ACT TWO – Confrontation
Typically the longest of all three sections: Act Two usually comprises the second and third quarters of the story.
The protagonist gets to know their new surroundings and starts to understand the challenges that lay before them.
2012: Using both NaNoWriMo and 100k100days, I start to think about the stories that I want to write. I’m excited by this new decision, and over the next few years, I create more and better stories. But at the back of my mind, there’s a niggling thought – I’m just working hard to create more and more wasted words.
Each new project is attacked with gusto, and I am convinced that this novel will be my breakthrough. I even went as far as submitting one of my novels (“Firewall”, which still hasn’t seen the light of day) to a publisher. No response.
Each novel is a challenge, a desire to tell a good story with a well-crafted manuscript. And after writing it, I recognise that something goes wrong from around the halfway point. I think I need to look into that, to see if there’s a way I can improve that part of the novel. A documentary about Ian Rankin highlights an issue which sounds familiar https://youtu.be/9FkHgEkVkSY?t=1612 – where his wife talks about the page 65 pause. It’s the imposter syndrome thing, where most authors I speak to get to a half to two-thirds point in the book where we suddenly question what we’ve written.
It’s no big surprise that the Midpoint takes place at… drumroll, please… the middle of the story! A significant event should take place here, usually involving something going horribly wrong.
2016: This is the point where my antagonist changes – from a single, identifiable novel, to my mounting catalogue of stories and first drafts that I keep building. I now have eight poor first drafts, a set of six novellas, and various bits and pieces that I’ve been working on. But it has become obvious that I’m getting nowhere with this policy. It’s just that I’m not happy with any of the novels I’ve written. They seem weak, drawn-out, saggy, and generally unsatisfying. But I’m beginning to realise that my attitude is flawed: that simply by starting the next, and oh-so-much-better novel, things will sort themselves out. The alternative might be that I just can’t write novel-length fiction, and I’ll never produce a novel worth anything. Maybe the NEXT novel will be my breakthrough.
Spoiler alert – it wasn’t.
THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
The main character hits bottom, and wallows in hopelessness. The ‘Why hast thou forsaken me, Lord?’ moment. Mourning the loss of what has “died” – the dream, the goal, the mentor character, the love of your life, etc. But, you must fall completely before you can pick yourself back up and try again.
2017: My antagonist has changed. I was fighting the good fight with each novel as I approached it, but I began to see the bigger threat, the Boss Level behind. What was it? It was my HUGE catalogue of unfinished work. It sits behind me, towering – an unstable jumble of words, threatening to topple and engulf me.
I had a works-in-progress spreadsheet, and every time I added a new novel, and more words, the gross sight of all those titles, all those million-plus words, was weighing heavier and heavier upon me.
I would sometimes open up the file of one of those stories. I’d review where I was in the story – exactly how complete was it when I left off? Maybe if the story stood up, and needed just an injection of an edit to bring it to life, like the monster of Dr. Frankenstein. Then I’d close the file soon after.
Looking inside the beast only made matters worse. I had eight first drafts, but nothing I felt like working on, because I knew they all required a massive rewrite. And at this stage, I didn’t know how to do that, because I was afraid that rewriting it, without changing my process, wouldn’t affect the viability of the story in any way.
There’s a subplot here. In an effort to fix my poor storytelling, I began to look into ways of fixing the saggy middle and to control the pacing better, since I recognised this was a major problem. I started to investigate the structure of storytelling. I bought lots of books and read lots of websites and articles. There were many analogies – I liked the one about building the internal frame of a house before constructing the walls and floors. And about having an architect’s drawings before breaking ground. That made sense to me. You could still change the colours on the walls, even turn a bedroom into a study, the thing wouldn’t fall down.
But, going back to the massive weight of my unfinished back catalogue, threatening to engulf me, I was no further forward. I seriously needed help. Would anyone be able to help me out of this huge mess of my own making?
PLOT POINT TWO or BREAK INTO ACT THREE
The aftermath of the Midpoint crisis will force the protagonist to pivot from being a “passenger” to a more proactive force to be reckoned with. Think of Plot Point Two as the pep talk your character needs in order to stand up straight and get ready to meet their antagonist head on.
2018: Step forward my lovely writing group friends. As a group, we rented out a large house in the Essex countryside as a writing retreat. During an after-lunch session, I laid out my sheets in front of them. What I’d written, which genre they fitted into, how many words and what their status was – complete, 80% complete, and so on.
I have a great image in my head of half a dozen friends, talking amongst themselves, swapping pieces of paper like “I’ve got a police procedural here” and “oh, I’ve got one of those, too – let’s put them together”.
Then we did the most important task of this whole process. One friend asked “what are you most passionate about?”
I’d never thought of asking myself that.
“I enjoy reading crime stories, and I enjoy writing about crime. I like to write about someone trying to get away with illegal or immoral behaviour, and how they might be caught. I enjoy politics, and I feel like much of the political landscape seems to be full of self-serving individuals with money changing hands in shady deals. I enjoy writing about climate change, and how we seem to be sleepwalking into a global climate disaster, because no one is prepared to make the difficult decisions and change people’s ways of life.
In that dining room, there was more discussion amongst my friends, and swapping of pieces of paper.
“Right,” said the person with three piles of paper in front of them. “This is your crime. There are various types, including police procedurals and cosy crime, but this is crime.” She laid her hand on another pile. “This is your politics, with a side order of climate change and a sprinkling of crime.” She laid her hand on the last pile. “This is your ‘none of the above’ pile. It doesn’t fit into either of those two categories, and from the amount of words in them, it seems like you’re not so passionate about them.”
She was right. Romance isn’t my thing. Fantasy isn’t my thing. I hadn’t even shared with them the erotic novel I’d started writing. Good thing, too. It was awful.
“And of these two,” she said, laying her hands on the politics and crime piles. “which do you feel most passionate about.”
Politics. No question. Hands down. I despise corruption.
In the meantime, in my story structure subplot, I’d written a book on Story Design (https://gerald-hornsby.com/story-design/) and begun to see how a Save The Cat outline, from the late Blake Snyder, might help guide my manuscript through the story.
Tomorrow – Act Three!
Thanks to the Reedsy Blog Three Act Structure
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