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Wednesday, November 2

Story Structure: The Act Two Disaster

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I took a bit of a break with this series, but it’s time again to examine the basics of the major turning points in the Three Act Structure. So far, we’ve discussed how the opening scene leads to the inciting event, which leads to the act one problem, and presents the protagonist with the act two choice, and how that choice throws the story into the middle of the novel on to the midpoint reversal. The results of the midpoint reversal will drive the second half of the middle toward the end of act two disaster and the beginning of the climax, which of course leads to the end of the book.

All through the middle the protagonist has been trying and failing, feeling the pressure, ignoring his flaw and the lessons the plot is trying to teach him. Just when things are the most dire, he acts in a way that causes catastrophic failure. (Adjust this to fit the scale or scope of your story. What’s catastrophic in a science fiction epic is usually different from catastrophic in a romance).

The act two disaster hits around the 75% mark of the novel. It's 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 he's worse off now than he's been the entire novel. The stakes are raised yet again, and it all becomes too much to handle.

This 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 himself is stripped away, forcing him to see the truth, however harsh. If the antagonist has been a secret or a mystery, this is often when his identity is discovered (often with devastating effect). Even if the antagonist has been known all along, new information is revealed about him or the plan that makes the task seem insurmountable now.

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. He realizes the only way to succeed is to face the problem head on and do what he’s been scared to do all along.

Let's break down the basics:

What it is: In essence, it’s when everything is at its lowest point and failure seems imminent.
  • 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 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 her as a woman) down.

When does it happen: 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).

What's it's function: To get the protagonist to act three and force him to stand up and fight back.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson wakes up from being dead and realizes the true threat Ra brings and how he’s responsible for what’s happened. He’s out people he cares about at risk.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when the Gamers announce if both candidates from the same District are left, both win. Katniss realizes she can save Peeta even if she couldn’t save Rue.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart 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.

Why the act two disaster is important:
This is where the character arc kicks in. The fatal flaw of the protagonist causes things to turn out worse than expected, and now he has 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 Jackson figures out it’s not all about chasing knowledge, sometimes to 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 Hart 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.

Things to Remember When Crafting Your Act Two Disaster


1. Is often created by the protagonist not learning the lessons he needed to for his character arc

All through the book the protagonist has been learning the things he’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 he can’t keep doing what he’s been doing.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson 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 Hart 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.

2. Drops the protagonist into the All is Lost Moment where he abandons all hope

Everything the protagonist has tried so far has failed. He fully believes the worst things about himself and sees no way to win or get out of his problem. He’s lost all hope and wants 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. 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 Hart 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.

3. Forces him to dig down and examine who he is and what he wants (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 (whatever length you choose) where the protagonist is forced to examine his life and his choices and accept how he got to this point. He then manages to dig deep down, gather himself up, and realize what he has to do after all. It isn’t truly hopeless, but he’ll have to sacrifice something (this can be any number of things, from a literal sacrifice to abandoning a belief or self doubt). He’s learned his lesson and he now knows 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.
  • 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 Hart 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 him into the person he needs to be. It’s a catalyst that launches act three and creates the act three plan that will trigger the climax. Yes, it’s often dark and the characters are all in bad places, but they’re about to pull themselves into the light.

Any questions on the act two disaster? 

Looking for tips on planning, writing, or revising your novel? Check out one of my books on writing:  Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in my Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).


A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and the first book in her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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8 comments:

  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?

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    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.

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  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 :)

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  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.

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

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

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

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