How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: the crucial Act Two


Welcome to Part Twenty-One of this popular series. This week, novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher looks at how you should review the crucial Act Two of your story … probably the most important part of all, and the part in which the most exciting and/or critical action takes place.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Reviewing Act Two

Since we reviewed Act One of your story, you may have been speeding your way through Act Two. If you are approaching, or have reached the halfway mark – which is also the halfway point of your story – we should take a look at how it’s going.

The central section of your story is also the longest; Act Two should be at least twice as long as each of Act One and Act Three and contain most of the action. For that reason, and because it works best in terms of the classic story-telling structure, it’s helpful to break Act Two into two parts.

In Act One, you set up the protagonist(s) and the problem they had to solve. You did this in two sections we called The Trigger – the event that motivated your main character’s journey; and Quest Begins – in which your hero(es) take the crucial, even if reluctant step, to seek the answer the call or resolve the problem that has been set them.

The first half of Act Two moves on to Quest Continues and Reversal 1. These two sections combined can be the most exciting and compelling part of the narrative; the best way to make them so is to check whether you have included your own version of some of these tried and tested elements for this section.

1. A New World

small__4266958089The beginning of the second act of a book is often where the protagonist(s) enter a new world, whether that is a physical place or setting, interacting with a new group of people, taking on a different role, or operating with a changed emotional outlook.

This might be prompted through them setting out on a physical journey, as in classical legends; entering the world of the villain in crime or spy fiction; starting a new job, project or career; becoming part of a beloved’s or antagonist’s social environment; going on holiday; or quite literally falling, walking or travelling into a magical place as in Alice In Wonderland, The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, or Harry Potter.

What kind of new world has your hero entered at the start of Act Two?

2. The Gatekeeper

Introducing a character who serves the archetypal function of a ‘threshold guardian’ or ‘guardian at the gate’ of this new world offers useful opportunities. They could be a boss who promotes the hero or gives them the project; a mentor who offers advice or a warning – the latter being a well-used but often effective technique for generating suspense; or a character who has already entered the new world and invites them in or gives them access.

Alternatively, the Gatekeeper may try to prevent the protagonist(s) entering the new world, either for their own good, because they may know something the hero doesn’t, or because they want to prevent the quest taking place. The Gatekeeper may be on the hero’s side or on the villain’s, or, most intriguingly, they may be one masquerading as the other.

Have you made use of a Gatekeeper to move your main characters into their new world, with advice or a warning?

small_9805935033. The Plan

Early in the second act, the hero must formulate their plan. The reader discovered their goal in Act 1, but now they need to know how the protagonist intends to solve the problem or answer the question. Of course the initial plan will be more straightforward than the quest turns out to require, so the hero will have to change and escalate it through the story. But Act 2, Part 1 is where version 1 is revealed.

Have you made the reader aware of the protagonist’s plan in this section of your story?

3. Complication

Although the initial quest is given to the main character(s) in Act One, early on in Act Two they must learn something which complicates the question or problems they are out to solve. Although the hero(es) should only now discover it, the complication will work best if it is a piece of the back-story that has remained hidden until early on in Act Two. The protagonist must then start to try to solve this bigger, more complicated problem, which is not one of the reversals they experience, but may be something they learn from the Gatekeeper, or arises during their Initiation.

Have you thrown a red hot spanner into the works in the first half of Act Two, to complicate the Plan?

4. Initiation or Training

small__3812983655 (1)When the protagonist enters the new world, s/he will have to learn new skills and gain fresh knowledge to put the plan into practice and deal with the places, people and problems that face them. Their initiation into the new world, or training they need to undergo, often performs a useful function in moving the action forward, introducing information and characters, giving the reader knowledge about a real
or fictitious setting or period, with particular reference to your theme.

What is your protagonist having to learn, or be initiated into, in order to get going on their quest?

5. Building the Team

The initiation period also gives a writer the opportunity to gather the team who will support the hero(es) in achieving their quest. The training allows you opportunities to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of these characters, which will be tested through the later reversals, and their relationships to the protagonist and each other.

Who have you put in place to support your protagonist through their quest and what are their interesting quirks and characteristics?

6. Moving Target

In direct conflict to, or competition with, the hero’s plan, the reader also needs to become aware of the antagonist’s goals in the first half of Act Two. You may have actually shown the forces of evil plotting their moves, or you may wish to reveal only elements or the effect of the antagonists’ plan.

Both techniques are effective, but what is crucial is that the reader sees the villain start to act in opposition to the hero. Whether or not the heroes realise who is attacking them, their enemy must be shown as present and active; a constantly moving target requiring the hero’s response; a ticking clock.

How is your villain making their presence felt in the first half of Act Two?

7. Genre definition

small__5548640988The first part of Act Two is where you have the greatest opportunity to use the distinctive story-telling tools. In a crime story your protagonist can question witnesses, suggest and eliminate suspects, collate and follow clues, voice their theory. This is where you can also set up red herrings and false trails. If you are writing a romance, the hero can have an initial encounter with her object of desire, learn about their negative past, come up against her rival. If you are writing science fiction or fantasy, develop the physical, technical, social and moral aspects of your setting.

Have you made it clear to the reader (and potential publisher or agent) that you know how your genre of story works, even if you want to subvert the norms later?

8. The Midpoint

When you reach the middle of Act Two, your protagonist must experience her or his first major reversal: a midpoint climax which is often a set-piece action scene or major emotional unraveling. It might be a sex scene or a comedy scene, or both in a romantic comedy. It could be an unexpected crime, revelation about a team member, or earth-shattering event or experience. Whatever this reversal is, make sure that it has acted as a major game-changer for your hero(es).

The end of Act Two, Part One is when the protagonist has a revelation, suddenly seeing what it is about themselves that has to change in order to achieve their goal, and leading to a new learning curve through the second part of Act Two, where they struggle with their past attitudes, behaviour, morals, understanding or expectations. It is a point of no return, which can come out of a huge defeat, a loss, or an action by the villain which means that ‘now it’s personal’.

What happens to your protagonist at the end of Act Two, Part One that changes their thinking as they move into Part Two? 

Next week we will look at the different forms of fiction writing.

For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here

photo credit: drurydrama (Len Radin) via photopin cc
photo credit: Gabriela Camerotti via photopin cc
photo credit: drurydrama (Len Radin) via photopin cc
photo credit: drurydrama (Len Radin) via photopin cc