Stuck in the Middle With You: Story Structure in Act II

There’s no denying that storytelling can get messy in the middle.

The middle of a novel may sag or slump, prone to descriptions like soggy, mushy, murky, or muddy. These damp and sticky terms reflect an experience familiar to many a writer. The often arduous process of drafting a story’s second act may feel a lot like like slogging through a swamp full of quicksand, sinkholes, detours, and maybe even rodents of unusual size.

Wesley says, "rodents of unusual size? I don't think they exist." He's immediately attacked by a rodent of unusual size.

This is the second part of a blog series in which I delve into common models of story structure and how they can help create a framework for a well-paced story. (Read last week’s installment on the nuts and bolts of Act One here.) Right off the bat, I’m going to repeat what I said last time: structure should serve your story, not the other way around.

These systems for understanding structure provide guidelines, not rules. I suggest treating them as tools rather than absolute truths. If the tool doesn’t work for you or do what you need it to do for the story, it’s not a helpful tool.

With that said, reading about the craft of structure has helped me considerably, especially when it comes to the Act 2 blues. Story beats help me check my pacing, keep the story moving forward.

Sometimes they also help me navigate creative blocks. Oftentimes when I get stuck, it’s because I feel unsure about what should happen next. Understanding where my current story beat fits into the larger structure helps me clarify what choices would serve the overall plot in an interesting way and what might need to happen at a given point to move the plot forward.

Structure can help you fight the second act slump.

It seems appropriate to post this on November 15, the midpoint of NaNoWriMo. Mid-November also hosts what is known as “the second week slump,” the end of the honeymoon period of drafting something new when you have to buckle down and get through it. I think that the second week slump and the sagging middle are related, so hopefully this post might get you through the slump and back on track.

A man in a tux and black bow tie with unkempt dark hair and beard holds a martini and says "Hi. I'm Derek. Welcome to the Medium Place."

When thinking of story in three acts, the middle feels the most amorphous. It’s generally considered the longest act, starting at approximately the 25% mark to the 75% mark in a novel, twice as long as the first and final act. That can make it feel intimidating, impenetrable, and interminable. In the words of the first book on writing I ever read:

The middle is the megillah, the monster, the whole schmeer.

Oscar Collier and Frances Spatz Leighton, How to Write & Sell Your First Novel

In truth, the middle is the real meat of the novel. The story happens in the middle. The characters confront new challenges that force them to grow and evolve.

There’s room in the middle to explore the tropes and treasures that delight you, for love affairs and plot twists and big mistakes, for the weird, the wild, and the wonderful. It’s rich with possibility and peril. Having a map to guide you through can help you find the fun while avoiding the pitfalls, so without further ado, let’s demystify the saggy, swampy, monstrous, meaty middle.

The first plot point: no going back now.

Because this is a transition point between the first and second act, I touched on it a bit in last week’s post. Save the Cat calls this beat up to and including the first plot point the “break into Act 2.” Taking place from around 20% to 25% in the overall plot, it marks the point at which the character makes a decision to move forward, accept the call issued in the first act, and take action to solve the problems facing them.

I have found that 20% usually feels a little too early for the first plot point, even though this it where Save the Cat breakdowns tend to place it. The way I see it, the transition between acts begins at 20% but the real threshold moment typically falls closer to 25%. That’s when the shit hits the fan, the rubber hits the road, and the protagonist gets in over their head.

Alexis of Schitt's Creek looks wide eyed and excited as she says "There's no turning back now."
Sometimes the only way out is going through it.

Here’s the secret of the transition to Act 2: the protagonist’s first attempt at solving the problem doesn’t have to succeed. In fact, most of the time, things will get more interesting if their first course of action makes things worse, getting them inextricably wrapped up in the events to come. This also serves to highlight how the character still needs to grow, change, confront their false beliefs, and heal their emotional wounds before they can truly meet the challenges that lie before them.

Even if they do succeed in their aim, it will fuel the story’s tension if their success results in unintended consequences going forward. In other words, they’ve chosen to enter the swamp and for better or worse, now there’s no going back. Ideally, what happens in Act 2 will follow logically from this choice.

In Act 1, you set up the dominoes. At the start of Act 2, the character takes a swing at them. Now you get to follow the momentum of the domino effect and your character’s impact on their world into the heart of the second act.

B-story: and now for something a little different.

To me, the B-story beat as defined in Save the Cat is a) way too precisely placed at 22% and b) an optional beat. If the transition to Act 2 begins at around 20% and the first plot point hits around 25%, the B-story shoehorns in awkwardly somewhere in between. Furthermore, the B-story isn’t a single beat to begin with.

This is a great time to remember that these are more like guidelines than actual rules. While most stories will have a B-plot, they may get introduced earlier or later than the shift into the second act. I treat this beat as a reminder to keep the B-story moving as the main plot shifts gears.

Keira Knightley in a red Navy coat shouts "Hang the code and hang the rules! They're more like guidelines anyway!"
Evergreen gif.

So what is the B-story? It’s not just a beat but essentially a secondary plot thread that runs parallel to the main conflict. Often the stakes are more personal or “small” than that of the main plot, but that doesn’t mean the B-story is less important. It tracks the progress of the protagonist’s inner journey as opposed to their external goal in the story.

Sometimes, a B-story blends a secondary genre with the main story’s genre, such as the development of a romantic relationship in a non-romance genre. More broadly, the B-story frequently centers around a secondary but important character and their relationship to the protagonist, but not necessarily a romantic one. It can be a friendship, mentorship, or family connection that will contribute to the protagonist’s evolution.

In a romance, of course, the B-story will follow some other conflict the character is facing. This secondary conflict will complicate matters and progress in tandem with the central romantic relationship itself. Either way, the B-story adds richness and personal stakes to the main storyline, often serving to underline the main theme.

Fun and games: keep promises, build surprises.

To me, this story beat has seemed like one of the hardest to grasp, perhaps because of the name Blake Snyder gave it. “Fun and games” sounds extraneous or frivolous, but often the protagonist isn’t having a lot of fun during this beat, and sometimes the writer is struggling too. Hopefully, however, your reader will have fun, and that’s the key to this sequence.

It helps me to understand this beat as the first stage of the “middle build,” which will eventually lead the protagonist to the twist or shift waiting for them at the midpoint. The characters have embarked on their quest and now we get to follow them through the first steps and stumbles of their journey. They may not yet know the full scale of the stakes, but they’re about to learn.

This beat should deliver on the “promise of the premise.” It’s often fraught with risk, setbacks, and perhaps a symbolic trial in “the belly of the whale.” But the specific promise of your premise will depend heavily on your main genre and what kind of story you set out to tell in the first act.

If you’re writing a thriller, this could mean action or suspenseful scenes of increasing physical danger. In a mystery, it might involve finding and following clues. In a romance, the couple starts to get to know each other better and expose their vulnerabilities. In SFF, you may want to turn up the dial on the magic, weirdness, or wonder your readers love.

A still image from Star Wars shows Leia, Luke, and Han in the trash compactor with the text "It could be worse..."
The classic hero’s journey places the characters in the belly of the beast…or trash compactor.

During this stage, the main character or characters are taking their first baby steps into a brave new world. These steps come with challenges that test their false beliefs or draw out their weaknesses. They encounter new allies and new enemies along the way.

The consequences of the protagonist’s action or choice at the first plot point have begun to develop but haven’t fully manifested. The character is still in reaction mode, responding to the events of the first plot point. However, each step or stumble they take on their chosen path builds on the last in a new pattern of dominoes that will soon come crashing down.

One could call this the “FAFO” theory of fun and games: in PG terms, we’ll say that stands for Fumble Around and Find Out. The protagonist has decided to act, but is fumbling around (so to speak). Their fumbling progress should lead directly to the first pinch point, in which they will find out just how wrong they were about the challenge they face.

The first pinch point: it’s worse.

The first pinch point may be the most neglected plot beat in many structural models. Save the Cat omits it completely, which is a shame, because in my opinion, it’s pivotal. When I learned about pinch points, structure in the first half of Act Two started to make a lot more sense.

If you like percentage benchmarks, the first pinch point typically comes into play around the 35-37% mark. In other words, it falls midway between the first plot point and the midpoint. It’s a moment that tips the balance and sends your character hurtling toward the story’s central conflict.

The first pinch point ratchets up the stakes. It’s almost like a minor midpoint or an additional inciting incident. You could also call it a compounding incident, in which a sticky situation gets worse.

In the trash compactor, Han Solo turns toward the camera and says "It's worse."

The first pinch point foreshadows the power of the story’s antagonist. It gives the protagonist a better idea of the obstacles they must overcome and just how unprepared they are to meet them. It’s called a “pinch point” because it puts pressure on the main characters and brings the pain.

Following the pinch point, the character goes through a stage of realization. They start to understand that the plan or strategy they used in their journey so far will need to change before they can reach their goals. This “finding out” sequence sets up the moment of truth that typically arrives with the midpoint.

Midpoint: the big shift.

You could also call it the big “oh shit.” It’s actually my favorite part of a book to write. It’s the part where you really let them have it, the big twist or reveal that you’ve been building up to through the previous pages.

And now for my own little plot twist: this post is already getting quite long, so while I planned this series as three parts in total, I’ve decided to split this Act 2 breakdown into two. I’ll address the midpoint in more depth to start off the next post. In fact, this serves to highlight a point I wanted to make: that the three-act structure could just as easily be interpreted as four acts, with the act transition at the midpoint.

Thinking of the middle as two arcs actually makes more sense to me in some ways. It would create a more consistent pattern of shift – build – crisis – decision that for each act. The beats or waypoints don’t change, however.

More to come on that next time!

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