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Monday, May 18

Story Structure: The Act Two Choice

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

After the inciting event has occurred, and the protagonist is faced with the story question of the act one problem, it’s time to make a choice and launch act two.

The act two choice is the transitional moment, linking the beginning and the middle. The protagonist chooses to embrace whatever problem he’s confronted with, and accepts the opportunity it offers to resolve that problem. How he decides to deal with that problem establishes how the plot is going to unfold throughout the middle of the novel.

The act two choice frequently launches the protagonist’s character arc as well, because his flaw will be his weakness during the middle of the novel. He’ll struggle and fail, not seeing what he needs to do to become the person he wants to be.

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

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 him here, but he must decide to move forward on his own. This is his last chance to say, “nope, not gonna do it,” and go home.

This choice is important, because agreeing to act will force him out of his 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 his comfort zone and enter a new and unfamiliar world.

This step into the unknown is vital for his goals, both the external plot goal and his internal character arc goal. This choice is what officially launches the middle and provides all the fun plot events to explore. Understanding this moment helps us figure out what scenes to write.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson takes 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. He’s discovered a “new world” and has to figure it out or else bad things will happen.

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.

When does it happen: 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 moves the story forward.

What's its function:
To provide a basic plot framework for the protagonist to experience and provide the story question for readers until they get to the dark moment at the end of act two. It’s “what the middle is all about.”
  • In Stargate, it's Daniel Jackson 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 Hart pretending to be a pageant contestant while she investigates. Readers will wonder: Can Gracie fit in and find the terrorist?

Why it's important: The act two choice gives the protagonist something to do in the middle, and provide direction for the plot. It also offers the protagonist all the opportunities he needs to fix his life and start the important journey of his character arc. Whatever his problems were in the beginning of the novel, readers will see him 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 all the fun stuff about the story idea is seen. This is the reason readers picked up the book.
  • In Stargate, it's watching geeky Daniel Jackson 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 Daniels’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 Hart act girly and try to be a pageant contestant and all the fun fish out of water hijinks that entails.


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 Jackson 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 figures 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 Hart 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” (until she realizes the strength and value of these women and discovers she's a better person because of them).
(Here's more on making characters face hard choices)

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 the cool idea that made you write the novel in the first place. It’s why they picked up the book.
  • In Stargate, we want to see Daniel Jackson 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 Hart bumbling her way through a pageant and trying to fit in.

(Here's more on reader expectations)

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.

Any questions about the act two choice?

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.