The Three Acts: Act Two
Follows: Act One
This series of three essays will be detailing the basic plot points that make up the three act structure, and identifying the patterns that naturally occur throughout a story. This essay deals with Act Two.
The second act progresses the characters and their situations into conflict, raising the stakes to the highest point. Often, the Lock-In at the end of Act One will trigger some form of countdown, increasing the tension throughout the story. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, that is the ever present reminder that Harry has more to find out about his parents and the scar on his forehead, maintaining a tense atmosphere in what could otherwise be a fairly lax section of school lessons and Quidditch. Although left out of the film adaptation, the original book of Jurassic Park features a boat heading to the mainland with Velociraptors on board, slowly drawing closer. It can often become a cliché, but having some form of deadline does increase the tension in what is widely regarded as the hardest part of a story to write.
Act Two comprises of five steps, commonly referred to as the First Obstacle, the Midpoint, Character Change, the Main Culmination, and the First Resolution. These are all part of the natural story arc, and will often occur without realisation on the part of the writer. At least one Subplot usually features, running alongside the main story.
The First Obstacle
After becoming locked in to their objective, the protagonist will set off on their journey (whether physical, mental or emotional) towards a goal. This is the start of the second act. At some point they will come across an obstacle. To be honest, there are usually many obstacles in the protagonist’s journey towards the resolution, and often they get harder to overcome as the story progresses, but the first is the moment when the protagonist is initially challenged.
In Jurassic Park, after arriving at the island in the beginning of the second act and seeing all the dinosaurs, a group of visitors including Alan Grant are outside the T-Rex enclosure. Their Inciting Incident was the arrival of John Hammond, inviting them to his theme park. Dennis Nedry, however, has only recently been introduced. The Lock-In was when he accepted the offer to steal dinosaur embryos, and as a result he turns off the park’s electricity. That causes the First Obstacle for the group of visitors; the release of the Tyrannosaur.
This is, fairly obviously, right in the middle of the story. How the story turns out often affects what happens here. If the story is heading towards the protagonist winning in the end, as is often the case, then this will usually be a high point for the character, a success. If, however, the story has a tragic ending, then this will be a defeat. The midpoint usually matches the ending of Act Three, but is the opposite of the Main Culmination that occurs later in Act Two. These aren’t fixed rules and can be changed to suit, however they occur in this pattern considerably more often that not.
For example, in Jaws by Peter Benchley, the Midpoint occurs after the Mayor has refused to close the beach for the 4th July holiday, resulting in another shark attack. Brody, the protagonist, then persuades the Mayor to hire Quint to hunt the shark. Despite the carnage that is occurring, this is a victory for Brody, mirroring the ending of the film where he finally kills the shark. It is also in direct contrast to the Main Culmination which happens later when they attempt, and fail, to harpoon and kill the shark, a low point for the characters.
In contrast, the Midpoint for Brett Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho is when Patrick Bateman is interviewed by Kimball; a detective investigating the disappearance of one of Bateman’s supposed victims. This is a setback for Bateman, as he is close to getting caught. The Main Culmination is then his confession, his moment of finally admitting who he is, a victory for him. The ending, therefore, is his greatest defeat.
The Character Change
During the second act each character needs to undergo a change, especially the protagonist. Each obstacle causes them to react accordingly, trying desperately to overcome them. If at first they failed, they start to succeed, or the other way round depending on the planned outcome. This difference in results occurs as they are trying new approaches, altering their tactics, evolving as a character.
Back in Jurassic Park, after the T-Rex attack, Alan Grant is stuck with two children. He hates children. He must overcome this, and he does, bonding with them in their state of strife. Strangely, this was only added for the film version. In the book by Michael Crichton, Alan Grant loves kids, and does not undergo a character change.
The Main Culmination
As previously stated, this is the point where the entire second act comes together, either as a success or failure, depending on the overall outcome of the story. For Harry Potter, this is the point where he, along with Ron and Hermione, go to tell Dumbledore that the Philosopher’s Stone is about to be stolen, after encountering a shadowy figure in the forest, only to find he has been called away from Hogwarts. The culmination involves the three young wizards undertaking a series of difficult challenges to try and steal the stone themselves and prevent Voldemort from acquiring it. This is the lowest point for the characters within the story; the opposite of both the Midpoint where Harry entered and won the game of Quidditch, and the ending where the story is positively resolved.
The First Resolution
From the Main Culmination, an initial state of resolution will be reached. This is where the story could technically end, as the Main Culmination has been completed, if it were not for the subplot. In the case of The Transporter, starring Jason Statham, the story does stop here. The problem with finishing at this point is that the ending feels hollow and unsatisfactory. Imagine Harry had stolen the Philosopher’s Stone and ensured its safety, and then everyone was happy and that was that. The story would be missing the final twist, and as such would not be complete. The First Resolution is the point at which the story transitions into the Third Act, and for Harry Potter that was realising it was not Snape attempting to steal the stone, but someone else who had help from a much darker influence altogether.
In Jaws, after battling with the shark in the Main Culmination, Brody and Quint are left in a state of low morale. Hooper, the marine biologist who was assisting them, has been killed after going into a shark-proof cage in the water, and their attempts to destroy the great white failed disastrously. It should be noted that in the film adaptation Hooper is not killed, nor does he go into the cage until later in the story, however the characters are still left defeated and their boat is damaged. In both versions of Jaws this is a point at which they could just give up and surrender the sea to the shark, but instead the story enters its Third Act.
The Main Subplot
This is almost a separate story that runs parallel to the second act. It is a key feature that will launch the Third Act, as it collides with the main plot to take the overall story in a different direction towards the end.
For example, the main plot of American Psycho involves Patrick Bateman committing acts of violence, killing, and generally causing as much destruction as possible. Running alongside that is the subplot of his projected life; his job in mergers and acquisitions, his engagement, his appearances at meetings and dinners. Whereas the main plot consists of him considering and then carrying out murders, and trying to get away with it whilst being investigated, the subplot features his musings on his colleague’s business cards and his appearances as dull parties. Both the main story and subplot dance very closely together but are always kept separate, until the start of the Third Act when they spill over into one another as Patrick revisits an apartment where he killed two prostitutes, but whilst adopting his public persona and during the day instead of as himself at night.
The Other Subplots
Throughout the story, particularly the second act, there may be other subplots that feature. These can go on for a while or just be brief detours, as they are not essential to the overarching plot.
For example, in the novel Jaws there are two additional subplots. Firstly, an investigation shows that the Mafia have invested heavily in the town, and the beaches were not closed after the first attack due to concerns of potential lost revenue. Secondly there is a lengthy subplot involving Brody’s wife having an affair with Hooper. Although they relate directly to the main plot, both were excluded from the movie adaptation, unlike the main subplot: Hooper’s scientific fascination with the shark. That subplot appears in both the book and film, and was necessary due to its collision with the main story, ushering in the Third Act.
Next: Act Three
© 2016 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.