The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 6: The First Half of the Second Act

Every segment of a story offers its own challenges, but perhaps none leaves writers more bewildered than the second act. Beginnings and endings are tough to get right, but at least we have a checklist of things to accomplish. The middle of the story, on the other hand, is a yawning blank. We feel like we’re entirely on our own as we try to move our characters toward where they need to be for the ending to work. Fortunately, if we pay attention to solid story structure, we’ll find that the middle of the story has a checklist all its own.

Because the second act will be the largest part of your story, comprising roughly 50%, I will be breaking it down into three segments, which will we’ll discuss in three posts. Today, let’s take a look at the first half of the second act, which will span the distance from your first major plot point at the 25% mark to your mid-point at the 50% mark. This first half of the second act is where your characters find the time and space to react to the first major plot point. Remember how we talked about the first major plot point being definitive because it forces the character into irreversible reaction? That reaction, which will lead to another reaction and another and another, launches your second act.

What is the first half of the second act?

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryThat first major plot point is going to hit your character hard. His life is no longer running on the same smooth path it always has, and he has to do something about it. If we look long and hard at the first major turning point in a book, we realize that it’s actually the character’s reaction to the event that changes everything and creates our story. Even when the first major plot point incorporates a life-altering tragedy (such as the murder of Benjamin Martin’s second son and the burning of his plantation in The Patriot), the characters could conceivably go on more or less as they had before. It’s their reaction (Martin’s becoming the “ghostly” militia leader who terrorizes the British army) that allows the chain of events to continue—and create a story.

For next quarter of the book, until the mid-point, your protagonist is going to be reacting to the events of the first plot point. He’s taking action, but all his actions are a response (in one form or another) to what’s happened to him. He’s trying to regain his balance, trying to figure out where his life is supposed to go next. In my medieval novel Behold the Dawn, the characters spend this part of the book on the run from the bishop who wants them dead. In Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows, the protagonist spends years reacting to the orders of his master. In Ben-Hur, the title character is forced into a reactionary role, as a galley slave, after he’s unjustly captured and sentenced in the first major plot point.

Where does the first half of the second act belong?

The first half of the second act will begin immediately after the first major plot point. Your character will act out in response to the events of the plot point in such a way that he can never go back to the way things were. The antagonistic force responds, and again the character is forced to react. The cycle repeats itself as many times and with as many variations as necessary until the story reaches the mid-point.

Examples from film and literature

Once again, let’s look to the masters to discover how the first half of the second act should be constructed to best complicate the plot, progress the character’s arc, and keep readers reading.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): After Bingley dumps Jane and he, his sister, and Darcy leave Netherfield Park (the first major plot point), Lizzy and her sisters have no choice but to react. Jane goes to London to visit her aunt and to try discover why Bingley left. Lizzy, in the absence of Mr. Wickham, pays an extended visit to her friend Charlotte (the new Mrs. Collins). While there, she again meets Mr. Darcy and is forced to react to his attentions to her.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): George’s life could have progressed exactly as he wanted it to, even after the inciting event in which his father dies of a stroke. But when he reacts to Mr. Potter’s attempts to close down the Building & Loan by agreeing to stay in Bedford Falls and take his father’s place, his life is forever changed. For the next quarter of the movie, we find George adjusting to life in Bedford Falls. When his brother Harry (who was supposed to take George’s place in the Building & Loan) gets married and takes another job, George is again forced to react. He marries, saves the Building & Loan during the Great Crash, and opens up Bailey Park—all reactions that build upon his initial decision
to protect the Building & Loan.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): After joining Bonzo’s Salamander Army, Ender has to struggle to stay afloat in Battle School. He learns to fight—and win—in the zero-grav war games. He makes friends and enemies and sets in motion the events that will eventually cause the standoff between him and Bonzo. Everything he does in the first half of the second act is a reaction to his presence in Battle School, in general, and in Salamander Army, in particular.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): Captain Jack Aubrey and his crew spend the first half of the second act reacting to their second sighting of the Acheron. After turning the tables on the enemy ship, Jack subsequently loses her during a tragic accident at Cape Horn and is forced to come up with new plans and new ways of managing his crew until they reach the Galapagos Islands—and the mid-point.

Takeaway value

Now that we’ve got a good idea of what should occur during the first half of the second act and now that we’ve studied how excellent stories put this segment to work, what can glean for our own stories?

1. The characters should react promptly and strongly to the events of the first major plot point.

2. Since their lives and plans have been turned upside down (or at least significantly altered), they have to find new ways of dealing with the world in general and the main antagonistic force in particular.

3. Their reactions should be deep and varied enough to fill the next quarter of the story.

4. Their reactions must be dominos, moving the plot forward and deepening the weave of scenes, subplots, and themes.

5. Usually, this is the time in which the character will gain the skills or items necessary for his final battle in the third act.

The first half of the second act is where you deepen your development of character and your foreshadowing of important elements. Even in fast-paced action stories, this will be the slowest and most thoughtful portion of your story as you finish building the foundation your characters will stand on during the climax.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about the Midpoint.

Tell me your opinion: Do you struggle with the middle of your books?

Related Posts: The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 2: The Hook
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 3: The First Act
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 4: The First Plot Point
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 5: The Inciting Event and the Key Event

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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. Yes I struggle with this sometimes. I have a better sense of the major plot points this time so I’m hoping it won’t be so hard. You make it sound so easy.

  2. Writing is sort of like football. Your plan of attack always looks perfect until you hit the field – and then everything is more complex than you thought it would be. But more fun too!

  3. I definitely struggle! I swear, I’ve written so many beginnings to stories and even if I have an outline ready to go, I still get stuck at the first half of act two. This struggle inevitably leads to me starting another beginning and thinking of a different angle on the story.

    I can not figure out if I’m stepping in the right direction. I’ve been reading so many things about story structure that I’ve started to dream in it. Last night I had a fantastic dream that made me so excited because I could see the first act and the beginning of the second act so clearly. My excitement of watching this dream unfold was so palpable while I was asleep, it was crazy. If only I could remember the dream now I might have my story.

    Great article! I think it will help.

  4. I’ve had more than few dreams like that! They always seem most perfect while we’re dreaming them. The best way we can learn to figure out those knotty middles is to study the successful seconds in books and movies. Once we can break them down and figure out how they tick, their lessons are much easier to apply to our own stories.

  5. Anonymous says:

    *Applauds wildly* – Somehow, some way, I have managed to cobble together pretty much what you describe above! There is a crisis. She steps in with great intentions to ‘take charge’. However, she’s ill equipped so the problems continue and get worse, but each time she confronts, she becomes more skillful, until she is ready for her biggest challenge. OMG!!!! This writing stuff is so cool. Thank you for making my whole weekend! @UrbanMilkmaid

  6. This is what I love about structure. If you haven’t quite got it figured out, it’s like a ginormous light bulb blinking on, and it changes your life. If you discover you *do* have it figured out, it’s like the biggest pat on the back ever. Congrats on your solid storytelling instincts!

  7. I used to struggle with middles, but since I outlined this time, I hope I have a better shot at getting through it.

  8. Angela Craven says:

    This is superb. I am at this exact point in my novel and reading this article has inspired me greatly. I can barely contain my excitement as I write this evening. Thank you again!

  9. I have to go back and look at my plot points now and make sure my characters “react” to them. Thanks for the direction and advice!!

  10. @Lorna: Middles are one of the areas in which outlines come in most handy. If we know we’re headed in the end, we can know what elements have to be present in the middle.

    @Angela: Glad it was good timing for you! Have fun with your second act.

    @Traci: Writing a novel is often all about checking and double-checking ourselves. Thanks for reading!

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  12. I’m loving this series, but now I have to wait a whole week to hear about the midpoint. Not good for my body’s natural resting state – procrastination.

  13. Hah! This is the problem with series! Sometime in the relatively near future (like, say, next year) I’m hoping to compile and expand the series into a book, so people will be able to access it all at once. But, of course, that’s no help for the time being, is it?

  14. I agree with Optional Delusion. I have to wait a whole week for the next one? And then I have to wait several MORE weeks to the last one? I am not very good at being patient. Thanks for providing an amazing series.

  15. I’m sorry I’m increasing your impatience affliction – but I’m glad you’re enjoying the series enough to be impatient!

  16. Excellent post. I firmly believe if we don’t try to force this part through and allow the work to develop, we stay on track. I think too many authors feel they must force some action here, when the action – the protaganist reacting – is already in motion.

  17. To be successful a story has to work like clockwork. The first scene sets everything in motion, and the story that follows is an inevitable and (almost) effortless chain of events. If we have to force any single scene or plot point, something’s not working, and 90% of the time the problem lies in an earlier scene or sequence that failed to properly set up events.

  18. There are way so many questions popping in my head regarding my current WIP. Will have to work on them quite a bit more. :/

Trackbacks

  1. […] much as it helped me! Now that I’ve got the First Plot Point down, I’ve got to nail the First Half of the Second Act. Then […]

  2. […] Secrets of Story Structure, Part 4, K.M. Weiland […]

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