Elements of Act Two (Story Structure, cont.)

by Alexandra Sokoloff

Since Gustav prevented me from teaching my “Screenwriting Tricks” workshop in New Orleans, I’m even more ready to continue the conversation here (plus I know some people out there are waiting for Act Two tips…)

Here’s the Elements of Act One discussion, for those just joining us.

But first – I wasn’t here to respond to Rob Gregory Browne’s excellent comment on that post, so I’d like to start with it. He said:

The one thing I would argue with — and this always gets me into trouble — is character arc.

Most stories take place over a few hours, days, or weeks. Unless you’re writing a sweeping saga, the timeline is very short.

To have a character discover something about herself over such a short period of time — at least to the point where it changes her, is, to my mind, a bit of a stretch.

Generally speaking, people don’t change in a few days, no matter what they’re confronted with. If something major happens, like a death in the family, a mugging, an accident — people are certainly affected by it, but any change they go through would still take months or even years.

Yes, I know we’re talking fiction, and fiction often has a kind of accelerated reality, but I think too many of us put too much emphasis on the idea that your hero has to change in some way.

Does James Bond change? Even in this last, best Bond, Bond went from being a ruthless killing machine to a slightly more ruthless — and pissed off — killing machine. Not much of a change.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch has changed, but it has taken several books — and years — for that arc, and it’s still in progress.

Or look at Jack Reacher. To my mind, he is one of the greatest characters in fiction these days — every writer wishes he’d created a Reacher, and readers love him. But change? Not much. In fact, we don’t WANT him to change. Reacher remains the same solid, unflinching nomad throughout the story, and we know that in the end he’s going to save the day, then walk off alone into the sunset.

Now, I’m not suggesting there’s anything WRONG with a nice character arc, I just don’t think it’s a NECESSARY element of fiction.

My two cents, at least.

Well, first, I’d like to disagree that sweeping character change is not possible in a limited time frame. Compression is pretty much the essence of drama, and a great story will present a human being in a crisis, or crucible, that forces great change. That’s one of the main things we seek out in stories, especially standalones, in which you only have that one shot to say EVERYTHING you want to say.

Plus, you know, I’m a drama queen and I need things BIG.

But Rob is right that a lot of classic characters don’t have a huge range of change. So I’d like to restate what I’ve said before about


Series hero/ines are a different animal than standalone hero/ines. One theory of this is that readers who are devoted to a series character really want to see the same person, over and over again.

I think it’s a little more complicated than that. I think a lot of classic series characters, especially series detectives – and of course James Bond and his sexier modern incarnation Jack Reacher do spring immediately to mind – are really examples of the “Mysterious Stranger” archetype, and Mysterious Stranger stories have their own story structure. Mary Poppins is the classic Mysterious Stranger; she pops in (get it?), fixes the family, and pops out, while remaining herself “Practically Perfect in Every Way”. SHANE is a great film with a Mysterious Stranger structure, although Shane is a much more wounded Stranger than Mary Poppins – he’s very imperfect, unable to change, and therefore unable to integrate into society in the end – but he does fix the town’s problem and the wound in the family that temporarily takes him in.

James Bond and Jack Reacher are also perfect characters in their ways (although, from a female POV, perfectly infuriating). Rob is right – we don’t want them to change. The trick to the Mysterious Stranger structure is that it’s the OTHER characters who have the big character arcs in the story (although in some Mysterious Stranger stories, the Stranger does have an arc as well. Emma Thompson had some fun with that – as the screenwriter and actress – in the recent film NANNY McPHEE, based on the books by Christianna Brand). And of course not all series detectives are perfect Mysterious Strangers, either – I myself am partial to the flawed ones, like Tess’s surly Jane Rizzoli.

This all goes to emphasize an important point: different genres have very different story structures, and you need to study and understand the classic tricks and expectations of your own genre. That’s why I so adamantly advocate creating your own story structure workbook, as I’ve talked about here:

All right, on to Act Two.

Act Two is summed up by the greats such as, like, you know, Aristotle – as “Rising Tension” or “Progressive Complications”. Or in the classic screenwriting formula: Act One is “Get the Hero Up a Tree”, and Act Two is “Throw Rocks at Him” (and for the impatient out there, like Toni, the end-skipper, I’ll reveal that Act Three is; “Get Him Down.”)

All true enough, but a tad vague for my taste.

So let’s get more specific.

The beginning of the second act of a book or film (30 minutes or thirty script pages into a film, 100 or so pages into a book) – can often be summed up as “Into the Special World” or “Crossing the Threshold”. Dorothy opening the door of her black and white house and stepping into Technicolor Oz one of the most famous and graphic examples… Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole is another. The passageway to the special world might be particularly unique… like the wardrobe in THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE; that between-the-numbers subway platform in the HARRY POTTER series; Alice again, going THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS; the tornado in THE WIZARD OF OZ; the blue pill (or was it the red pill?) in THE MATRIX; or the tesseract in A WRINKLE IN TIME.

This step might come in the first act, or somewhat later in the second act, but it’s generally the end or beginning of a sequence – think of ALIEN (the landing on the planet to investigate the alien ship), STAR WARS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC, going out on the ocean in that too-small boat in JAWS, flying down to Cartagena in ROMANCING THE STONE, flying to Rio in NOTORIOUS, stopping at the Bates Motel in PSYCHO. It’s often the beginning of an actual, physical journey in an action movie; in a ghost story it is entering the haunted house (or haunted anything). It’s a huge moment and deserves special weight.

There is often a character who serves the archetypal function of a “threshold guardian” or “guardian at the gate”, who gives the hero/ine trouble or a warning at this moment of entry – it’s a much-used but often powerfully effective suspense technique – always gets the pulse racing just a little faster, which is pretty much the point of suspense. Think of the housekeeper in Shirley Jackson’s THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE – who memorably will not stay in the house “in the night… in the dark…”

I highly recommend Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY and John Truby’s ANATOMY OF STORY for brilliant in-depth discussions on archetypal characters such as the Herald, Mentor, Shapeshifter, Threshold Guardian, and Fool.

Also very early in the second act the Hero/ine must formulate and state the PLAN. We know the hero/ine’s goal by now (or if we don’t, we need to hear it, specifically.). And now we need to know how the hero/ine intends to go about getting that goal. It needs to be spelled out in no uncertain terms. “Dorothy needs to get to the Emerald City to ask the mysterious Wizard of Oz for help getting home”. “Clarice needs to bargain with Lecter to get him to tell her Buffalo Bill’s identity.”

It’s important to note that it’s human nature to expend the least amount of energy to get what we want. So the hero/ine’s plan will change, constantly – as the hero first takes the absolute minimal steps to achieve her or his goal, and that minimal effort inevitably fails. So then, often reluctantly, the hero/ine has to escalate the plan.

Also throughout the second act, the antagonist has his or her own goal, which is in direct conflict or competition with the hero/ine’s goal. We may actually see the forces of evil plotting their plots (John Grisham does this brilliantly in THE FIRM), or we may only see the effect of the antagonist’s plot in the continual thwarting of the hero/ine’s plans. Both techniques are effective.

This continual opposition of the protagonist’s and antagonist’s plans is the main underlying structure of the second act.

(I’m giving that its own line to make sure it sinks in.)

The hero/ine’s plans should almost always be stated (although something might be held back even from the reader/audience, as in THE MALTESE FALCON). The antagonist’s plans might be clearly stated or kept hidden – but the EFFECT of his/her/their plotting should be evident. It’s good storytelling if we, the reader or audience, are able to look back on the story at the end and understand how the hero/ine’s failures actually had to do with the antagonist’s scheming.

Another important storytelling and suspense technique is keeping the hero/ine and antagonist in close proximity. Think of it as a chess game – the players are in a very small, confined space, and always passing within inches of each other, whether or not they’re aware of it. They should cross paths often, even if it’s not until the end until the hero/ine and the audience understand that the antagonist has been there in the shadows all along.

Besides this continual clash of opposing plans, the hero/ine’s allies will be introduced in the second act, if they haven’t already been introduced in Act One.

In fact there is often an entire sequence called “Assembling the Team” which comes early in the second act. The hero has a task and needs a group of specialists to get it done. Action movies, spy movies and caper movies very often have this step and it often lasts a whole sequence. Think of ARMAGEDDON, THE STING, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (I mean the great TV series, of course), THE DIRTY DOZEN, STAR WARS – and again, THE WIZARD OF OZ. One of the delights of a sequence like this is that you see a bunch of highly skilled pros in top form – or alternately, a bunch of unlikely losers that you root for because they’re so perfectly pathetic. I had fun with this in THE HARROWING – even if you’re not writing an action or caper story, which I definitely wasn’t in that book, if you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters, the techniques of a “Gathering the Team” sequence can be hugely helpful. The inevitable clash of personalities, the constant divaness and one-upmanship, and the reluctant bonding make for some great scenes – it’s a lively and compelling storytelling technique.

There is also often a TRAINING SEQUENCE in the first half of the second act. In a mentor movie, this is a pretty obligatory sequence. Think of KARATE KID, and that priceless Meeting the Mentor/Training sequence that introduces Yoda in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.

There’s often a SERIES OF TESTS designed by the mentor (look at AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).

Another inevitable element of the training sequence is PLANTS AND PAYOFFS. For example, we learn that the hero/ine (and/or other members of the team) has a certain weakness in battle. That weakness will naturally have to be tested in the final battle. Yoda continually gets angry with Luke for not trusting the Force… so in his final battle with Vader, Luke’s only chance of survival is putting his entire fate in the hands of the Force he’s not sure he believes in. Lovely moment of transcendence.

Very often in the second act we will see a battle before the final battle in which the hero/ine fails because of this weakness, so the suspense is even greater when s/he goes into the final battle in the third act. An absolutely beautiful example of this is in the film DIRTY DANCING. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Baby can never, ever keep her balance in that flashy dance lift. She and Patrick attempt the lift in an early dance performance, Baby chickens out, and they cover the flub in an endearingly comic way. But in that final performance number she nails the lift, and it’s a great moment for her as a character and for the audience, quite literally uplifting.

Of course you’ll want to weave Plants and Payoffs all through the story… you can often develop these in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do one read-through just looking for places to plant and payoff. A classic example of a plant is Indy freaking out about the snake on the plane in the first few minutes of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The plant is cleverly hidden because we think it’s just a comic moment – this big, bad hero just survived a maze of lethal booby traps and an entire tribe of warriors trying to kill him – and then he wimps out about a little old snake. But the real payoff comes way later when Salla slides the stone slab off the entrance to the tomb and Indy shines the light down into the pit – to reveal a live mass of thousands of coiling snakes. It’s so much later in the film that we’ve completely forgotten that Indy has a pathological fear of snakes – but that’s what makes it all so funny.

I very strongly encourage novelists to start watching movies for Plants and Payoffs. It’s a delicious storytelling trick that filmmakers are particularly aware of and deft at… it’s all a big seductive game to play with your audience, and an audience eats it up.

Other names for this technique are Setup/Reveal or simply FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle). Woody Allen’s latest film, VICKI CRISTINA BARCELONA, does this beautifully with the long buildup to the intro of Maria Lena, the Penelope Cruz character. Penelope completely delivers on her introduction and I think she’s a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination for that one.

The Training Sequence can also involve a “Gathering the Tools” or “Gadget” Sequence. The wild gadgets and makeup were a huge part of the appeal of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE (original) and spoofed to hysterical success in GET SMART (original), and these days, CSI uses the same technique to massive popular effect.

In a love story or romantic comedy the Training Sequence or Tools Sequence is often a Shopping Sequence or a Workout Sequence. The heroine, with the help of a mentor or ally, undergoes a transformation through acquiring the most important of tools – the right clothes and shoes and hair style. It’s worked since Cinderella – whose personal shopper/fairy godmother considerately made house calls.

And the fairy tale version of Gathering the Tools is a really useful structure to look at. Remember all those tales in which the hero or heroine was innocently kind to horrible old hags or helpless animals (or even apple trees), and those creatures and old ladies gave them gifts that turned out to be magical at just the right moment? Plant/Payoff and moral lesson at the same time.

I’d also like to point out that if you happen to have a both a Gathering the Team and a Training sequence in your second act, that can add up to a whole fourth of your story right there! Awesome! You’re halfway through already!

Also in the second act (but maybe not until the second half of the second act) you may be setting a TIME CLOCK or TICKING CLOCK. I talked about this suspense technique here:

And you’ll also want to be continually working the dynamic of HOPE and FEAR – you want to be clear about what your audience/reader hopes for your character and fears for your character, as I talked about in the Elements of Act One.

A screenwriting trick that I strongly encourage novelists to look at is the filmmakers’ habit of STATING the hope/fear/stakes/odds, right out loud. Think of these moments from

JAWS: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” (Well, yeah, they should have, shouldn’t they?)

SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: “Do NOT tell him anything personal about yourself. Believe me, you don’t want Lecter inside your head.” (And what does Clarice proceed to do?)

ALIEN: “It’s going to eat through the hull!” (When they first cut the alien off John Hurt and its blood sizzles straight through three layers of metal flooring. How do you kill a creature that bleeds acid?)

The writers just had the characters say flat out what we’re supposed to be afraid of. Spell it out. It works.

Okay, this is long enough for one blog so we’ll continue next week, after I say one more thing.

All of the first half of the second act – that’s 30 pages in a script, or about 100 pages (p. 100 to p. 200) in a 400 page book, is leading up to the MIDPOINT. This is one of the most important scenes or sequences in any story – a huge shift in the dynamics of the story. Something huge will be revealed; something goes disastrously wrong; someone close to the hero/ine dies, intensifying her or his commitment (What I call the “Now it’s personal” scene… imagine Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis growling the line), or the whole emotional dynamic between characters changes with what Hollywood calls, “Sex at Sixty” (that’s 60 pages, not sixty years.) And this will often be one of the most memorable visual SETPIECES of the story, just to further drive its importance home.

We’ll pick it up next week – Act Two, Part Two.

But in the meantime – can you give me any great examples of the story structure elements we’ve talked about here?

28 thoughts on “Elements of Act Two (Story Structure, cont.)

  1. billie

    Alex, thank you for this – all of it.

    I realized I couldn’t keep this all inside my head so I went back and printed out the entire series in sequence – as of today I have 30 pages!

    I hope you realize that by the time you’re done you’ll have a nonfiction book proposal. 🙂

  2. Julie Kramer

    Alex, your advice is so specific and spot on.Now that my debut is out, people are always asking me now, just how do you write a book? And I’m really not sure what to answer. I’ve just told them to plow through it. Which is an ineloquent response and not particularly useful. That you have analyzed this question and presented it in such a remarkably clear manner is impressive. I’m saving your links for all the people who come to me for advice.

  3. Allison Brennan

    Brilliant, as usual. I swear, I can re-read your posts over and over and learn something new 🙂 . . . the beginning of the second act is always the hardest part for me. I don’t know why, but my manuscripts are generally 500 pages, and right between 125 and 150 I get stuck. Each and every book. The next 100 pages are excruciating. Once I hit the midpoint, it’s (generally) smooth sailing. Everything starts tumbling into place and I realized I’d planted hints I didn’t even know about.

    As you know, :), I don’t plot, but I see all these elements in my books. But if I think about it too hard when I’m writing, I start to panic, so it’s best not to think about it until the page proofs . . .

  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Julie, that means a lot, thank you! I just love to hear that it’s making sense.

    It’s being fun to realize that after all these years I can actually sit down and write something that even halfway coherently explains something that feels so magical (and a lot of the time, impossible…)

  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey, Allison, it’s pretty clear to me you internalized story structure a long, long time ago and you don’t need to think about it any more.

    I do find it fascinating that it’s your Act 2: 1 (second quarter) section that you have the most trouble with – almost everyone else I’ve ever run into gets suicidal over the THIRD quarter.

    But whatever you do, however you do it, it’s working – no reason to fix what’s not broken!

  6. Rob Gregory Browne

    Good points, all, Alex. As usual.

    And no, I’m not going to disagree with you this time. 🙂

    Allison, I think every hits the “writer’s wall” during the course of a book and it’s usually around the same place for that individual writer.

    When I write, I try to think in segments, rather than acts. Or sequences. This sequence will lead to that sequence and before you know it, you’ll have a book.

    I say this, however, being woefully behind on latest book. And I’m not even UP to the second act yet.

  7. R.J. Mangahas

    Thanks once again for sharing these great insights Alex. I have been compiling the notes from all the ‘Rati posts into a binder. Man what great references. And lately I’ve noticed I’ve been paying closer attention to movies to look for the points that you’ve talked about.

    By the way, did you get my e-mail last week. It kept getting kicked back to me. Please let me know if you need it again.

  8. R.J. Mangahas

    Oh, I just thought of an example as far as the second act foreshadowing. There are two scenes in DEATHTRAP that I think lead to the eventual struggle between Sidney and Clifford. The first scene is where they are both sitting at their respective typewriters when eventually Sidney takes a peek at what Clifford has been writing and it turned out to be a play of the murder they just committed.

    And I think the second significant event was when Helga Ten Dorp appears and starts predicting things like Sidney being attacked by a “man in boots.”

  9. Jake Nantz

    Ms. Sokoloff,

    Once again you give us fabulous info that is real-world applicable. A thousand times, thank you.

    As for examples, the “New World” segment and the “gathering of the team” that stand out to me are in ALIENS when they leave the Sulaco and drop to the planet below (with the marines), and in THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING when the fellowship is formed. It’s interesting that I can even see the “guardian’s warning” in ALIENS, when Bill Paxton’s character, Hudson, jokingly remarks, “Express elevator to Hell, going down!” He’s smiling and laughing, but in the end it really is a kind of Hell or crucible for them.

    Great, great stuff. Again, thank you.

  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Oh, Ira Levin is fabulous to study for reveals and reversals. Thanks, RJ, I’ll have to re-rent DEATHTRAP.

    And Jake – perfect examples. You start looking and you see these storytelling tricks everywhere.

  11. David J. Montgomery

    A lot of info here to absorb… My head hurts! 🙂

    Talking about character arcs… I think Rob is right that characters don’t HAVE to change during the course of a story. However, it can be very interesting, and provide a lot of dramatic material, if they do. I think it all just depends on the dictates of the story you’re telling. But trying to force change on a character when it isn’t an organic part of his/her development is a mistake.

  12. R.J. Mangahas

    Yeah, DEATHTRAP is just a great story overall I think, and I really like Ira Levin’s work anyway. I even directed a scene from DEATHTRAP for a directing class. I would like to direct the entire play eventually.

    Another play that I liked was GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER by Steven Sondheim and George Furth. I may actually read it again and try to break it down into the structure elements.

  13. R.J. Mangahas

    Yeah, DEATHTRAP is just a great story overall I think, and I really like Ira Levin’s work anyway. I even directed a scene from DEATHTRAP for a directing class. I would like to direct the entire play eventually.

    Another play that I liked was GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER by Steven Sondheim and George Furth. I may actually read it again and try to break it down into the structure elements.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Aw, David, and I didn’t even buy you a drink first!

    Will make it up to you at B’Con.

    R.J. – I don’t know GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER – must be from that Sondheim period when I was off having a nervous breakdown or something. I’ll have to check it out.

  15. Catherine


    I think the first season of ‘The Wire’ showed strong elements of gathering the team,and the tools.

    I can’t remember an individual line, but I do remember an early scene of the team trudging further and further into the darkness to eventually find a very grotty basement as their operational room. It was pretty clear that the team and the tools were all discards.

    Also another scene further in where some of the team were trying to move a desk in and they were all struggling to help and then realised they were working against each other, both pushing and pulling and getting nowhere.

    Even though I can’t remember individual lines, I am left with strong visual impressions of what was feared, and the pastiche team gathered.

  16. pari

    One of the things I adore about Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder series is the “Gathering of the Team.” It’s done brilliantly and you end up liking every single one of the misfits.

    Alex, these posts are just fabulous.

  17. Becky Hutchison

    Thanks so much again, Alex.

    Since your “Screenwriting 101” post, I’ve been watching some of my favorite DVDs using your techniques, and I understand story structure somewhat better. I’m looking forward to your “Act Two, Part Two” (and of course watching more movies for research).

  18. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Catherine, you’re absolutely right about THE WIRE (breaks my heart to remember that great show is over…). That was a particularly good collection of misfits, and it illustrates a powerful story technique – make your hero/es underdogs. We all naturally root for the underdogs. It gets an audience or reader involved in the story right away.

  19. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I haven’t read the Dortmunder series but I love Westlake. And I love these misfit stories.

    Saw BURN BEFORE READING last night and talk about a collection of just off-the-charts misfits! The house was packed and the audience was in stitches.

  20. Bryon Quertermous

    I read this and get sick because I realize just how bad my plotting skills are. I usually hit a block around the end of the first act which I can usually work through, but my story always falls completely apart after the midpoint. I’m awful at raising the stakes because I either go too subtle and just wander around with my characters talking to each other or ramp up the stakes too much and it seems cartoonish and ridiculous. I also lose track of all the great stuff I plant in the first half and can’t figure out how to use it to it’s full potential in the second half.

  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Bryon, sweetie, honey, stop beating yourself up!

    This is why I really urge authors to look at films in their genre to improve their plotting skills. It’s much more fun to research film (there is popcorn involved, after all…) and in film you’re looking at plot stripped to its bare bones essence, so if you look to great films that are following the same story structure that you’re writing, it’s much easier to see the actual lines of the plot of the kind of story you’re working on.

    Try it. It beats working!


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