First Act wanting to overcome the Lie, but hoping it could be done diplomatically and peacefully, without a head-on confrontation. In either case, the First Plot Point will be a shocking event that suddenly makes the world’s external problems very personal to the protagonist.

The First Half of the Second Act

After the world-rocking events of the First Plot Point, the protagonist has to make the decision to actively engage the Lie. He knows he already possesses the necessary weapon—the Truth—and he now realizes he has a responsibility to wield it. His direct plot goal may not be “overcome the Lie,” but whatever he’s after will require the destruction of the Lie if he’s going to obtain it.

In the First Half of the Second Act, your protagonist is still going to be in reaction mode. This does not mean he’s passive; it just means he’s not in control of the conflict—the antagonist force is. Usually, the reason the character is not in control is because he lacks important information. By this point, he obviously knows there’s a major problem in the world around him, and he knows he has to do something to overcome it. But he probably doesn’t yet know the extent of that problem. He doesn’t yet know how deep the Lie’s rabbit hole goes.

In contrast to the positive change arc, the character is going to spend the First Half of the Second Act getting punished for believing the Truth. Everyone around him will try to convince him he’s an idiot for opposing the Lie. His devotion to the Truth is going to be tested, and for these tests to have any teeth, the character must become less than certain about the Truth. He needs to seriously consider whether he’s actually following the Truth after all. Could it be that he’s wrong and everyone else is right? Maybe the Truth is really a Lie, and the Lie is really the Truth! For anywhere from a few moments to a few scenes, he’s not quite certain what to believe. But he never fully turns his back on the Truth.

The Midpoint

The Midpoint is your story’s centerpiece. It’s a reversal caused by an important revelation. Something happens that provides the protagonist with new information. Suddenly, all the questions from the first half begin to find answers. He figures out what the antagonistic force is really up to and/or capable of, and he sees for the first time how corrupted and powerful the Lie really is.

This is all going to seem a little depressing on the surface, since the protagonist’s Truth suddenly seems like a tiny weapon in comparison to that huge Lie he’s trying to fight. But the hero isn’t depressed (well, maybe for a minute or two). Rather, he’s suddenly afire with new determination. Now everything makes sense. His doubt about whether or not he’s following the right course dissipates, and he becomes 100% committed to doing whatever he must to triumph over the Lie.

Just as in the positive change arc, the Midpoint and its revelations must include a “moment of grace.” The difference here is that this redemptive moment of insight and new resolve isn’t offered to the protagonist. Instead, the protagonist (figuratively or literally) offers it to the world around him. Allies who previously resisted the Truth (and who will be, essentially, following positive change arcs of their own) will begin to see the light. Enemies (who are following negative arcs) will scoff and toss the Truth’s offered grace right back into the protagonist’s face.

The Second Half of the Second Act

The Midpoint has changed everything for the protagonist. His doubts have been, for the most part, swept aside. He knows what he’s up against, and he knows what he has to do to confront the Lie. It’s a longshot, of course (all good stories are, essentially, underdog stories), but he’s willing to die trying if he has to.

If the First Half of the Second Act is about the protagonist’s reacting, the Second Half is about his taking action. My editor Cathi-Lyn Dyck comments:

 The types of actions or non-actions the character takes will be directly related to which act of the story she’s in. In Act 1, her reactions and decisions will be based on normal life as she’s known it till now. [In] Act 2a, individual reactions and decisions arise from her ongoing reaction to the first plot point. [In] Act 2b, they arise from how the midpoint revelation changes her perspective. And [in] Act 3, [they arise] from the intention to finally resolve the [dramatic question].

Now that the protagonist has seen the true power of the Lie, he’s also seen its weakness (even if it’s just a tiny one), and he’s determined to exploit it. His aggressive actions in this section will dramatically affect the world around him. Even as the Lie bears down hard, the world is beginning to awaken to the true horror of the belief they’ve been cultivating all story long. They’re starting to rally to the protagonist’s cause, and the antagonistic force is starting to sweat. The Second Act will end with what seems to be a definitive victory on the protagonist’s part—but it’s really just a set-up for what will be his greatest defeat yet at the Third Plot Point.

How Does the Second Act Manifest in a Flat Character Arc?

In the Second Act, your flat character arc could manifest as it does in the following examples:

  • When the First Plot Point plants Katniss Everdeen squarely in enemy territory—Capitol City–she is hurtled, against her will, into the world of the Lie. She doesn’t care so much about defeating the Lie. She just cares about surviving, even if it means taking out fellow tribute Peeta. What she doesn’t yet fully comprehend is that, in order to survive, she’s going to have to take down the world of the Lie first. She only begins to fully realize this at the Midpoint, when Peeta saves her after the tracker jacker attack, and she puts aside even the possibility of playing President Snow’s game: she won’t kill Peeta. The world reflects this back to her when the Gamemaker announces that two tributes from the same district can share the victory. She finds a wounded Peeta and starts making plans to save both their lives. (The Hunger Games)
  • Ginger the chicken discovers an opportunity for escape when circus performer Rocky crash lands inside the pen. She coerces him into supposedly helping her teach the other chickens how to fly, even though no one else understands the necessity of escaping. At the Midpoint, Ginger realizes Mrs. Tweedy is going to kill them all and finally convinces the others that they if they don’t “escape or die trying,” they’re all going to die anyway. Rocky (who is a change-arc character) makes the most prominent shift away from the Lie and begins seriously trying to help Ginger and the others. (Chicken Run)
  • Nathaniel’s Normal World collides with the world of the Lie when he rescues Cora and Alice Munro from Magua’s ambush. He has no desire to try to use his Truth to change the exterior world of the British Army, but then he discovers his friends have been murdered by Indians allied with the French. He commits to returning the sisters to their soldier father at Ft. William Henry, in order to warn the other colonists fighting with the British. After Nathaniel helps the colonists desert back to their families, the antagonist shows the true depth of the Lie by arresting him at the Midpoint. As a result, the world around Nathaniel begins to shift toward the Truth—as is most evident in Cora’s changed mindset, but also, more subtly, in Duncan’s. (The Last of the Mohicans)
  • After Maximus refuses to join hands with the patricide Commodus, his wife and son are murdered in a shocking First Plot Point and Maximus himself is enslaved as a gladiator. He stumbles through the First Half of the Second Act, apathetic to life. Even though he is disgusted by the blood he is forced to spill for the sake of entertainment, he goes through a period in which he struggles to find the strength and conviction to fight for his Truth. All that changes at the Midpoint when he is sent to fight in Rome and is able to tell Commodus, to his face, that he won’t rest until he can remove him from his father’s throne. His motives are further cleared up and brought back into alignment with the Truth when he agrees to help Lucilla take down Commodus—not for the sake of vengeance, but for Rome’s peace and security. Throughout the Second Half of the Second Act, he victoriously battles his way through Commodus’s desperate attempts to kill him. With every victory, he rallies the people nearer to his cause. (Gladiator)
  • After Elinor Dashwood and her family end up in a tiny Devonshire cottage, and Marianne meets both her would-be suitors—the upright Colonel Brandon and the passionate Willoughby—Elinor spends most of the First Half of the Second Act struggling to help her emotional family cope. Her sensible approach is brought under siege when the man she loves refuses to ask for her hand, even after dropping in for a strange visit. The Midpoint throws her world topsy-turvy and cements the importance of her Truth when Willoughby abruptly dumps a hysterical Marianne and leaves the neighborhood without explanation. Even amidst her own heartbreak, Elinor steadily guides her family through the tempest of the Second Half of the Second Act. (Sense & Sensibility)
  • Cap’s indecision about his loyalty to SHIELD ends once and for all when Nick Fury is shot by his own people. From that moment on, Cap is committed to following his own principles and figuring out what’s really going on at SHIELD—especially after SHIELD tries to kill him and then brands him a fugitive. He goes on the run and chases the Lie to its rabbit hole. This is where, at the Midpoint, he finally realizes the full extent of SHIELD’s corruption and their plan to kill millions of people “in the name of freedom.” At that point, he has everything to lose and little chance of winning, but his outlook brightens because “I just like to know who I’m fighting.” His Truth’s effect on the Lie is particularly evident in Black Widow’s change of attitude toward both him and SHIELD in the Second Half of the Second Act. (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Further Examples of the Second Act in a Flat Character Arc

True Grit by Charles Portis: Mattie takes the Lie-ridden world by storm when she hires Rooster Cogburn—the “meanest” marshal—to help her go after her father’s murderer Tom Chaney. In this instance, Mattie’s strong Truth-driven decision is actually more dramatic than the preceding challenge to her Truth: the law establishment’s refusal to do anything about her father’s murder. Mattie is an especially strong catalyst character, who personally drives practically every major moment in the story. She spends the First Half of the Second Act bearing up under Rooster’s and the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf’s alternately self-centered and well-meaning attempts to sway her from her mission. At the Midpoint, she doggedly accompanies the men into the Indian Nation, despite their insistence that she remain behind. Her determination forces them into a moment of grace where they recognize the resilience of her Truth and reluctantly welcome her as an ally. The action in the Second Half of the Second Act is primarily external, as they track down the outlaw gang with whom Chaney is running. But the character arc plays out steadily, as Mattie slowly but surely bends the lawmen into a better understanding of both her and her Truth.

Batman Begins directed by Christopher Nolan: After fully committing himself to his new role by literally burning his bridges behind him, Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham. Most of the First Half of the Second Act revolves around his external activities in preparing his Batman persona and researching crime lord Carmine Falcone’s plans. But his Truth is tested by pretty much everyone—via Alfred’s concerns, Rachel’s doubt, and even Gordon’s initial skepticism. At the Midpoint, he crashes into the heart of the drug operation Falcone is running under Dr. Crane’s direction and dramatically reveals his “sign” to the city. From here on out, he’s not only committed to the Truth, he is, in essence, the Truth. Gordon rallies to his cause, and the city—including Rachel—begins to believe he’s capable of taking down the Lie. He still faces opposition, most notably when Alfred warns him he’s in danger of megalomania if he gets “lost inside this monster of yours.” This is a great example of how a well-played flat arc keeps readers on their toes: they’re never 100% sure the protagonist is right. Even the protagonist himself isn’t 100% sure. Maybe he’s headed down the wrong path. Maybe his Truth isn’t so true. Maybe he’s veering away from the Truth without knowing it. But, just as the protagonist should in a true flat arc, Bruce manages to continue walking the tightrope of his Truth, if only just barely.

Questions to Ask About the Second Act in a Flat Character Arc

1. How does the First Plot Point force your character into a direct confrontation with the Lie?

2. Does he willingly confront the Lie—or does he confront it only because he has no other choice?

3. How will the character be tempted away from his Truth?

4. How close will he come to actually abandoning the Truth and embracing the Lie?

5. What allies will initially resist his devotion to the Truth?

6. How will those allies eventually be changed by the Truth?

7. How will his enemies resist his Truth?

8. How will those enemies become even more entrenched in the Lie as a result?

9. Is the character’s main plot goal directly related to defeating the Lie in the world around him?

10. If not, why will he have to overcome the Lie in order to reach his main plot goal?

11. What doesn’t the character understand about the Lie in the first half of the story?

12. What important information will he learn about the Lie and the antagonistic force at the Midpoint?

13. How can he offer a “moment of grace,” via his Truth, either generally to the world around him or specifically to his allies and/or the antagonist?

14. At the Midpoint, what weakness does the protagonist find in the Lie that he can exploit in the second half?

The reason many flat arcs are perceived as “plot-heavy” is that their emphasis is upon the changes in the world around the protagonist. But it is the protagonist‘s actions in support of his Truth that cause those changes. More importantly, his Truth-driven actions in the Second Act will begin to change the supporting characters. Thanks to his flat arc, they will be following positive or negative change arcs of their own.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll be talking about the flat character arc in the Third Act.

Read Previous Posts in This Series: Part 1: The First Act

Tell me your opinion: What discovery does the character make about the Lie at the Midpoint in your flat character arc?

how to write a flat character arc the second act

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. thomas h cullen says:

    I’m trying hard – attempting to apply this narrative “formula” of yours to The Representative. (Yet more great intelligence shown, on your part by the way).

    Not just the present, but the whole timeline represented by the text in fact, Croyan’s aware:

    All his adult life, he’ll have been aware of the Truth; it’s merely that the story’s crisis situation enables him to finally confront the Lie.

    His is the greatest of Truths – and the greatest of confrontations!

    • I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a formula – just foundational story principles that show up time and again in flat character arcs.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        I take that on board.

        As much as it can be, The Representative I’d label as not a story:

        Just as much a presentation, showing all the components that make up the concerned situation.

        The Representative – 50/50, presentation and story.

  2. Wow, I’m really impressed with this mini-series so far. Listened to the first part last night (love the podcasts–great way for people to catch up if they’re too busy to sit down and read a lengthy post like this!)

    I think the lie circulating in my current WIP is that my MC’s powers can automatically make everyone whole again. My MC isn’t even 100% sure about this, but (when I get to writing it!) the midpoint will prove that this isn’t always the case. It will be a difficult thing for both her and those she’s tried to help to deal with, but it’ll be interesting to see her come out the other side, stronger for it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most stories deal with both a surface Lie and a deeper Lie. The surface Lie usually has to do with the exterior plot elements – such as your character’s superpowers and what they can or cannot do. But there’s almost always a deeper Lie under the surface, one that’s more pertinent to the story’s emotional and spiritual battle. For instance, in a story like this, the Lie might be that the world thinks they have a *right* to be saved by her powers, or that it’s all right to sacrifice a gifted individual for the good of many.

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