Friday, February 26, 2021

Story Structure: How the Act Two Choice Works in a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The act two choice is a pivotal moment in your novel, and the wrong choice could send your middle in the wrong direction.

It’s far too easy to know what happens at the end of act one and just plow on forward into act two without really thinking about how the protagonist got there. Did they choose it, or were they dragged along?

Most writing advice and structures combine the act one problem (whatever name it’s called, as it has several) and the act two choice, but I find it more helpful to think of them as two separate moments. This is the first major plot point where the protagonist needs to choose to move forward. So it seems only logical to pay attention to what that choice is.

If there’s no choice being made, that’s a red flag the protagonist might be reactive or have no agency to act. Without that clear goal, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get stuck within a few chapters, because you don’t know what the protagonist is trying to do. You might know generally, or know where the plot is supposed to go, but without that act-one-to-act-two-goal-handoff, the narrative drive often stalls, because the act two choice is the transitional moment linking the beginning and the middle.

This turning point is when the protagonist chooses to embrace whatever problem they’re confronted with at the end of act one, and accepts the opportunity it offers to resolve that problem. How they decide to deal with that problem establishes how the plot is going to unfold throughout the middle of the novel.

The act two choice verifies what your novel’s plot is about.

Which is why this choice is so important. The act two choice is the first hard decision the protagonist has to make, and it’s a choice that firmly embroils them in the plot. It’s essentially telling you “this is the problem my protagonist is trying to resolve.” If that isn’t the core conflict of the novel (or directly connected to it), odds are your beginning isn’t driving the plot toward the ending, and the novel likely feels out of whack.

Let's break down the basics:

Quick note: I’m using movie examples here because the turning points are more clearly defined, and they’re easier to watch and study than novels. But the same principles apply.

What it is: This is where the protagonist decides to set off on the story adventure they’re presented with in the act one problem, whether that’s an actual quest, or a step in their life that needs taking. It’s a choice to act, to move, to do something that will change the protagonist’s life or something in their life.

The choice is key here, and the protagonist must choose to act (unlike the inciting event, where the protagonist can be dragged into the problem). Greater forces could have gotten them here, but they must decide to move forward on their own. This is their last chance to say, “nope, not gonna do it,” and go home. After this, they have to see it through to the end.

This choice is important, because agreeing to act will force them out of their normal life and into an unfamiliar (and often emotionally scary) situation. Some story structures refer to this as the protagonist leaving the Real World to enter the Story World of the novel. The protagonist chooses to step out of their comfort zone and enter a new and unfamiliar world.

This step into the unknown is vital for their goals, both the external plot goal and their internal character arc goal (if they have an arc). This choice is what officially launches the middle and provides all the fun plot events to explore. Understanding this moment helps you figure out what scenes to write.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson chooses to take that literal step into the stargate and goes through the wormhole to a new world (and thus must learn to navigate this new world and new set of problems or no one will get back home).
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss leaves for the Capitol (and thus enters the new world where she’s a tribute to the Hunger Games and must learn to navigate that situation to stay alive).
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart is finished with her makeover and leaves to become a contestant in the beauty pageant (thus leaving her FBI world and entering a land of “girly stuff” she knows nothing about, and learning to navigate that world will help her stop a terrorist).

You’ll notice “learning to navigate” plays an important role here. This sums up what the protagonist will do in the middle of the novel. They’ve discovered a “new world” and has to figure it out or else bad things will happen.

When it happens: At the beginning of act two, roughly 25% into the novel. It ends the beginning, and begins the middle. The act one problem guides the plot to the act two choice, and the choice to act moves the plot forward.

What its function is: To provide a basic plot framework for the protagonist to experience challenges, and provide the story question for readers that will drive the story until the dark moment at the end of act two. It’s “what the middle is all about.”
  • In Stargate, it's Daniel trying to solve the riddle of the alien stargate and find a way for everyone to get home. Readers will wonder: Can Daniel figure it out before the bad guys find them?
  • In The Hunger Games, it's Katniss going through the training and prepping for the Games themselves. Readers will wonder: How will Katniss do in the Games?
  • In Miss Congeniality it's Gracie pretending to be a pageant contestant while she investigates. Readers will wonder: Can Gracie fit in and find the terrorist?

The act two choice also often launches the protagonist’s character arc as well, because their flaw will be their weakness during the middle of the novel. They’ll struggle and fail, not seeing what they need to do to become the person they want to be.

Why it's important: The act two choice gives the protagonist something to do in the middle, and provides direction for the plot. It also offers the protagonist all the opportunities they need to fix their life and start the important journey of their character arc. Whatever their problem was in the beginning of the novel, readers will see them face similar problems and grow from those experiences.

Blake Synder calls this section the “promise of the premise” in his Save the Cat structure, because this is where you see all the fun stuff about the story idea. This is the reason readers picked up the book.
  • In Stargate, it's watching geeky Daniel grow into the hero by finally using his knowledge and crazy theories to save the day, and seeing how ancient Egyptian life on an alien world works. We see Daniel’s theories proven right.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's watching Katniss use those archery and hunting skills she developed to keep her family alive, and seeing how the Games themselves work and how twisted this world is.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's watching Gracie act girly and try to be a pageant contestant and all the fun fish out of water hijinks that entails.

The act two choice focuses the novel’s plot and makes it clear where the story is going to go, and gives readers reasons to come along for the fun ride.

In essence, it’s when stuff gets real. The choice has been made, and now the protagonist will deal with the ramifications of that choice.

(Here’s more on 4 Steps to Establish the Beginning of Your Novel)

Things to Remember When Crafting Your Act Two Choice

1. The protagonist must choose to act, and have some kind of plan based on that choice.

The middle can’t happen if the protagonist doesn’t have a plan, and the act two choice launches that plan. It doesn’t have to be the best plan in the world, and it doesn’t even have to work (odds are it’s better if it doesn’t work), it just needs to move the plot forward.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel decides to walk through that wormhole to see what’s on the other side, knowing it could get him killed. He doesn’t know if he can get the team back, but he assumes he’ll figure it out once he gets there (and of course, he's wrong and must come up with a new plan).
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss decides to do whatever it takes to win the Games and get home to her family, even if that means killing a boy who once saved her life. She’s going to do it her way to survive, same as she’s always done, even if that bends or breaks the rules (until she realizes she can't kill Peeta and must find a way to save them both).
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie agrees to a makeover she doesn’t want and accepts the humiliation of being dolled up in order to save a bunch of women she has no respect for. Her plan is to put on a disguise and fake it, because what’s on the outside is all that “matters” to the pageant people (until she realizes the strength and value of these women and discovers she's a better person because of them).

The protagonist will have good reasons embracing the plot at this point and move forward, even if their plans don’t work out as planned.

(Here's more on The Impossible Choice: A Surefire Way to Hook Your Readers)

2. The problem must give readers what they’ve been looking forward to seeing.

Whatever the premise is, readers want to see it in action. They want to experience the cool idea that made you write the novel in the first place. It’s probably why they picked up the book or watched the movie.
  • In Stargate, we want to see Daniel being right on an alien world. We want to know about that world and how humans got to another planet.
  • In The Hunger Games, we want to see Katniss fight in the Hunger Games.
  • In Miss Congeniality, we want to see Gracie bumbling her way through a pageant and trying to fit in.

(Here's more on Understand Your Premise to Understand Your Novel)

The act two choice is a strong moment that tells readers "things will be different now, so hang on" and propels the story forward. It should feel like something has changed, and the story has just stepped things up.

Focusing on the choice the protagonist makes to launch act two helps you clarify what your middle is all about.

Boggy middle syndrome is real, and a lot of middle sag because this choice isn’t considered before the middle is written. There’s not enough plot to carry it, because what the protagonist is trying to do is never fully explained or even realized. But the act two choice makes it obvious what has to be done, because you have your protagonist make a decision about what to do, and create a plan to do it.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the end of your act one. Is your protagonist facing a choice, or do they just stumble into act two with no real direction?

Here's the entire story structure series:
Is your middle a direct result of what happens at the end of act one and the act two choice?

*Originally published May 2015. Last updated February 2021.

Find out more about plot and story structure in my book, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems.

Go step-by-step through plot and story structure-related issues, such as wandering plots; a lack of scene structure; no goals, conflicts, or stakes; low tension; no hooks; and slow pacing. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Create unpredictable plots that keep readers guessing
  • Find the right beginning and setup for your story
  • Avoid the boggy, aimless middle
  • Develop compelling hooks to build tension in every scene
  • Craft strong goals, conflicts, and stakes to grab readers
  • Determine the best pacing and narrative drive for your story
Fixing Your Plot & Story Structure Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting gripping plots and novels that are impossible to put down.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Great post Janice. I love how you simplify things. A must-share indeed.

  2. Moving forward with the Act Two choice seems to also be dealing with the sagging middle issue can come into play. That's something I know I have to work on.

    1. It does, since it gives you a direction to go in. Pair that with the mid-point reversal, and you have a great Point A to Point B arc to follow. Then it all rolls down to Point C at the end of act two. This three-point arc solved my boggy middle problems way back when :)

  3. Wonderful examples. Thank you. :-)

    And you're making me want to reread your novel writing book for the third time.

  4. Invaluable advice, Janice. Now I'm trying to figure out just where the beginning of Act 2 is in my current wip. There are several decision my protagonist has to make and I need to know which one starts act 2. I thought I was nearly done with my rewrite. Seems I was wrong.

    1. The act two choice usually coincides with a "leaving the known world" aspect. It doesn't have to be literal, but if any of those decisions shift your protagonist from comfortable in their normal world to uncertain in a new environment or situation, that's probably it.

  5. This is the best explanation of how Act 1 in a novel leads to Act 2 I've ever read. Thank you.

  6. Just happened upon this article and I will agree with an earlier comment, this is absolutely a clarifying explanation of the transition from Act I to Act II and what needs to happen in Act II to ensure the reader remains engaged and even excited. I am also happy to see my story structure seems to fit what you are saying above, not that I knew it as I wrote! Thanks for a good read and great advice.

    1. You're most welcome. Glad it was helpful :) We writers do a lot of things on instinct, and structure is often one of them. It comes from all the reading! We just kinda "know" when things ought to happen.