In part 1, I discussed the first Act of a 3-Act story and used Harry Potter and the Philosopher's stone as the example. I also talked about how the 3-Act structure generally works and why it's so useful.
Tackling Act II will be no easy part, Act II tends to be the longest of the Acts because really, Act II is basically the size of both Act I and III combined which is why it generally gets broken down to first 1/2 of Act II and 2nd half of Act II. The core of Act II is confrontation. We're going from introducing the story to confront the story in front of us.
If the hero of the story accepts the quest, they'll be preparing or perhaps heading out for the confrontation itself. They will spar against the villain -- whether that's the environment, another character, or even themselves -- and get propelled into the third act via the consequences of that sparring.
If the hero declines, they will still follow that setup but instead of preparing, they'll spend their time fighting against their destiny.
The 2nd Act can also be looked at as the transition of the story. It tells us how our character goes from someone uninvolved in the plot to an active participant so that in the third Act, we can get our resolution and see who our character has become.
Since I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, I decided to use Harry Potter and The Philosopher's Stone movie for examples. I started with Star Trek and then found a really neat breakdown into the 6-act structure. As far as I can see, if you follow the
Dramatic Phase headings, it's basically a 3-act breakdown but a little more detailed.
The first half of Act II (and remember, Act II is twice the size of Act I) focuses on the rising action of the story. We see our characters overcome first challenges or roadblocks and learn from them. Depending on the genre and tone of your story, this is a good time to show either character competense or failure. It's basically a good time to explore who your primary protagonist is and who the rest of the characters are.
This is also a good place to introduce subplots and B-plots. Those generally don't get explored in Act I and introducing them later in the story can be distracting.
Lastly, every section should have its own climax. That goes for the first half of Act II as well. This is a good place to put in a challenge that helps unify the characters for the first time or perhaps putting the protagonist's abilities to test.
Questions to ask yourself:
Harry Potter The first half of Act II in Harry Potter is his introduction to Hogwarts and the magical world. We meet all the friends and enemies, teachers, and the school. We also discover several sub plots. I'd place Harry's discovery of Quidditch in this section as well. The mini-climax of this part of the story is the fight against the Troll which solidifies the Harry, Ron, and Hermione trio.
Not to be confused with Act II climax, the midpoint is a place for a major success, a devatating failure, or a powerful revelation. We might see our first serious battle between our heroes and villains and the outcome of that battle. It's a confrontation that we need to see through and use to raise stakes.
Harry Potter While I don't necessarily agree with this one, most sources I've read place Harry's broom malfunction here. This is the first time we encounter danger directed at Harry in the magical world. Our (false) revelation is that Snape is trying to kill him. Hermione is successful in countering the spell and Harry catches the snitch.
The second half is a bit more complicated and thus requires several subsections. The 2nd half of Act II deals with the aftermath of the midpoint crisis. It's a point where the characters usually have to be much more proactive about what they do after being more reactive in the first half where things happened to them rather than them causing things to happen. So after they deal with the win or defeat, they need to take action.
Harry Potter Harry's life is now at stake and a larger conspiracy/plot is unraveling. We're done introducing harry to the magical world, now is the time to act. Harry is forced to accept the attacks on his life and investigate the mystery behind the philosopher's stone.
Apparently often called the "page 80 crash", this part of the book focuses on doing the opposite of the midpoint. It's also the place where you'd see the villains closing in. So when you win at midpoint, this should be a loss. If you lose at midpoint, this should be the win.
Being the opposite of the midpoint, this means that if the characters succeded, we should see them lose. Either the villain survived their attack or the villains planned a false defeat. Whichever, or perhaps the characters encounter a setback in their goal after succeeding in their midpoint conflict. This should feel pretty familiar if you're a Marvel fan since many of its movies depend on false defeat.
What's interesting is that if the character lost at the midpoint, there isn't much guidance in the literature I've read on the 3 act structure on how to handle the "All is joy" moment. Perhaps, this is a good place to give the characters hope as they struggle to deal with the aftermath of their loss. I try to pin this as the place of contrast to the midpoint
Harry Potter Harry catches Snape harshly speaking to Quirrell while invisible. Unfortunately, when the trio later go to Hagrid for help, this is the crash -- Draco catches the trio and they all get detention thus putting an end to their investigation.
A dark night of the soul is the main character's lowest point in the story. It ties well to the "All is Lost" moment but it doesn't have to be. It's a time for self-reflection. I also find that this is a wonderful tension break before we ramp the tension up to the climax.
Generally speaking, this is when the character gets a pep talk which helps them get ready for the rest of the story. We should also see the merging of various plotlines -- namely, the main plot and the subplots together.
Harry Potter This is the Mirror of Erised. Things aren't entirely "linear" with these sections but the mirror fits perfectly. The mirror merges the subplot of Harry finding his place and family in the magical world with the main story about the philosopher's stone. When Harry goes to see the mirror for the last time, he also meets Dumbledor who gives Harry a pep talk.
Another contrast point, the 2nd plot point launches us into Act III. Generally, if the midpoint was a failure, this should be a false victory. If you pair this with the "All is joy" moment, you'll find yourself giving the main character a very high point from which they'll crash into the third act.
Again, there isn't much direction in the literature I've read on how to treat "true" victories, but again, paired with the "All is Lost" section, we could make this into a truly devastating plot point from which the main character can raise to meet the final challenge.
Harry Potter Harry goes to the Forbidden forest for his detention. He meets Voldemort in person for the first time (since childhood!) and we learn that Voldemort wants the philosopher's stone. We see Voldemort be closer to victory and coming back to life than ever. From this point on, we'll be in Act III which is focused on getting the stone back and defeating Voldemort.
Keep in mind that the three-act structure depends on that
exposition -> call to action/consequences -> climax flow. This happens scene-to-scene, section-to-section, and sometimes even paragraph/sentence to sentence. You set things up, follow through on what happens due to the setup, and then resolve it.
In Act II, we see this with Rising Action which sets up the rest of the story, as well as a midpoint which addresses the consequences and a climax which happens in the 2nd plot point.
I've been trying to stick to outlining my stories' initial drafts in the 3 Act structure and for that reason, I am including a copy-pastable outline for Act II here. Act I's outline is available in part 1 of this series.
# Act II ## first half of Act II / Rising Action ## Midpoint ## 2nd half of Act II ### All is lost / All is joy ### Dark night of the soul ### 2nd plot point
And then I answer the questions I have about each section to help me form a more fully-defined story
# Act II ## first half of Act II / Rising Action - Who are the protagonist's friends? - What is something important to learn about the protagonist? - What does the protagonist need to prepare to meet the challenge? - What challenges will the cast face as they head for their goal? - What minor plots/sub plots are relevant to the story right now? - What is the cast learning from their experiences? ## Midpoint - Is the goal threatened? How? - How are the stakes rising? - Did the hero: succeed or utterly fail? ## 2nd half of Act II - How did the midpoint change the story? - Did the character come out successful or not? - How are the characters responding? ### All is lost / All is joy - What is the character losing in this section? (eg. someone died, something was destroyed, etc.) - What is the character's hope? ### Dark night of the soul - What are the character's inner struggles? - How are the subplots from the first half of Act II relate here and how do they relate to the current main plot? - What does the character need to hear in order to fulfill the rest of their quest/story? ### 2nd plot point - How is the 2nd plot point propelling us into Act III? - What is the main character finding out which can lead us into resolution? - How are we constrasting the midpoint's result?