Creating Stunning Character Arcs The Second Half of the Second Act

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 11: The Second Half of the Second Act

The Second Half of the Second Act is where you cue the hero music in character arcs. Thanks to that major personal revelation at the Midpoint, the protagonist now gets it. The puzzle pieces are falling into place. The light bulbs have flashed on. He sees what he has to do to win the conflict. Bad guys, watch out!

Creating Character ArcsThe Second Half of the Second Act is where your character shifts out of the reactive phase (in which the conflict is being controlled by the antagonist) and starts moving into the active phase (in which he starts taking control of the conflict for himself). He learned the Truth at the Midpoint, and it is allowing him to start implementing the correct actions to get the desired results in his quest for the plot goal.

Sounds like the story’s already all wrapped up, doesn’t it? After all, that’s what your hero’s starting to believe.

But not so fast, Buster Brown!

This story ain’t over, not by a long shot. And all those lessons your protagonist thinks he’s now got a handle on? Well, turns out he’s only got half a handle on them. He may have figured out the Truth, but he still hasn’t relinquished his Lie—and that Lie is still the crux of the problem.

Before we dive into the nitty-gritties of this ultra-important section of your story, let’s take another quick moment to review the basics of plot structure in the Second Half of the Second Act.

  • The Second Half of the Second Act begins with a strong action from the protagonist, based on his Midpoint revelation.
  • The Second Half of the Second Act features your character moving forward confidently, taking control of the conflict.
  • The Second Half of the Second Act is where you need to assemble all your story’s playing pieces, so they’re in place for the Third Act.
  • The Second Half of the Second Act begins with the Midpoint and spans 25% of the book to the beginning of the Third Act at the 75% mark.
  • The Second Half of the Second Act features a Second Pinch Point (at the 5/8th mark), which emphasizes the antagonist’s ability to defeat the protagonist and foreshadows the final battle.

In our general estimation of the novel, the Second Half of the Second Act is the “action” phase, in which your character charges ahead, thinking he now sees clearly. But the key thing to remember about this section of story is that your character is still half blinded by the Lie. He’s charging into the conflict, thinking he now has 20/20 vision, when, really, he only has one eye open.

6 Parts of the Character Arc in the Second Half of the Second Act

We have six important elements to discuss about the Second Half of the Second Act. With a few exceptions, noted below, you have a lot of flexibility in how you place these elements within the Second Half of the Second Act. Pacing will your major consideration. As long as you’ve set up all these elements before the Third Plot Point, you’ll have everything properly in place for the big show in the Climax.

1. Allow the Character to Act in Enlightened Ways

Thanks to the lessons learned in the First Half of the Second Act and the revelation at the Midpoint, the character is now able to act in ways he wouldn’t have been able to in the first half.

Specifically, this means he now has new tools to work with, which will allow him to make significant progress toward the Thing He Wants. Before, he may have been trying to tear down the brick wall between him and his goal by using his fingernails to pry bricks loose. But now he has a pickaxe—and, even better, the knowledge of which bricks he needs to shatter in order to bring the whole wall crashing down.

The import of this is that now your character can start crashing through obstacles with greater speed. This does not mean his progress is unimpeded, but he seems to be on the right track, and he’s now much more efficient at eliminating or sidestepping the obstacles.

In What About Bob?, Bob’s acceptance by Leo’s family has empowered him, and he starts to come alive in the Second Half of the Second Act, as he charismatically salvages Leo’s disastrous Good Morning America interview, then charms the staff at the psychiatric hospital after Leo tries to involuntarily commit him.

2. Trap the Character Between the Old Lie and the New Truth

Possibly the most important thing to understand about this section of the story is that the character has not yet relinquished his Lie. The Midpoint has brought him to an understanding of the Truth, and he is busy acting on it. But he has yet to face the Lie. It’s still there, buried deep inside his subconscious.

And the result is cognitive dissonance. He’s trapped between two incompatible beliefs. This will cause him to make mistakes. He believes in the Truth; he’s acting on the Truth. But he’s not yet 100% committed to it. The Lie is holding him back, and it’s causing him some pretty severe inner conflict. One minute he acts on the Truth; the next the Lie rears its warty head, and he tries to act on it instead.

In Plot vs. Character, Jeff Gerke calls this “vacillation escalation”:

 You see the key element here, right? Vacillation. That doesn’t mean the character is weak minded. It just means that where there was once only one power in the character’s quadrant of the universe, now there are two [the Truth and the Lie—the right way and the wrong way]. Everything isn’t as settled as the hero once thought.

In Toy Story, Woody has committed to the Truth that he must rescue Buzz if he’s to return to Andy. But the Lie that fuels his jealousy and hatred of Buzz is still alive and well. He’s not helping Buzz because he wants to; he’s helping him because he has too. He drags Buzz along without ever stopping to consider him as an equal or to wonder what’s up with his sudden change in personality after Buzz sees the toy commercial on TV. Woody’s Lie continues to get in his way, even as the Truth enables him to make decided progress toward his goal.

3. Initiate the Character’s Attempts to Escape the Effects of the Lie

The character is starting to feel more and more uncomfortable with the effects of the Lie in his life. The Truth is seducing him in all its sparkly glory. He wants the Truth. So he starts moving toward it. It’s sucking him in, like a tractor beam. The Lie keeps swarming around his head, darting at his face like a mosquito. But he’s entranced by the Truth. He keeps walking toward it, batting the Lie away again and again.

At this point, if someone asked him if he still believed the Lie, he would reflexively insist, “Of course I do!” But his actions are starting to tell a different story. He’s so drawn to the Truth that, in moving toward it (and the Thing He Needs), he may even be moving away from the Thing He Wants. Often, this can be seen when a character begins to act more selflessly in the Second Half. He still wants whatever it is he Wants, but he’s so busy doing the right thing that the Thing He Wants gets shoved to the back burner.

In Three Kings, the characters still want the gold. They’re just as determined as ever to smuggle every last brick back to the States. But their actions now have an entirely different focus: they’re committed to helping the Shiite villagers get across the border to safety before they go back for their gold.

4. Contrast Your Character’s “Before and After” Mindsets

We can think of the two halves of a story as mirror images of each other. Throughout the second half, the character should be put in situations that reflect back upon those in the first half. The only difference? They’re reverse images.

I like to think of these scenes as “before and after” scenes. By purposefully placing the character in a second-half scene that is similar to a first-half scene, you’re able to give readers a dramatic representation of the progress he’s made in his personal evolution. In the first half, he was a selfish jerk who threw his fast food garbage at the homeless guy on the corner; in the second half, he looks at the guy, looks at his uneaten Big Mac—and hands it over.

Your character is (or should be) a different person in the Second Half of the Second Act. Prove it. Don’t just tell readers he’s different. Show them.

In the First Act, Thor wantonly and carelessly plunges his friends into battle and nearly gets them killed. In the Second Act, when they risk a journey to Earth to rescue him, he expresses his gratefulness to see them again but tells them they should not have endangered themselves for him. He proves how his “always attack” mindset in the first half has evolved when he admits the (comparative) weakness of his mortal body and chooses to help evacuate the townspeople rather than join the fight with his friends.

5. Provide Your Character With a False Victory

Thanks to your character’s energetic and enlightened determination in this section, the Second Act will end with what, at first glance, seems to be a great big victory. The Thing He Wants will seem to be right within his grasp. All he has to do is reach out and take it.

But that inner conflict boils up more insistently than ever. The Thing He Wants is right there. And, by golly, he still wants it with everything that’s in him. But he’s unsettled. Something about the whole thing doesn’t feel right.

If he’s going to claim the Thing He Wants under these circumstances, he will have to subject himself to the Lie’s thrall once again. He will have to sacrifice the Thing He Needs and stifle the call of the Truth. Is it worth it? After all, he’s been after the Thing He Wants ever since the beginning of the story. And here it is—his for the taking.

So what does he do? He takes it. He convinces himself the Thing He Wants is not an obstacle to the Thing He Needs. He can have the best of both worlds. Surely, the Lie and the Truth can live in harmony within him. So he grabs the Thing He Wants, and the conflict seems, if not won, then at least within sight of a victory. But, as the Third Plot Point will prove, his peace is a false one. He’s sacrificed his deeper inner need to gain a physical victory, and you gotta know he’s going to have to pay for that one.

Jane Eyre seems to get exactly what she wants when she agrees to marry Rochester. She’s found someone she loves and who adores her back. She never expected to be loved, and yet, out of the clear blue sky, all her wildest dreams are about to come true. Of course, she says yes! But, inside, she’s not at peace. She senses, almost right away, that in marrying Rochester she is once again sacrificing her independence of spirit and enslaving herself. But she wants to be with him so much that she throws the Truth right back out the window and clings to the Lie that emotional and physical servitude have to be the price for love.

6. Blatantly Demonstrate the Crux of Your Character’s Arc

Subtlety is one of the writer’s greatest weapons. But now is not the time for subtlety. Now is the time to bring out the big guns. Right before hurling your character into the maw of his personal crucible (aka the Third Act), you have to give him (and the readers) a solid validation of the Truth. Spell it out. What is the Thing He Needs?

This demonstration can come in the form of dialogue between characters, an action on the part of a character (Jane Eyre strives to gain an “independency” of money, even as she bows herself under the weight of Rochester’s love), or internal narrative. Your character needs this final tool at the end of the Second Act, because, come the Third Act, it will be his final line of defense against the Lie.

In Secondhand Lions, Uncle Hub shares with Walter a small part of the speech he likes to give young men—and it just so happens that the part he shares applies directly to Walter’s fear of putting his faith in the people he loves. Hub says, “Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in the most…. Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. …a man should believe in those things, because those are the things worth believing in.”

Further Examples of Character Arc in the Second Half of the Second Act

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Scrooge’s mindset has notably evolved by the Second Half of the Second Act. He begins to show concern (although the logic is still misguided by his Lie) for the people who are unable to purchase bread on the Sabbath. His heart goes out to Tiny Tim, and he grows “light of heart” while observing his nephew’s dinner party. He would even join in their toast if he could—but, of course, he can’t, because he is still physically bound by his Lie. A Christmas Carol is rife with “before and after” moments, sown masterfully in the First Act, and brought to fruition throughout the Second Act, as Scrooge joyfully reencounters the people he knows and whom he treated poorly in the beginning. The story is also rife with blatant demonstrations of the thematic principle, since the tale is essentially a fable from start to finish.

Cars directed by John Lasseter: After the Midpoint, Lightning’s mind has been opened. He views Radiator Springs in a new light and is rewarded with discovery after discovery—Doc’s three Piston Cup victories and Miss Sally’s reasons for leaving behind the fast lane. Doc blatantly challenges him, “When is the last time you cared about something except yourself, hot rod? You name me one time…. These are good folk around here, who care about one another. I don’t want ’em depending on someone they can’t count on.” Lightning responds with a string of genuinely kind and generous actions, first fixing the road he ruined, then visiting all the townsfolks’ shops. He still wants to get to California for the tiebreaker race, but, just at the moment, he’s a little distracted with how great the Truth feels here in Radiator Springs.

Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Arc in the Second Half of the Second Act

1. How is your character starting to take control of the conflict after the Midpoint?

2. How is the revelation at the Midpoint allowing your character to see the conflict in a new light?

3. What “tools” has the Midpoint revelation given your character that make him more effective in confronting the antagonist?

4. How is your character still clinging to his Lie?

5. How is his new Truth causing friction with his old Lie?

6. How is your character still out of sync with the Truth?

7. How does your character’s mindset still support the Lie?

8. How do his actions demonstrate his growing belief in the Truth?

9. How can you use a “before and after” scene to prove how your character is different from who he was in the first half of the story?

10. What false victory will end the Second Act? How has your character compromised the Truth in order to (seemingly) gain the Thing He Wants?

11. How have you blatantly demonstrated the Truth somewhere in the Second Half of the Second Act?

On its surface, the Second Half of the Second Act will seem comparatively great for your character. Everything is going his way. But, even more importantly, he’s learning the value of implementing the Truth in his life. He sees the Truth in action and begins to value it—probably without even realizing it—more than he values the Thing He Wants. Out of habit as much as anything, he’s going to betray that Truth at the end of the Second Act, but he’s already too far gone on the Truth to ever abandon it. He’s already a changed person—and when he reaches the Third Plot Point, he’ll prove it.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll be talking about your character’s arc in the Third Plot Point.

Read Previous Posts in This Series:

Part 1: Can You Structure Character?

Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes

Part 3: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

Part 4: Your Character’s Ghost

Part 5: The Characteristic Moment

Part 6: The Normal World

Part 7: The First Act

Part 8: The First Plot Point

Part 9: The First Half of the Second Act

Part 10: The Midpoint

Tell me your opinion: In your stories, how are the character arcs allowing the protagonists to deal with the conflict more effectively?

Creating Stunning Character Arcs The Second Half of the Second Act

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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. My main character’s Lie is that he is capable of horrible acts – the wound is a dream he had at a young age of him burning down a building (most of his dreams are predictions of the future). As I plan to make my novel part of a series, I want to break this down step by step – at the end of the first book, he will realise that he is a good person, but he still needs constant reassurance of the fact. In the second, he will realise that a clean conscience is better than a good reputation, and get rid of his need for praise, but still battles with doing the right thing in an increasingly unclear world. In the second, he will be horrified to see his dream come true, but realises that there might not be a right answer.

    In the second book he wants praise, in the third clarity, but I can’t tell what he wants in the first book! I’m also worried that the Lies are too similar, but I have to make it flow. :/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In a series, I wouldn’t worry too much about the similarities of the Lies – since, really, they’re all facets of the same Lie.

  2. Hi Katie!

    Just dropped by to tell you how much I’m enjoying this series of posts. I own both of your writer’s books (Structuring & Outlining), and this series is coming at a good time for me as I’m just finishing the outline of my third book in a trilogy (middle grade action-adventure sci-fi).

    The points you make here are as good as those made in ‘Structuring Your Novel’ – will they be incorporated into the forthcoming workbook; or “Structuring – The Sequel!”?! I’d love to have them all together in a readable reference (without having to go online to do that).

    Thanks again for all the effort – it is definitely contributing to a better story at my end (and gives points to work on in revision of first draft), for sure 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The plan is for my next writing how-to book to be about characters (shooting for a pub date of 2016), and this info will definitely be a part of that. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series!

  3. You and others make such good points about the two halves of Act 2 and the differences between them that I’m starting to wonder why we even consider Act 2 a single act at all? There are clearly four distinct phases in a properly structured story. There are clearly three Plot Points that mark the major shifts between these phases. Why aren’t more people talking about Four-Act structure? Based on this series and other things I’ve read, I’m beginning to plot my stories in terms of four acts. It just makes more sense to me to say 1,2,3,4 than to say 1, 2a, 2b, 3. I love the symmetry of 3 and all, but it’s hard to deny the power of the midpoint, and if the two other plot points mark act divisions, why doesn’t the midpoint? I would love to hear other people’s opinions about this, if anyone has one. But to me, this structure–which I wholeheartedly endorse–is really a Four-Act structure. I’ve encountered this both through the lens of character (as it is in this series), and through the lens of plot, and it seems to me that any acknowledgement of the midpoint–whether plot-related or character-related–makes it simpler and cleaner to think in terms of four acts, not three.

    • In essence, my question is: What holds Act 2 together at all?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is a spot-on observation. Essentially, the classic three-act structure *does* divide the story into quarters, so the “three-act” designation is arbitrary to some extent. What *does* define that second act as an entity from itself, separate from the first and third acts, is that it is the meat of the story, the development. This is true for both halves of the second act, although obviously each half has its own responsibilities. So: the first act is the setup; the second act is the development; the third act is the resolution.

      But, like you, I tend to think of the story in quarters instead of lopsided thirds, whenever I’m plotting.

  4. Hello, Kate. Thank you so much for sharing these secrets to structure and character arc. While many discussions of structure discuss the whats and hows, they all too frequently leave out the whys. I have long been trying to better understand that aspect of storytelling, and my eyes were opened wide when I recently came across your site.

    I was wondering if you would be so kind as to answer a question about plotting out an arc for a main character that is not physically introduced until Act 2 (although he is mentioned and alluded to in Act 1, even responding by letter to a summons with a resounding no, his refusal of the call.)

    After my protagonist, who is the impact character undergoing a flat arc, suffers a serious defeat in battle, he washes up on the shore of the main character at the start of Act Two. The main character will be the one going through the change arc, and I’m wondering where to place his progression so I don’t end up giving short shrift to any section of his arc.

    Should I still look to align the character arc to the Plot, Mid, Pinch Points, etc., or would I be better served by pushing things back so that his First plot Point takes place at the First Pinch Point (and so on and so forth)?

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts, and thanks again for this outstanding resource that you’ve provided to all aspiring writers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hmm, good question. If I were in your shoes, I’d really have to “feel” it out. What strikes me as a good approach would be to let the letter/refusal stand as this character’s Inciting Event, with the protagonist’s arrival as the First Plot Point. You may have to squash some of the following beats to get everything to fit and feel properly paced–and to harmonize with the protag’s arc–but I think it’s definitely doable.

  5. I have a before and after scenario in mind where my nerdish character initially speaks for and ridicules the other people at a crime scene, but after a lot of pain lets them speak, and patiently explains why they are wrong, but encourages them slightly (I do not make him completely human, just enough to ‘live life’).

    By allowing others’ input, he grows closer in his relationship. The antagonist lets him win, but refuses to do so until he becomes emotionally superior.

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