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Thursday, October 26

Day Twenty-Six: Idea to Novel Workshop: The Act Two Disaster

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Twenty-Six of Fiction University’s At-Home Workshop: Idea to Novel in 31 Days. For the rest of the month, we’ll focus on plot and the major turning points of a novel.

Today, we’re looking at the end of act two and when things fall apart.

The Act Two Disaster


This act two disaster is the moment when it all goes wrong for the protagonist. 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.

Often, whatever lie the protagonist has been telling himself (or what he believed was true) is stripped away, forcing him to see the truth, however harsh. If the antagonist has been a secret or a mystery, this is often where her identity is discovered (often with devastating effects). Even if the antagonist has been known all along, new information is revealed about her to make solving the problem seem insurmountable now.

In cliché speak, it’s the darkness before the dawn.

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.

Key Elements of the Act Two Disaster
  • Is often created by the protagonist not learning the lessons he needed to for his character arc
  • Drops the protagonist into the all-is-lost moment where he abandons all hope
  • Forces him to dig down and examine who he is and what he wants

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.)

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.

The All-is-Lost Moment


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.

The Dark-Night-of-the-Soul Moment


This 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.

Here are things to consider when developing your act two disaster:

1. What is the thing that would make the protagonist want to give up?

2. How might that happen in the story?

3. How might the protagonist get to this point? What events need to happen before this occurs?

4. What is the protagonist’s flaw?

5. How might this flaw cause the protagonist to fail, or lead the protagonist toward failure?

6. What realization might the protagonist have that pulls him out of the dark night of the soul?

7. How might the protagonist put this realization into practice? How might it change him?

EXERCISE: Describe what goes wrong or how the protagonist fails, and how this sets him up for the march to the novel’s climax.


Be as detailed or as vague as you’d like. Consider how this scene might lead to the climax of the novel.

If you’re not sure how much to write, aim for one to three paragraphs that describe how the protagonist’s flaw led him to this moment and what goes wrong, how this sends him to the all-is -lost moment—what he feels and how he reacts, what depths he sinks to during the dark night of the soul, and what realization comes to him that makes him pull himself up and devise a new plan. Writing more is also acceptable if you want to continue with how the plot would unfold to the next major turning point.

Those following along with the PYN book: Workshop Ten goes into more depth on the individual turning points of story structure, as well and the basics of scene and sequel structure. It also shares tips on plotting and story development.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the act three plan, which launches the novel’s ending.

Follow along at home with the book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. Get more brainstorming questions and things to think about, in-depth articles, and clear examples of every step from idea to novel.

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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 her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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