In the structure of character arcs, the First Half of the Second Act is where your character ventures (or is thrust) into uncharted territory—and gets lost. He may not quite see it that way himself, but this is where he begins to discover that the old rules (the Lie He Believes) no longer apply.
This puts him in a bit of a tailspin. He scrambles to react to the events of the First Plot Point, while chasing as hard as ever after the Thing He Wants. He’s reactive in the sense that he’s at the mercy of the antagonistic force; he is not in control of the conflict. But don’t confuse reactivity with passivity. Your character will be very active in his pursuit of his goals during this time, and he’ll be learning which methods of achieving that goal are ineffective. This new knowledge will, in turn, lay the groundwork for helping him begin to realize how his belief in the Lie is holding him back.
The Second Act is the largest part of your story, comprising roughly 50%–which is why I like to break it down into three parts: the First Half of the Second Act, the Midpoint, and the Second Half of the Second Act. We’ll discuss the Midpoint and the Second Half in future posts. For now, let’s take a moment to review the structural principles of the First Half of the Second Act:
- The First Half of the Second Act is where your characters react to the First Plot Point.
- The First Half of the Second Act shows your character trying to regain his balance and figure out how to survive in this new world in which he finds himself.
- The First Half of the Second Act features a Pinch Point (at the 3/8th mark), in which the antagonist flexes his muscles and reminds readers what the protagonist is up against.
- The First Half of the Second Act begins immediately after the First Plot Point and will continue until the Midpoint at the 50% mark.
Speaking generally, you can divide your book into two halves. The first half is about the character reacting to events; the second is about him taking action. This is nowhere clearer than in the First Half of the Second Act, as the true burden of the character’s Lie finally begins to emerge.
4 Parts of the Character Arc in the First Half of the Second Act
As you structure your character’s arc in the First Half of the Second Act, be sure to incorporate the following four landmarks. There is no firm timing for any of these; as long as they take place before the Midpoint, you’ll have everything in place for the next big turning point in your character’s development.
1. Provide the Character With Tools to Overcome His Lie
After the First Plot Point shakes up your character’s Normal World, he’s going to be in a vulnerable state. And that means he’s primed to receive help in overcoming his Lie. He won’t be given all the tools yet, but he will receive at least a nail. He receives one piece of the puzzle. Or we might think of it as the first rung into the ladder he will use to scale the wall of the Lie.
This first tool will come in the form of information on how to overcome the Lie. Often, it will result from another character (often a mentor or guardian archetype) offering advice. The First Half of the Second Act is frequently where the protagonist will spend time training or learning the skills necessary to battle the antagonist in the Climax. At the same time he’s learning necessary physical skills, he should also be learning Truths to combat his Lie.
These truths should be applicable and not just theoretical. For instance, if your character’s Lie is “he travels fastest who travels alone,” then the tools he’s receiving in this section shouldn’t be just someone else telling him, “Many hands make light work.” Rather, he should be given practicable opportunities to learn the Truth by seeing it in action. In other words, show, don’t tell. Or as Stanley Williams expounds in The Moral Premise:
Keep your words visual. It’s easy to [write a scene] that sounds right, but the next morning it becomes obvious that you’re not describing a physical action or visual behavior, but a mental attitude. Attitudes are okay to begin with, but before you go much further, you must come up with an action the audience can see.
In Toy Story, Bo Peep encourages a marginalized (and slightly hysterical) Woody by telling him, “I know Andy’s excited about Buzz, but you know he’ll always have a special place for you.”
2. Show the Protagonist Encountering Difficulties in Pursuing His Lie
As of the First Plot Point, the world around the protagonist has changed. But he still hasn’t caught up. The light of Truth may be glimmering at the edge of his vision, but he isn’t consciously aware of it yet. He has yet to even recognize there is a Lie to overcome. He’s still trying to pursue business as usual. He’s reacting to new events in the same ol’ way—and it’s not working.
Throughout the Second Act, the character will be, in essence, punished for acting according to his Lie. Where before his Lie seemed to empower him and get him what he wanted, his Lie now begins to increasingly get in his way. It’s becoming a stumbling block in his progress toward, not just the Thing He Needs, but even the Thing He Wants—his overall plot goal. But he keeps at it, because he doesn’t yet realize what’s going on. In Character Arcs, Jordan McCollum explains,
…the character will fail without understanding why—perhaps she denies the problem exists.
The result of this punishment is an evolution of tactics. The character may not yet be able to recognize the underlying Lie that is causing his failures. But he will recognize he’s failing, and he’ll start seeking out ways to adapt his behavior. Williams again:
…during Act 2A a character’s Behavior Before traits [actions and attitudes based on the Lie] become more difficult for that character to embrace and initiate. This challenge to his practiced vice sets the character up to consider a different method that the Moment of Grace [Midpoint] will offer.
For example, after Thor finds himself banished to Earth, his old attitude as an arrogant immortal has him attempting to muscle his way to authority—and failing in a variety of humiliating ways (getting tasered, sedated, and run over).
3. Move the Character Closer to What He Wants and Farther From What He Needs
At this point, the character is still hellbent on getting his hands on the Thing He Wants. He’s convinced it’s going to solve all his problems, and he desires it with a single-minded fanaticism. What he doesn’t realize as he races toward his goal is that the closer he gets to the Thing He Wants, the farther it’s pushing him away from the Thing He Needs, if only because he believes the Thing He Wants negates the necessity for the Thing He Needs.
Despite the problems engendered by his faulty, Lie-based methods, your character will still make definite progress toward his goal in this section. In Jon Turteltaub’s The Kid, Russ seems to have gotten rid of his young doppelganger. In Pete Docter’s Monsters, Inc., Sully and Mike have a plan for sending Boo home. In Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, Wade is leading the scoreboard and winning the girl.
But these seeming advances are just whitewash on top of worm-eaten wood. These surface victories are blinding the character to the true nature of his inner conflict. The lure of the Thing He Wants is pulling him toward his destruction. He may be on his way winning the outer conflict, but, if he keeps heading down this path, he’s destined to lose his inner battle.
In Three Kings, the characters find the gold, steal it, and head out of town. They’ve got what they want, but they’re leaving an entire village at the mercy of enemy soldiers, making them no better than the men they’ve risked their lives fighting.
4. Give the Character a Glimpse of Life Without the Lie
The First Plot Point sets up a brand-new scenario for the character—one in which he glimpses, for the first time, what life might be like without the Lie. This glimpse will probably result from a demonstration of other characters’ actions and attitudes, but it could also come thanks to the character momentarily shedding his Lie and getting a hint of the reward of Truth.
At this early stage in the story, the character shouldn’t get much more than a glimpse. He’s not ready to be convinced of the faulty premise of his Lie. But he should begin to see the cracks. There’s life beyond the Lie, and it’s a pretty awesome life. He needs to be given just the smallest sense of how great it would feel to cast aside the Lie and never look back.
In Green Street Hooligans, Matt fights alongside his brother-in-law’s football firm and learns, for the first time, how good it feels to fight back when someone pushes you around.
Further Examples of Character Arc in the First Half of the Second Act
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: The three spirits are all about providing Scrooge with tools to overcome his Lie. The Ghost of Christmas Past walks him through his history, reminding him of wonderful memories of his young manhood working at Old Fezziwig’s. The ghost gets Scrooge to admit that Fezziwig’s kindness made Fezziwig a bigger man than any amount of money could have. The ghost then shows Scrooge a glimpse of what his life might have been had he rejected the Lie from the outset and married Belle. Scrooge resists the revelations and wrestles with the ghost, only to have it dump him back in his house—and the lap of another spirit.
Cars directed by John Lasseter: Lightning McQueen receives tools from just about every character he meets in Radiator Springs. Mater and Miss Sally talk about how wonderful Radiator Springs is, with its friendly neighbors and leisurely pace of living. But he resists. He scares off their customers by trying to escape his community service sentence, and, as a result, Doc “punishes” him by challenging him to race—and beating him. Lightning tries to move toward the Thing He Wants and away from Radiator Springs by fixing the road as fast as possible. Throughout the First Half of the Second Act, the townsfolk keep showing him a world where people care for each other. The Truth is right in front of Lightning’s face, but he keeps resisting it, insisting it’s something that doesn’t even appeal to him.
Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Arc in the First Half of the Second Act
1. How is your character reacting to the First Plot Point?
2. What “tools” can you provide to help your character build the first rung in the ladder that will scale his Lie?
3. What minor character can offer advice or exemplary behavior to help mentor your protagonist?
4. How can you show the character the first step in overcoming his Lie, instead of just telling him about it?
5. How will your character attempt to use his Lie to solve plot problems?
6. How will he be “punished” as a result?
7. How will these failures evolve your character’s outlook and tactics?
8. How will your character’s single-minded pursuit of his plot goal lead him closer to the Thing He Wants?
9. How will his pursuit of the Thing He Wants cause him to risk turning farther away from the Thing He Needs?
10. After the First Plot Point, how will the new world or the altered Normal World provide the character with a glimpse of how life might be without his Lie?
During the First Half of the Second Act, your character will be more determined than ever to reach his plot goal. He’s trying very hard to take control of his life—and the conflict—and, on some levels, it totally seems to be working. On other levels, he’s messing up worse than ever. Use the First Half of the Second Act to explore the depths of your character’s personality, beliefs, and desires. The result is a well of endless possibilities for fun, conflict-powered scenes!
Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll be talking about your character’s arc in the Midpoint.
Read Previous Posts in This Series:
Part 1: Can You Structure Character?
Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes
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
Tell me your opinion: How is your character’s Lie-driven behavior causing him to fail in the First Half of the Second Act?
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