At this point, we’ve established the environment of the story, met the main character and any quirks he/she might have. We also introduced the main story problem. Then we formed a plan to remedy said problem and executed that plan. It ended in a major disaster. (Read back for a lot more detail.)
I’m kind of proud of one of my lines, so I’m going to repeat it here: Your hero cannot rise from the ashes until he’s been reduced to ashes in the first place. That’s where we begin this section.
Personal observation: This section is always my middle slog. It’s the hardest part for me to write.
I’m going to open with something that probably deserves its own post one day. It’s called the Dark Night of the Soul.
Remember, our main character had some success, gathered allies, trained, maybe obtained special equipment. In a fairy tale, maybe it involved magical gifts from friends. Our hero had some success. Remember also, that most people will expend the minimum amount of effort to achieve a goal. That didn’t work out too well.
It’s time to pout. There might be grieving for losses at this point, and it’s important not to gloss over this. I’m not saying we need chapters of this stuff, but our character is human (most of the time). We want readers to feel this part. This is not one of those, “I’m going to Disneyland,” moments.
Eventually, we get to reassessment about what went wrong and any weaknesses the antagonist revealed, if any.
As we come out of the Dark Night, there should be a sense of desperation and even some raised stakes. This is where it gets interesting – and difficult.
We know this character and everything he/she is capable of. (At least we think we do.) Now the hero is going to have to do something she is ill equipped for, or is she? As an author you should reassess the strengths and weaknesses, then find alternative ways of using them. For example an Army commander has to know a lot about movement, firepower, surprise, and more. Make this person attempt a pincer maneuver using ships at sea. He’s not a Navy person. Will it work? Play on the desperation of the time.
There’s no time for another plan. At best you get a sequence of micro plans from event to event. Is your hero up to the task? Run and gun.
Food for thought: Make sure you don’t substitute a new character with the same name, clothing, and goals. You can’t pluck Rick Moranis from your story, then replace him with Chuck Norris for the finish. Rick has to finish the story, and he should use twisted versions of what he learned along the way. Plan “A” didn’t work, but he didn’t suddenly forget everything he knew up to that point.
If you use a ticking clock, or car chases, this section is most likely where they show up. Five minutes from nuclear war; the love interest is boarding the plane in half an hour; the Indians attack at dawn. You have four seconds left, a field goal will tie the game, but a touchdown wins it all.
If it sounds desperate from the last paragraph, it is. Your main character can’t get this wrong and there is no second chance.
You should consider having your hero break some personal codes, maybe even the law. He’s that desperate. I mentioned The Untouchables last time. Elliot Ness is on his last nerve. He runs Frank Nitti down. This is the same guy who killed his friends and he’s right in front of him. Then he throws Nitti from a tall building. This is something we didn’t see coming, and let’s face it, you cheered. You know you did.
Here’s a quote to give you the memory of what your main character should be like at this point. Delivered by Kurt Russel in Tombstone. “From now on, I see a red sash, I kill the man wearing it. So run you cur. And tell the other curs the law’s coming. You tell them I’m coming! And Hell’s coming with me.” Big change from the Wyatt Earp who wanted to raise a family and stay out of the local problems.
You have 25,000 words at your disposal. Make them about small battles, victories and losses, but overall making headway. Your plants should start paying off along the way. Remember the look on Kurt Russel’s face. (The clip is on YouTube.)
Typically, somewhere in this section your main character discovers the key to victory, even if it isn’t obvious. Maybe the competing love interest is actually a bigamist. Maybe you find some Kryptonite. This is an option, so write it your way. Whatever it is, don’t make it a matter of luck or coincidence.
At the end of Act 2, your hero/ine should be tired, emotionally drained, possibly wounded, and desperate. He should also be right on the doorstep of the main antagonist. Act 3 is going to happen on enemy turf.
We want a sense of place. You’re in the driveway of the mansion. The other guy is richer, taller, darker, and more handsomer. (I know it’s not a word.) He’s also the absolute wrong guy for Lisa Lovely, but your hero is Mr. Right. And Mr. Right brought a tire iron with him. If it’s a vampire story, substitute a wooden stake (And make the sun set).
You’re in Mordor, and finishing this journey will claim your life. (The enemy’s door step.) Jaws found the survivors in the water.
I wasn’t an Elizabeth Swann fan, but she delivered one hell of a motivational speech in “At World’s End.” It framed the stakes quite well before the final battle. Hoist the colors, indeed.
There’s a good old fashioned ass-kicking coming, but let’s save that for Act 3. Talk about a cliff-hanger. Yup, this is the place for one of those.
Next time we visit, it will be about Act 3. Are you enjoying this series? Would you consider using this structure in your own stories? It works for every kind of tale, so don’t let my examples put you off.