Understanding the Adventure World of a Story’s Second Act

Every story is an adventure. No matter its genre, focus, or tone, a story is always about an undertaking of some sort, whether cosmically large or familiarly small. This is why writers can use the metaphor of the Adventure World for a story’s Second Act to better understand this crucial part of story structure in almost any story.

Last week, we kicked off this short series with an examination of the Normal World of a story’s First Act. In that post, I noted that the terms Normal World and Adventure World, which I frequently use in reference to a story’s First and Second Acts, originate with the Hero’s Journey. There, they are meant to evoke the “journey” of a character who moves from a safe space or mindset into a quest through a challenging or even dangerous landscape or mindscape, until finally they “return from the descent” with a healing prize of some sort. Basically: a character arc.

One could argue that the terms Normal World and especially Adventure World should remain specific to the Hero’s Journey. And this is why I offered alternative terms for other archetypal arcs, such as the Regal World of the King’s First Act and the Preternatural World of his Second Act. However, I still find that Normal World and Adventure World seem to be applicable umbrella terms for all stories—as long as we understand them to be metaphorical rather than literal.

Or maybe not… because, as I said, really every story is an adventure story one way or another.

These days, when we hear the word “adventure,” we tend to think it synonymous with “fun.” If I say, “Oh, I want to have an adventure!”, what I probably mean is that I want to go have a jolly vacation in Hawaii. Or possibly I’m thinking I’d like to replicate the same fun buzzy feeling I get when I watch an adventure movie. Except… would I really want to go through the same “adventure” that most adventure heroes endure?

One of the main definitions of “adventure” as a noun is:

…an undertaking involving uncertainty and risk.

As a verb, it gets even heavier:

…to put something at risk or in danger … to dare to go somewhere new or engage in something dangerous.

All of sudden that beach in Hawaii is looking a lot more like Mt. Doom!

The point here is that “Adventure World” should not be understood to require that the characters in your Second Act go on “adventures” in the stereotypical sense. Neither is it necessary that their adventures look like a quest into Mordor. What is important is the symbolism of the adventure as a “brave new world”—an uncharted place, even if it is only in the character’s own psyche, and even if it is comparatively safe.

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Stories are adventures because stories are about change. Any change, large or small, is ultimately an “undertaking involving uncertainty and risk.” How high you stack the stakes will depend on your own story. Obviously, the Adventure World in Lord of the Rings looks very different from the Adventure World in Anne of Green Gables—but both are adventures nonetheless.

With that said, here’s a quick reminder of where we’re at in this series:

1. The Normal World of the First Act

2. The Adventure World of the Second Act <— You are here. :p

3. The Underworld of the Third Act

4. The New Normal World of the Resolution

The Adventure World of the Second Act

The Second Act represents the middle two quarters of a story, from 25% to 75%. Having been launched by the First Plot Point at the 25%, it is punctuated with the First Pinch Point (37% mark), divided by the Midpoint or Second Plot Point (50% mark), punctuated again by the Second Pinch Point (62% mark), and ended with the threshold of the Third Plot Point (75% mark). The Second Act constitutes the main bulk of a story, focusing on the protagonist’s pursuit of a plot goal and the obstacles she must overcome along the way, as well as her own inner transformation, which will eventually impact her ability to gain (or not) the plot goal by the time the Third Act rolls around.

Second Act Timeline

What Does the Adventure World Symbolize?

Basically, the Second Act is your story. This is not to minimize the crucial importance of the First and Third Acts, but they are, essentially, bookends to the main action. The development of plot, character, and theme all take place primarily within the Second Act.

If the First Act represented your story’s Normal World, then it’s clear the Adventure World of the Second Act is anything but normal. Your character has embarked into a new phase of his life. He is on an adventure—a quest to locate and gain his main plot goal. But on a deeper level, this is an adventure of the soul. The plot goal is just a Maguffin. It is bait to lure the protagonist onto the road of transformation.

How deep you go with this transformation will, of course, depend on your story. In some stories, such as serial fiction or TV shows in which the character can’t risk too much from episode to episode, the adventure may be simply a small problem to solve. Even in serial fiction with heavier stakes, such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which, indeed, usually offers world-ending stakes in any one installment), it is understood that the characters will not necessarily undergo a dramatic transformation.

Thor: The Dark World (2013), Marvel Studios.

However, other stories follow the common bit of wisdom that whatever happens in a story should be “the most important event in this character’s life.” At the very least, what’s happening is significant in the character’s life. It’s an epoch. And epochs are inevitably adventures, whether they involve John McClane in Die Hard battling terrorists to save his wife or Emma Woodhouse in Emma figuring out she wants to marry Mr. Knightley.

Die Hard (1988), 20th Century Fox.

How Does the Adventure World Function as a Physical Setting?

The concept of the Adventure World very often does encompass a specific physical setting. Indeed, in its most classic and obvious manifestations, the Adventure World is just that—a new, exciting, and possibly dangerous setting into which the protagonist finds herself thrust. This is what happens in stories in which the protagonist leaves the setting of the Normal World and enters an entirely new setting in the Second Act.

For example, Harry Potter escapes Privet Drive and goes to Hogwarts in The Philosopher’s Stone.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), Warner Bros.

Mulan rides away from her village and joins the army in Mulan.

Mulan (1998), Walt Disney Pictures.

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood have no choice but to leave their family home for a lonely cottage in Devon in Sense and Sensibility.

Sense and Sensibility (2008), BBC/WGBH Boston.

Luke Skywalker flees Tatooine and gets captured by the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope.

Star Wars New Hope Luke Skywalker Princess Leia Han Solo

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), 20th Century Fox.

Dorothy Gale leaves Kansas and is tornadoed over the rainbow into Oz in The Wizard of Oz.

The Wizard of Oz (1939), MGM.

Hercule Poirot ends his sabbatical and boards the Orient Express in Murder on the Orient Express.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013), ITV.

It’s also possible that although the character does not physically leave the initial setting introduced in the First Act, the world symbolically changes from something normal and familiar into something surprising and challenging. This could have to do with the setting itself changing for some reason, as in I Am Legend when New York City is transformed into a ghost town by the zombie virus.

I Am Legend (2007), Warner Bros.

It could also be the result of the character’s previously predictable life being upended by circumstances, such as in many romances. For example, in Jane Austen’s Emma, Emma Woodhouse’s quiet and (mostly) contented life is forever changed when rakeish Frank Churchill arrives on the scene.

Emma Box Hill Romula Garia Rupert Evans

Emma (2009), BBC One.

This is also true of many murder mysteries, in which the transition doesn’t see the detective leaving her own world, but does see her entering into the world of the victim and the killer, as in many serial detective stories, such as Grantchester, Blue Bloods, and Castle.

Castle (2009-16), ABC.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the concept of the Adventure World does not have to indicate any particular change in setting. The shift may be something subtle that happens only within the character’s own perspective: what was normal suddenly is not. This is more common in existential stories, such as Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

Atonement (2007), Universal Pictures.

How Does the Adventure World Demonstrate Theme and Impact Character Arc?

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

The thematic import of the First Act’s Normal World was to set up the Lie the Character Believes. This is so the Lie can then be explored in the Second Act. The Adventure World exists to challenge the Lie. Indeed, that’s the adventure! The Lie represents a safe, familiar space for the character. It may not necessarily be a bad space per se, but by the time your story begins, it will have become a limited space. One way or another, the character must break out of the confines of the Normal World and into the spaciousness of the Adventure World.

Out there in the Adventure World, the character will be challenged to grow past this Lie and into a new Truth. Whether or not he succeeds will depend on the type of arc he is undergoing (Positive, Flat, or Negative). Regardless, the Adventure World of the Second Act is his testing ground. The challenges he meets here are specifically designed to force him to confront his limitations. The only way he can survive the Adventure World and move on to a new and more expanded normal is to increasingly transition from Lie to Truth.

The symbolic importance of the “adventure” as “an undertaking involving uncertainty and risk” is the reality that change is both difficult and necessary. Whether that change for your character is small or large, internal or external, the Adventure World is where it happens.


Because the Second Act takes up such a proportionately large part of your story (fully 50%—and perhaps more, depending on how closely you’re hitting the timing of your structural beats), its execution is unquestionably vital to your readers’ experience. Using the lens and metaphor of the Adventure World can help you bring this section into focus in a way that aligns your plot, character, and theme for full impact—and sets you up for a rock-solid Third Act.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will venture into the Underworld of the Third Act.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What happens in your story’s Adventure World? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Grace Dvorachek says

    “The Adventure World exists to challenge the Lie.” I love the implications of this. I am a writer who likes conflict, whether it be an argument between supporting characters, a full-blown battle between the MC and antagonist, or the struggle within the MC’s own mind. The Adventure World offers tons of conflict possibilities that make even a non-“adventure” book full of excitement.

    In my own stories, I’m always on the lookout for conflict during the 2nd Act. I like to heap conflict onto the MC throughout the act—with perhaps some moments where they don’t feel the weight—until the 3rd Plot point, when it all comes crashing down.

    I do have a question… does the Flat Arc Adventure World have different symbolism? The Positive Change Arc Adventure World challenges the Lie, so would the Adventure World of the Flat Arc challenge the Truth?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Flat Arc’s Adventure World is also about challenging the Lie. The difference is that in a Positive-Change Arc, the Lie is being challenged *within* the protagonist, whereas in a Flat Arc, the protagonist the one challenging the Lie in the outer world/other characters.

  2. Wow! The definitions of “adventure” really struck home with me:

    …an undertaking involving uncertainty and risk.
    …to put something at risk or in danger … to dare to go somewhere new or engage in something dangerous.

    This is a great way to think about the first half of the second act. And a way to frame what to focus on in my current novel—my two protagonists are each undertaking actions involving uncertainty and risk, and if I can keep that focus and escalate the uncertainties and risks, I’ll be on the right path. I have plenty of conflict in the current draft, but this focus is what I need as I edit.

    Thank you for this post.

  3. Basically, what happens in my Second Act is Character A’s Lie regarding their relationship—I must keep you safe—runs into more conflict with Character B’s Lie—you’re trying to control me. In the outer plot, they learn the “pretty white girl” murder the governor sent them to solve is related to several murders of women of color, and they come closer to solving the crimes.

    I just wrapped up my Second Act last week and feel I’m on the right track. I always panic around the Third Act, so I’m glad to have this boost of courage in thinking that maybe I got that part right. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If you have solid First and Second Acts, then you have what you need already in place for an equally solid Third Act.

      • Thanks! I think they’re pretty good. The Second Act needs to be tightened up a lot, though. It got kinda bloated. I usually do that during the revision process

  4. Writing (including revising) a novel IS an adventure. The ‘normal world’ is the world in which we get ideas and think about whether to write a novel (normally, people don’t write novels, lol). Daydreaming is safe. Putting words to paper (or keystrokes to screen) is risky. What if what we write sucks? (In fact, the first draft is guaranteed to suck). Will all this effort lead to something worthwhile (however we measure ‘worthwhile’) or is it a waste of time/energy which will break our hearts?

  5. Love this series, K.M.! I look at the journey with different names than yours but essentially, it is the same. Have a great week!

  6. Curt Wellumson says

    Don’t we love it when those lights pop on! This post is perfect timing for me and has removed a stumbling block keeping me from progressing. I’m excited again to get back to the work. Great way to start another Monday. Thank You! Thank You!

  7. “The plot goal is just a Maguffin. It is bait to lure the protagonist onto the road of transformation.”

    I’ve always struggled with plot, and this gives me a clear perspective. Instead of wondering what can happen next, I can focus on the MC’s transformation and decide what needs to happen next.

    I also love this: “The Adventure World exists to challenge the Lie.” It’s not just a fun place to be. I’m writing a series for MG and I love the squirrel world I’m creating, so this is particularly important for me. Right now, I’m exploring integrity and honor in the setting of scout camp, where there is daring, risk, and uncertainty.

    I’m enjoying this series. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Instead of wondering what can happen next, I can focus on the MC’s transformation and decide what needs to happen next.”

      Well put!

  8. This was fantastic!! Love all the examples from movies. Amazing how this can be applied to many successful stories!

  9. Peter Moore says

    I see the midpoint as where the world comes alive, almost as if it was an additional character. What I mean is that the normal world is inert from the protagonist’s viewpoint, even if it is a dangerous place. It is the ‘known,’ the comfortable place.

    When she enters the adventure world, it becomes a dynamic entity in and of itself, requiring her to react to new challenges presented by the environment as well as the characters she finds within it. This is true whether she finds herself in a new physical place or having to adapt to changed circumstances in her existing world. Her frame of reference has altered and she has to adapt to it in order to move forward (or backwards).

    In my story, the protagonist is thrown from the real world into Hell at the midpoint. Conflict isn’t an issue. It becomes a way of life.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although I see the Adventure World as spanning the entirety of the Second Act (from 25% 5o 75% and divided by the Midpoint), I do like the idea of the Midpoint marking a shift in the setting’s dynamism.

    • From “we’re off to see the Wizard” (who presumably is a wizard who will serve) to “Bring me the broomstick of the W.W. of the W.” (who presumably will try to kill them).

      From “take this robot and its message to the Princess” to “deal with a destroyed planet and a Death Star.”

      Yes, a different dynamic

  10. Sometimes, all I have to say is thank you for the thoughts about my stories that go babbling through my mind as your insights flow through me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Babbling stories are almost as nice as babbling brooks–and definitely better than babbling politicians. 😉

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