As we enter the middle of the year, I thought it would be interesting to examine the middle of a story. For those that don’t know, most stories are split up into a three act structure. The first act serves as the introduction to the story, its characters, the world, and all the other elements that are needed to orient the reader. The first act also sets the plot into motion. The third act…acts… like you’d think an ending should. It ends things. Whatever conflict the main characters are facing will ultimately be decided and the consequences of those actions are played out.
The second act is where things get real. Now that the reader is oriented in the world, the conflict can truly begin. Sure, Frodo and his friends may have left the Shire with the One Ring in their pockets, but that was just the beginning of their adventure. Act two of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” starts with their trek to Rivendell where, along the way, they face some trials.
“The second act is really the heart of your book, the section in which your protagonist’s abilities and resolve are put to the test and his goal is most at risk,” Joseph Bates writes in his book “The Nighttime Novelist” and goes on to say that “It’s also the part of the book most consider the story proper.”
He lists Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick, Dorothy navigating through the wonderful land of Oz. Frodo making that pledge to take the ring to Mount Doom.
If you’re planning out your novel and you’re stuck when it comes to the second act, here are some questions to ask:
- What kinds of conflict will stand in the protagonist’s way?
- What is your protagonist willing to do to achieve his goal?
- What would happen if the protagonist fails?
Every good middle should have the following:
- First Culmination, the midpoint of the story where the protagonist has his/her sights on the prize.
- Darkest Moment, where the protagonist hits rock bottom and seemingly fails in his/her quest.
- Plot Point Two, where the protagonist finds a new direction which then leads to Act three’s conflict and resolution.
Each conflict the protagonist faces should be harder than the last. This is what’s called rising action. Bates compares the second act to a roller coaster.
“A strong second act has the inevitable momentum of a roller coaster, something you white-knuckle your way through and enjoy the ride,” he writes.
Throw all of these ideas into your middle and you’ll have the good bones for your middle.
Take Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) for example. For the purpose of this example, you’ll have to view Thanos as the protagonist. I know, I know, but trust me when I say that Thanos is the hero of this movie. Spoilers for those that haven’t seen the film yet, but come on that was two years ago.
The second act starts after Thanos sends his kids out to collect the rest of the stones. This begins the rising action. Stark, Strange, and Spider-man (all those S heroes) are attacked by Squidward (another S). The Guardians fight Thanos and Gamora gets taken. The midpoint is when Thanos finds out that Gamora has the location of the Soul Stone. That was the only stone that was truly hidden from the big purple dude and now he sees victory.
For Thanos, the darkest moment is when Scarlet Witch destroys the Mind Stone. This robs Thanos of his long sought quest for galactic balance. The audience believes (celebrates because who really wanted Thanos to win… certainly not me) that his quest is done and he failed to collect all the Infinity Stones.
“Now is not the time to mourn,” says Thanos and he’s right. This is where Plot Point Two comes into play when Thanos utilizes the Time Stone and reverses what Scarlet Witch did.
That leads into Act Three where Thanos gets his chest caved in by Thor, but it doesn’t matter because Thor didn’t go for the head. That’s another rant for another time.
That’s a summary overview of the middle part of a story. Having said all of that, you don’t necessarily have to do it this way. You’re a writer and rules are made to be broken. However, there’s a reason why most of books, movies, and other media utilize the Three Act Structure. It works.
Also, if you haven’t read Joseph Bates book, I’d recommend it. It’s a very good tool for those that can’t write for a living.