Friday, March 12, 2021

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

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The act two disaster shows readers what your protagonist is truly made of.

Since I enjoy putting my characters in terrible situations, the act two disaster is always a lot of fun to write. Writers who want to protect their characters probably won’t find it so entertaining, but remember—this is the moment that allows your poor protagonist to become the person they want to be. So it’s good for them.

All through the middle the protagonist has been trying and failing, feeling the pressure, ignoring their flaw and the lessons the plot has been trying to teach them all book. Just when things are the most dire, something happens that causes catastrophic failure—often something they did, or didn’t do but should have. (Adjust this to fit the scale or scope of your story. What’s catastrophic in a science fiction epic is different from what’s catastrophic in a romance).

In cliché speak, it’s the darkness before the dawn. It all becomes too much and the protagonist feels like giving up, but finds the strength to carry on. They realize the only way to succeed is to face the problem head on and do what they’ve been scared to do all along.

The results of the midpoint reversal drive the second half of the middle toward the end of the act two disaster and the beginning of the climax, which of course leads to the end of the novel.

The act two disaster is exactly what the protagonist needs to push them to victory.

It’s also a moment to remind readers what’s at stake and why everything the protagonist has done so far in the novel matters. Weak act two disasters fail to crank up the tension enough to generate the anticipation and thrill readers are looking for as they transition into the novel’s ending. That might be external tension with dire situations and lives at stake, it might be emotional tension with relationships or self-worth on the line, or could even be intellectual tension with the need to know the answers to questions floating just beyond the reader’s reach.

A deep fall here, puts the protagonist in the right place for the heroic climb back to the top for act three, and makes the win in the climax worth the trip.

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: The act two disaster is the moment when it all goes wrong for the protagonist, and is often the result of trying to fix whatever went wrong at the midpoint. The big plan to save the day fails miserably and they’re worse off now than they’ve been the entire novel. The stakes are raised yet again, and it all becomes too much to handle. There’s also often what Blake Snyder calls “a whiff of death,” where someone or something dies, such as a person, ideal, or belief.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson dies (don’t worry, he gets better), Ra has either captured or killed the military team, and he’s punished the locals by attacking and bombing their village. No one is left to save anyone but the villagers themselves, who are too afraid of Ra to fight back.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss Everdeen is running from a small group of other Gamers (which also includes Peeta) who are hunting her down. She finds and meets Rue as she’s hiding from them, who symbolically becomes the little sister (Prim) she sacrificed herself to save by volunteering for the Games. But she can’t save Rue as she did Prim.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when the person the FBI thinks is the real bomber is caught, and Gracie Hart is thrown off the bomber case. Her support system is stripped away from her. She can’t rely on the FBI (symbolically or literally) so she must use her own wits and new discoveries to win. But she fears she can’t and she’ll let these women (and herself as a woman) down.

When it happens: And the end of act two, right before the 75% mark that launches act three and the climax. This is the big problem that must be resolved in order to stop the antagonist in the climax and save the day (whatever that means for your particular story).
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel is shot and Ra regains his control of the planet. There’s literal and metaphorical death all over the place. Death of characters, death of freedom, death of ideals, death of hope.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Rue is killed and Katniss loses her “little sister.” This the moment Katniss shifts from self-preservation to wanting to bring the Capitol down. Again, a literal death with Rue, and the death of Katniss’s previous views.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie is given the choice of leaving the pageant and keeping her job, or staying and losing it. It’s the metaphorical choice for who she is and who she wants to be, and the death is whichever “her” she leaves behind.

What its function is: To get the protagonist to act three and force them to stand up and fight back. It’s the line they’re not willing to cross, the last straw, the “I can’t take it anymore” moment. It’s really the protagonist’s very last chance to say “Nope, not gonna do it” about resolving the novel’s conflict—which of course they won’t do. They become the hero, pick themselves up and launch act three.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel wakes up from being dead and realizes the true threat Ra brings to these people and the whole galaxy, and how Danial is responsible for what’s happened. He’s put people he cares about at risk.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss loses Rue and realizes it’s about more than herself, and her own sister—everyone’s sister—won’t be safe as long as the Games go on.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie knows she’s the only one who can catch the bomber and save the women she’s grown fond of. It’s more than just a job now. Who she is, is that kid from the playground who stood up to a bully. And she doesn’t need to be an FBI agent to do that.

Why it’s important: Th act two disaster triggers two classic storytelling moments—the All is Lost Moment and the Dark Night of the Soul. These are critical turning points for both the protagonist’s character arc and the external plot, and it’s frequently where the two arcs merge into one.

Often, whatever lie the protagonist has been telling themselves is stripped away, forcing them to see the truth, however harsh. If the antagonist has been a secret or a mystery, this is probably when their identity is discovered (often with devastating effect). Even if the antagonist has been known all along, new information is revealed about them or the plan that makes the task seem insurmountable now.

It’s also where the character arc kicks in. The fatal flaw of the protagonist causes things to turn out worse than expected, and now they have to overcome that flaw to succeed. It’s where characters frequently face their inner demons and emerge victorious, the moment when all is lost and they must dig deep down and examine who they really are.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel figures out it’s not all about chasing knowledge—sometimes you have to deal with the ramifications of what your pursuits lead to. He just wanted to know the truth, but he never considered the consequences of where that truth might lead.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss figures out it’s not just about her survival, and she can’t rely on others to save Peeta. She has the ability to save the boy who saved her, if she’s willing to look past her own “survive at all costs” philosophy. She protects her family at all costs, and Peeta has become “family” to her now.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie has to make it into the final five of the pageant on her own, without the contest being rigged to get her there now that the FBI is gone. She must embrace her femininity and be the woman she’s been avoiding her whole life to do what truly matters to her—protect those who need it.

In essence, it’s when everything is at its lowest point and utter failure seems imminent, but what needs to be done becomes clear.

(Here’s more with The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Internal Conflict That Make Sense)

Things to Remember When Crafting Your Act Two Disaster

1. It’s often created by the protagonist not learning the lessons they needed to for their character arc.

All through the novel the protagonist has been learning the things they’ll need to get up off the mat during this dark moment and fight back. Beliefs have been challenged, flaws have been exposed, and the protagonist realizes they can’t keep doing what they’ve been doing.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel and his team utterly fail by being unprepared for Ra and his level of technology. It’s a wonderful “are we ready to be adventuring in space?” kind of situation, painting us as the “naive children” the same way we viewed the locals as the primitive civilization.
  • In The Hunger Games, it’s when Katniss must change her plans to meet the changing rules of the Games. She can’t keep fighting for herself because it’s bigger than one person.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie understands that she can’t keep fighting who she is and that’s why she’s not treated with the respect she deserves. She’s holding herself back.

(Here’s more with 5 Reasons Our Characters Need to Fail)

2. It drops the protagonist into the All is Lost Moment where they abandon all hope.

Everything the protagonist has tried so far has failed, or has led to failure. They fully believe the worst things about themselves and see no way to win or get out of their problem. They’ve lost all hope and want to abandon everything and slink away in failure and despair.
  • In Stargate, it’s when Daniel learns the truth about Ra, and what O’Neill planned to to with the bomb. Now they’ve put Earth in danger as well as the planet their on. Ra captures and tells Daniel that to preserve his authority (which they’ve put into question by being there) he must kill his team in front of everyone. If Daniel refuses, Ra will kill him and all who have seen him. There can be only one Ra.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Rue is killed and Katniss feels like giving up and letting the Capitol and the other gamers win. She couldn’t save Rue, and she feels she won’t be able to save her sister either. She’s going to die, and so will Peeta.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie is abandoned by her fellow FBI agents and no one believes her about the real bomber. She’s on her own in a world that feels utterly foreign to her.

(Here’s more with All Is Lost: Four Kinds of Death in Fiction)

3. It forces the protagonist to dig down and examine who they are and what they want (the Dark Moment of the Soul).

This dark moment occurs at the very bottom of the protagonist’s despair. It doesn’t have to be an actual night, just a moment (or whatever length you choose) where the protagonist is forced to examine their life and choices and accept how they got to this point. They then manage to dig deep down, gather themselves up, and realize what they have to do. It isn’t truly hopeless, but they’ll have to sacrifice something (this can be any number of things, from a literal sacrifice to abandoning a belief or self-doubt). They’ve learned their lesson and they now know what to do.
  • In Stargate, it’s when Daniel is about to kill his teammates, but sees the villagers have gathered and are willing to fight for freedom if he’ll help them. He finds the strength to fight back in the people he and the team inspired to fight.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss honors Rue’s body by decorating it with flowers, which gains her the respect of Rue’s District and becomes an act of rebellion against the Capitol.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie decides to stay to protect the pageant no matter the cost to her, throwing away her career and risking her life to find the real bomber.

The act two disaster is a low point in the protagonist’s life, but this is the moment that will forge them into the person they need (and want) to be. It’s a catalyst that launches act three and creates the act three plan that will trigger the climax. Yes, it’s usually dark and the characters are all in bad places, but they’re about to pull themselves into the light.

(Here’s more with How to Find Your Character’s Breaking Point)

The act two disaster is the crucible that burns away what’s unimportant to the protagonist and shows them what truly matters.

Yes, they go through hell, but the lies and self-doubt don’t survive the flames. It positions the protagonist to emerge from the worst moment of their life a better (or smarter) person, and that allows them to figure out what has to be done next to resolve the problem. Hard as it is, they must go through this in order to see their way to victory.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your act two disaster, All Is Lost, and Dark Night of the Soul moments. Are they the turning points the protagonist needs to endure to move forward?

Here's the entire story structure series:
What darkness does your protagonist face in the act two disaster?

*Originally published November 2016. Last updated March 2021. 

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

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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. I wondered when there are multiple characters along with the protag, is the 75% mark a good place for the sub-plots to be exposed as well? Or do you sprinkle them throughout?

    1. Either. If a subplot would add to the disaster, make it worse or create a deeper layer, it might be the perfect thing to add. But if it'll distract from the dark moment, then it might be better to move it.

      Look for moments when the subplot or event would have the most impact in the story, wherever they are.

  2. Replies
    1. I am! I just didn't get to it before like I'd hoped. The blog tour took too much time :) But with that over, I can finally finish this series. Thanks for the nudge :)

  3. The disaster is second only to all-is-lost moment as my favorite plot points. I love my MC but I also love to see her suffer!! Thanks for the post. You covered it so well, as usual.

    1. Me, too. I always say, what doesn't kill my characters makes them more interesting.

  4. Just what I needed. Thank you for putting it so well.

    1. Most welcome :) Glad it found you at the right time.