Your Character's Arc in the First Half of the Second Act

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 9: The First Half of the Second Act

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.

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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 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

Tell me your opinion: How is your character’s Lie-driven behavior causing him to fail in the First Half of the Second Act?

creating stunning character arcs the first half of the second act

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Heyya! Thanks for another great post. I’m just trough this part on my wip so this comes in really handy!

  2. Aaah! I was so excited to get the email for this post this afternoon! Thank you for another great post! =) Coming up with enough ‘meat’ for a full quarter of the story can be hard, but I think with just a bit of structure it’s very much possible. So much has to go into it…I feel like when I finally do start drafting, it will be very hard to keep it from going over a quarter! Thanks again for the amazing post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Structure – of both plot and character – is a great way to find guidance for tricky parts of the story. Whenever we’re unsure what to write, we can refer to the structural precepts and check to see that our characters are on the right course.

  3. I’m loving this series! It’s helping me so much in planning out my next project. Question: can this same structuring method, these same questions, be used for my secondary characters? Or do they require a different approach?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      They can definitely be used for secondary characters, just as they can for main characters. Not all secondary characters will experience major arcs, but some definitely do. The important thing to keep in mind is that all arcs within a story should be complementary to one another in relation to the theme.

  4. KM, thanks for this helpful post. I read your book on structure and really found it useful. I believe the second act is where most writers–including me–get bogged down. They’ve set up the story and written the inciting incident and then they don’t have enough dramatic action scenes to sustain the story until the climax. This can be cured by a vigorous outlining process that forces the writer to work out these problems before writing the first draft. Alas, I am a pantser but I do see the value of outlining and am working toward doing it in future WIPs. These are some helpful tips. Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Part of the problem is that the Second Act is such a vast part of the book, and, as such, its requirements are spread out over a greater time period than those of the First or Third Acts. But when we really start breaking down the plot and character structures, we can see that the Second Act is just as rich in necessary story moments as any other part of the story.

  5. Thank you for commenting on my blog. I enjoy your blog very much. I have a lot of the content you recommend, and I have this book. It has been very helpful and insightful.

  6. Ruth Fanshaw says

    Thank you so much for this post! This is the post I have needed to read for a long time!! 😀

    I missed itwhen you originally posted it, due to internet problems, but I am very glad to have read it now! 🙂

    Thanks again! 🙂

  7. Paul Macklin says

    Hi again KM, finding these blogs very helpful in structuring my story (and it’s nice to see that for the most part my intuition has already structured the story in a mostly efficient way) although there are elements where I am wondering if I can still apply this structure.

    As mentioned before my MC’s character has been kidnapped, and the first plot point was initially going to be the decision to take it upon themselves to find her (she’s family afterall) even though they don’t get on – the idea being that the love is there underneath everything that has been said and done. That is the crack in my character’s lie. But how can they continue to push forward to save their sister if they are also still clamouring to be independent and alone? Does the lie take a different form? To work independently and find her without any help from others?

    Your guidance and opinion would be greatly appreciated.

  8. Hi, I’m deeply enjoying this! However, I have a doubt, a part of this section confused me a bit. Doesn’t the 2nd point contradict the 3rd one? The 2nd point says that the character is punished for acting according to his Lie, and such Lie acts as a stumbling block in his progress towards the Thing He Needs, but also the Thing He Wants, so against his overall plot goal. But at the same time the 3rd point says the character moves closer to the Thing He Wants making progress towards it. How can he have the Lie being an obstacle in pursuing the Thing He Wants to the point he is basically punished for acting according to his Lie that he considers a change of tactics, and at the same time be moving closer to that Thing He Wants? I find it a bit contradictory

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It is a bit contradictory, which is one reason why the two points are often illustrated in different scenes. However, an easy way to understand them in harmony is to know that the character *does* advance toward the plot goal, but encounters a lot of difficulty in doing so. In essence, he’s doing things “the hard way.”

  9. Hi! First off, thanks a ton for this whole website, it’s helped me learn character arcs and the 3-act-structure, even though I never realized I needed them. I do have some questions though. I very much need to understand the ‘why’ of things, and I find myself wondering what purpose the four parts you outlined serve.

    I think I understand three of the four parts. One I don’t understand at all. I’ll break them down below.

    These are the four things you mentioned as needing to happen at some point:

    1. Tools to overcome the Lie. I think I understand this. Let me know if I’m on the right track: the character needs to receive knowledge on how to defeat the Lie, so that at the Midpoint, when he now WANTS to defeat the Lie, he already knows how to (or at least how to begin). Is this the purpose of giving the character these ‘tools’?
    2. Difficulties in pursuing his Lie. I understand this one. The character needs to change through punishments and rewards to get in a position where he’ll see the Midpoint for what it is and accept it.
    3. Closer to Want, further from Need. I don’t understand this. I understand what you’re saying… I just don’t understand why. What does this do for the character/story? Why does he need to seemingly succeed in pursuing his Want?
    4. A glimpse of life without the Lie. I think I understand this. The character needs to see the end result of living with the Truth, so that when he encounters the Truth at the Midpoint, he recognizes what the result of following it will be. Is this the reason for the ‘glimpse’?

    So to sum up, three questions: Am I right about the purpose of #2 and #4, and what is the purpose of #3?

    Thanks for your time, and again thanks for all the work you’ve put into this website!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you’re enjoying the site! You are correct in your understanding of 1, 2, and 4. #3 is setup for the decisions the character will have to make in the Third Act, when he must be willing to sacrifice the Want for the Need. This should not be an easy choice. If the Want is already moving farther away from the character, or the character is beginning to see that Want is shallow or incomplete, it will be comparatively easy for him to reject it in favor of the “right” choice of the Need. But if the Want is right there for the taking, it’s much harder for the character to choose the moral victory of turning away from it (even though he may indeed still gain it in the very end, with the added help or perspective of the Need).

  10. Love your work! So I have a question. My MC Lie is that she believes she’s useless and weak. Because she couldn’t save her grandmother from committing suicide. I’m have a hard time with one of the questions that you asked in your book.

    How will your character attempt to use his Lie to solve plot problems?

    Thanks for in advance!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The character will believe in the Lie because it serves her in some way. In the beginning, this is because the Lie seems to help the character get what she wants. Depending on what your character’s plot goal is, consider how the Lie can *help* her. Perhaps her belief in her weakness feels like it protects her because she never risks antagonizing anyone.

  11. Hi again. I have another question.

    First off, the midpoint is, as I understand it, essentially a showing of evidence for the Truth. It’s what makes the protagonist say, ‘survival won’t work; I’ve got to fight back!’

    With that understanding: I understand that the first half of the second act is mainly the protagonist in survival mode, where they try Lie-fueled methods of getting their Want, failing, and learning those won’t work. But… why does that need to happen? Why can’t the protagonist simply try to use the Lie to get the Want ONCE, fail, learn it doesn’t work, and then see the Midpoint? Assuming the four points you mentioned in your article above have occurred, what is to be gained by having the protagonist just fail over and over? What’s to stop them from just encountering the Midpoint after the first failure?

    The same thing goes for the second half of the second act. This is the ‘attack phase’, where the protagonist has realized survival won’t work, and they have to defeat the obstacle to get the thing they Want. It ends with the Third Plot Point, where there is a seeming victory, followed by a crushing defeat caused by the protagonist’s refusal to abandon the Lie. This ‘attack phase’ is supposed to have several of these ‘successes’ as the protagonist uses the Truth, but again… why? Why can’t they just have ONE all-in-one success, think they’ve got it, hit the third plot point, and be forced to abandon the Lie for real?

    Obviously there are a few parts to each half which need to be in place before the Midpoint/Third plot point can occur, but I’m mainly confused about those successive failures/victories. They just seem redundant to me.

    This is obviously an issue, since you say many times that the second act should be twice as long as the other two acts. In my outlines, my second acts are the same lengths as the others.

    So why do we need those redundant failures/victories? Is there a purpose they serve which I’m missing? Or am I misunderstanding something crucial?

    Thanks, and sorry for the long question.


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Think of it less as “the character failing over and over” and more as “the character learning to fail better and better.” If the Lie is “big,” convincing, and deeply ingrained in the character’s life, it will not be overcome with just a single simple statement of the Truth. For the character’s transformation to be realistic and convincing, it must be more an evolution than a simple change.

      If the character’s Lie can be overcome after just one scene, then the Lie/Truth pairing you’ve chosen probably isn’t a big enough theme to sustain a novel. It would be better suited to a shorter medium, such as a short story.

      • Okay, that makes sense. I still get hung up on the failures though. Like I can say ‘the character fails until he is ready to accept the Truth,’ but that doesn’t really tell me what those failures should really accomplish.

        I feel like I need a formula or process which says, ‘the hero will NOT accept the Truth until he has learned X, Y, and Z through failure.’ If I had that, then I would know exactly what to do in the first half. Do you know of a process or formula like that?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Such a formula would be very particular the individual story’s Lie/Truth and the events of the plot.


  1. […] For more tips on the Struggle / first half of Act I, check out these articles from Fiction University (three act structure and preparing your novel’s middle), Mythic Scribes (Story Structure, Parts 2 and 3), and Helping Writers Become Authors. […]

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