All Downhill From Here: Story Structure in Act 2, Part 2

This blog is late.

It’s late because I made the silly mistake of promising in my last post in this series that the next part would come “next week” i.e. the second half of November. Well, that didn’t happen, for a variety of reasons including getting behind on NaNoWriMo, exciting new health issues, and getting extremely distracted by the ongoing flaming dumpster fire in the world of social media. So, here I am in the second half of DECEMBER trying to get back on the blogging horse.

I did make my Nano goal, scraping by on the skin of my teeth, but decided to take a bit of a break from writing after November 30. In the last week, I started work on the book again, which means that I am actually just getting to the end of the second half of Act 2 in my manuscript, the same section that this blog will discuss. Fortuitous!

I noted in my last post that you don’t have to divide a story’s middle or Act 2 into part 1 and part 2. Instead, you could just split the difference and call the 25% following the midpoint Act 3 of 4. Mathematically, it makes a lot more sense than three acts. As I said in my first installment, I blame Aristotle for everything.

A woodcut print of Aristotle in profile with a full beard and Roman letters underneath that presumably say "Aristotle, the original mansplainer"
This asshole. Seriously, though, he was just like, some dude.
(Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae: Aristotle by Anonymous, Italian, mid-16th century is licensed under CC-CC0 1.0.)

However, the beats don’t change if you renumber the acts, at least in this model. Once again, there is no one true way to write a novel or structure a story. This blog post reflects my current understanding of structure and how I apply the beats to help me shape my narrative chaos. It’s not gospel, so take what makes sense to you and leave the rest!

Let’s start with the midpoint (a very good place to start).

Last time, I ended with a brief discussion of the midpoint, so I’m starting this post by digging much deeper into my favorite beat. When I’m drafting, the midpoint often becomes a scene or set piece that I “write toward”: a big emotional turning point, a romantic first time, or a major reveal. Some writers even plot their book from the midpoint, building out the beginning and end from a central, transformative plot element.

The character may face a more intense choice at this pivotal moment than the one faced in the first plot point. The midpoint may therefore mark a stage at which things get much worse, overturning the main character’s view of the world and causing them to face a serious failure. How they respond to the ratcheting stress at the midpoint and what they choose to do about it, along with the consequences of that choice, will go on to power the second half of Act 2.

Dodgeball gif: two announcers look at each other, and one says "It's a bold strategy, Cotton. Let's see if it pays off for 'em."

Alternatively, they might appear to get much better in a “false victory” scenario, setting up a worse fall later. Romance novels often provide an example of this second type of midpoint. Often the main romantic couple will take a big step forward in intimacy around the middle of a romantic story. This could be a first kiss, hopping in bed together, or making an emotional commitment, depending on what type of romance you’re writing. But that risk sets them up for new doubts as the stakes rise and challenge them to really put their heart on the line.

Breaking it down further, the midpoint can be understood to have two parts: before and after, a big revelation or reversal and a moment of truth, or what James Scott Bell calls the “Mirror Moment.” In the mirror moment, the plot revelation/reversal is an external event, something that happens to change the character’s perspective or understanding. The moment of truth is about internal change and how the character shifts their approach in response to the events of the plot.

Note that they don’t have to happen in this order. In a more interior, character-centered type of story, the character’s attitude may shift first, resulting in a big reversal. Again, romance is a great example of this: the couple’s feelings about each other may change first, leading to actions that establish a new level of intimacy.

I love to write dramatic and emotional midpoint beats that challenge my characters or force them to face their worst fears. Just as I treat the first plot point as the moment of no return, I see the midpoint as a gate through which the character must pass no matter how little she wants to, and one that has lasting, even permanent consequences. If I’m struggling to figure out what I want to happen at this point, I usually find my way by asking what would really shake up the story and force my protagonist into action.

Start the clock: when the “bad guys close in.”

The second half of Act 2 flows out from the midpoint. It explores the consequences and complexities that cropped up in that fulcrum moment and reveals the true nature of the obstacles or antagonist. If the midpoint is an explosion, this second half represents the fallout. If one prefers to use a less violent metaphor, the midpoint is a wellspring, and the rest of Act 2 is a river running downhill with the natural, sometimes branching, but ever-seaward path of water.

A rapidly flowing stream between steep mossy banks with a giant log fallen across it (going downhill, but not necessarily without incident)
Watch out for that tree. Photo by Jonathan Clark on Pexels.com

Traditionally, this is called “falling action.” For every action, there must come an equal reaction, so if the midpoint turned on a false victory, this second half of the book’s middle will reveal that it ain’t over yet and there are still challenges ahead. If the midpoint left the characters at a low point or false defeat, the second half will offer them new hope of success.

In traditional romance formulas, internal factors or external factors may threaten to force the lovers apart in this stage. Because romance tends to focus more on emotional arcs, usually the internal challenges will present the biggest obstacle. Conflicts between love and other priorities may arise or old traumas rear their ugly heads, though external antagonists sometimes reinforce these themes via the B-plot.

In a more action-driven plot, external factors often introduce a ticking clock, a rising threat, or a newly determined villain. At the same times, the protagonist’s shortcomings, greatest fears, or emotional wounds may compound and confound them. Time is running out for them to figure out a way forward and events speed up, while their options begin to disappear one by one.

The Save the Cat model defines the “Bad Guys Close In” beat as the entire second half of Act 2, from around 50% to the 75% mark. But as with the “Fun and Games” beat, it’s easy to get bogged down in this long section, or at least it is for me. Again, I find the description of this beat a little bit misleading, because:

The BGCI is where the hero learns the problem was never them. The problem was me.

Jose Silerio, Why Bad Guys DON’T Close In

The second pinch point: that’s gonna leave a mark.

In addition, just as the “Fun and Games” beat skips over the first pinch point, Blake Snyder’s “Bad Guys Close In” also skips the second pinch point. This beat falls between the midpoint and the transition to the final act, a quarter-mark if you will, though it’s more like the 62% – 65% mark if you want to get technical. (Note: I include the percentage benchmarks throughout this series because I find them helpful in my own outlining, but it’s easy for them to feel limiting too, so remember, your mileage may vary.)

The second pinch point often allows the villain to get the upper hand, at least temporarily. Remember, pinch points are supposed to hurt. It’s often marked by a loss of something the protagonist was counting on to support their success, forcing them to find a new way forward and foreclosing other, easier paths.

A classic type of second pinch point in mythic stories is the death of the mentor. Obi-Wan Kenobi falls to Darth Vader; Yoda passes away before Luke has completed his training; Gandalf falls to the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. Suddenly, the hero character is kicked out of the nest of mentorship and must go on alone, though they haven’t yet come into their full powers.

In a romance, the classic second pinch point becomes the traditional “Third Act Breakup” (that’s Act 3 out of 4in this context, btw!) When the antagonist is an inner barrier to intimacy, the breakup represents a victory of those dark forces. Lately, I’ve read quite a few romances that skip this formulaic wrinkle, which I really appreciate, so it’s important to note there that there is certainly more than one way for a couple to wrestle with their weak spots.

In black and white, Bette Davis says, Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night.

Regardless of genre, the pinch point represents a new complications that tightens the vise of circumstance around the protagonist. What happens here can help push the character toward a final, transformative moment that then opens up into the final sequence and resolution. It forces them to accept the reality of their fatal flaw even as they realize how much their choices really matter.

Hope is lost: the dark night of the soul.

In the wake of a big loss or misstep, the protagonist may lose hope. They haven’t figured out how they need to change, or maybe they don’t want to change, and it feels like they have no good way to succeed. This beat brings them to their lowest point, their rock bottom.

Save the Cat marks two beats here: “All Is Lost” and the “Dark Night of the Soul.” If you’re keeping track, the benchmarks anticipate that hope wanes around 75% and the dark night then proceeds through the 80% mark. Again, your mileage may vary.

In reality, the dark night of the soul is the darkness before the dawn. As I write this, it’s Solstice Week, which seems appropriate. This beat has the energy of winter solstice, of the longest night and the coldest, palest days.

A Death tarot card with art deco style line art of the titular skeletal figure in green with ornate letters and a weeping person in gold below is displayed among pink and white petals on a white background.
Photo by Alena Yanovich on Pexels.com

The thing about the Solstice is that you can’t tell for a while that the light is coming back. The “All Is Lost” moment brings the character to a symbolic death, the death of their old self. In the long dark, they must hold vigil, turning inward for the self-knowledge that holds the key to their next passage, reflecting on the story’s theme.

It’s a transformative space, an initiation. A caterpillar in its chrysalis dissolves, its body liquifying, its cells decaying. Then, invisibly, something new begins to form out of cells called “imaginal discs.” Finally, it takes on a different shape with new abilities and leaves the remains of its old self behind.

In the crucible of the hopeless night, as the protagonist faces the darkest truths, change begins to take hold. What they have been doing, their old ways of existing in the world, and their known strategies are not working. Their false belief has screwed them, and they need to lay a new foundation before they emerge in their “final form.”

A new butterfly hangs upside down from its chrysalis, with other chrysalises waiting their turn.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The path reveals itself: “Break into Act Three”

The final act begins when the character emerges from this transformative process. Deep within, they’ve found their reason to move forward and try again, along with a strategy that integrates their new core belief. The light starts its return.

The story isn’t over yet, though. The final act will demonstrate how the character’s internal shift affects their external circumstances. Maybe they’ll save the world, defeat the antagonist, or maybe they’ll change one small part of it. Maybe just their own lives will change, as they commit to new relationships. Or maybe their new perspective will just change the way they see their old lives.

George Bailey says "Isn't it wonderful? I'm going to jail!"
Tis the reason for the season…?

I’ll be back to talk about that, um, maybe next week? Maybe next year! We’ll see what happens.

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