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Act Two Shoulders the Burden

February 21, 2012 by Kiersi

The Hobbit

Here I stand, on the precipice of Act Two: 25,000 words into my new fantasy YA novel, and realizing that I’ve finally arrived at the hard part.

Writing Act One is often easy, and if it isn’t, you probably know less about your characters and your world than you should. Act One tells readers where the story is headed: it details the major players, the background, setting, and most importantly–the conflict. But once the groundwork has been done, there is still a story to tell. For me, as a writer, this sometimes is the hardest part.

Almost every story I tell, I know at least two things about it: Point A, where the story starts, and Point B, where the story ends. Our two equilibriums, and in between, the spiral that carries one to the other. But knowing Point A and Point B alone is like looking at a dinosaur skeleton and seeing just the skull and the tailbones: is it a Diplodocus, long-necked, four-legged, and built like a blue whale? Or is it a Tyrannosaurus, regal, upright, and carnivorous? (If only I could tell the story all in metaphors!)

There’s a lot of debate in the literary world over the divisions of story structure, and I acknowledge that–so let me just say here that I use “Act One,” “Act Two,” and “Act Three” only in the sense that this format is easy to understand for most and suits the purpose. “Act Two” represents the meat of the story (oh, I have T-Rex on the brain now), which I sometimes refer to as the juice. As an example, we all know the plot of Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

Act One: What are Hobbits? Where do they live? Who is this Bilbo Baggins? The wizard and the dwarves arrive, and Bilbo’s life changes forever.

Act Two: The adventure. Trolls, goblins, Gollum, eagles, Mirkwood, Lake-town, and Bilbo’s infiltration of Smaug’s mountain.

Act Three: The Battle of the Five Armies (the climax), and Bilbo’s return to the Shire, much the wealthier.

As you can see, “Act Two” makes up a good 75% of the story. There are many undulations within Act Two; many “sub-acts,” with their own beginning, middle and end. Let’s take Bilbo’s adventure into the Goblin caves: he gets lost trying to hide from the goblins and winds up in Gollum’s lair, setting the stage for Gollum (Act One); Bilbo interacts with Gollum in the darkness, exchanging riddles with the twisted creature, and discovers the ring’s power of invisibility (Act Two); in the climax, uses his final riddle to escape (Act Three).

So here I stand at the precipice of Act Two, looking to each of the events that will lead to my eventual Point B–my Act Three. Looking to Bilbo’s story for guidance, there is another important lesson to remember when plotting Act Two: suspense and tension.

Once you’ve laid out the sub-acts of Act Two–the undulations that keep the story interesting, allow the characters to change and develop, and eventually bring us to Act Three–you must also lay a line of suspense that keeps the tension rising. While each sub-act has a climax that lets the reader let out that breath he’s been holding, each sub-act must also maintain overall plot suspense. One way to think of it is like this: small adventures first, that lead to larger and more important adventures. In Bilbo’s story, we get the trolls first: scary in their own right, of course, but more of a test of the band of heroes’s strength and cunning. Later, we have Mirkwood, an adventure with much higher stakes. By the time we reach Smaug, everyone is involved: men, elves, dwarves, eagles and goblins. The climax in Act Three is also the climax of a sub-act–though it is the greatest sub-act of them all.

I like Bilbo’s story as well because each sub-act introduces another major player in the climax. It’s uncharacteristically neat, with each thread from each sub-act being pulled together into a hornet’s nest at the finale. Stories with twists are often the most interesting in regard to the climax; Fight Club is a great example, where the threads we thought had one meaning end up having a totally different meaning when all wound up together in Act Three. Masterful storytellers plants each seed of Act Two very carefully, knowing that they must somehow come together at the end.

If you’re anything like me, at this point you’re ashen-faced and asking, How? Some books on the matter recommend index cards, with each sub-act on a card so they can be rearranged as necessary to drive the story forward and keep the tension mounting. I’m a woman of straight-writing: I start at the beginning and write until the end, letting the story unfold as it seems fit. Each method has upsides and downsides. Indexing your acts allow more clever climaxes and more careful plotting, but straight-writing lets unexpected twists happen naturally. It depends on what kind of writer you are, and how rigid or fluid your writing tends to be.

I’m  off to reason out my next 50,000 words. Good luck!


  1. Jim Snell says:

    Good luck!

    I hate index cards and outlining, but then I’ve never been particularly organized. Although, it seems to me, neither is life – and a novel should be like life. Too organized and it’s just a movie script.

    Although I guess I kinda do a hybrid. As I’m writing, I jot down notes and ideas and things the story has to have and places it has to, or at least should, go – and then I hope as I’m writing the characters will actually take it there.

    Excitement ahead! Have fun.

    • Kiersi says:

      Thanks Jim!! I do a bit of note-taking as well as I move forward in a story. I get ideas from other books or life events, and let them roll around in my head for a bit before I give them life.

      There is something to be said for indexing in the second and third drafts of a book–especially if you get feedback from a reader that the story arc seems lacking, or one scene doesn’t seem to logically add up to another. I still hate it, though. Editing is like the math homework of writing novels.

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