Act II: the Middle

act ii middle
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The second act belongs to the villain

Act II is the major part of the novel. It is the confrontation, a series of battles between the Lead and the opposition. The various plot strands weave in and out of one another, creating a feeling of inevitability while at the same time surprising the reader in various ways. Keep the villain front and center throughout act 2. The scarier, the more danger, the more emotion it produces.

The middle serves three purposes

  • Stretching the tension

First: set up the tension: there has to be something at stake, physically and or emotionally, the clay for writers is ‘trouble’. How? slow it down, alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue and description, take your time with each. Ask yourself, what is the worst external thing that can happen? What is the worst trouble the character can get into? Have I sufficiently set up danger before the scene?

  • Raising the stakes

Your characters stumble along the road of trials. They have small victories but mostly failures. The situation gets worse. Every crisis leads to bigger disaster. The worse the situation is, the higher the stakes go. Without stakes, the character may lose motivation to keep fighting, as nothing forces them to keep going.

  • Setting the chess pieces

In the middle section, you move your characters away from the comfort of their known lives and set them up for the final confrontation. How they got from where they were, to the position in which they face the worst thing imaginable? That’s the middle. You move them step by step, until there is no other possible outcome than the final confrontation.

All in all, the middle…
• …deepens character relationships.
• …keeps us caring about what happens.
• …sets up the final battle that will wrap things up at the end.

Components of the second act

  • Action points: intensity problem(s)
  • Temporary triumph, followed by a reversal.
    • New information obtained
    • A dramatic situation happens
    • A character switches sides (good guy becomes bad guy or vice versa)
    • Helpers give up on protagonist / leave him
    • A truth turns out to be a lie
  • Dark moment: protagonist (seemingly) fails. He is now farther away from his goal than ever. This is where you throw salt on the wound 2-3x. Have him get run off the road and then spill a drink on him.
  • Turning point: this time the protagonist is forced into making a decision that propels this turning point.

The main event of act 2 is not the climax, but a crisis. It is like a nerve ganglion. Many pathways lead up to it and many more lead away from it.

Starting the middle

After the opening, set your feet on solid ground. Your reader is hooked by now, he is invested. Open up the story by looking backwards and around. You now have space to add back story and exposition while holding onto the curiosity planted in your reader. Establish the new norm if you are working with a then/now contrast (like in a Hero’s Journey). If you are using subplots, now is a good time to introduce them. If you are using parallel plot-lines, now is a good time to introduce the second line.

Build the stage with set-pieces

Set-pieces are the memorable grand moments in the story. They are landmarks in the plot-lines before it reaches the final goal. Readers can see them coming miles away and anticipate (in fear or hope). Watching it coming builds suspense as readers hope for the best but fear the worst.

From bad to worst

The beginning introduced disaster. The middle shows how that situation gets even worse. Remember the basic sequence:

  • disaster
  • worse disaster
  • worst disaster
  • final confrontation

plot points

Your characters midstory

The important characters in your story will change. Meaningful events change people in meaningful ways. People are affected by the things they experience. Your middle section is the bridge of character transformation.

Dibell, A. (1988) Plot
Bell, J. S. (2004) Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure
Haven (1999) Wright Right; Creative Writing Using Storytelling Techniques
Pressfield, S. (2016) Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit