Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.33: The Long, Dark Second Act of the Soul

Your Hosts: Brandon, Victoria, Dan, and Howard

Many Writing Excuses listeners have asked us how we muscle through writing second acts, those big, chonky “middles” of our stories. In this episode we attempt to provide answers.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. The title of this episode is a nod to the second Dirk Gently novel from Douglas Adams.

Homework: Take a favorite book, movie, or whatever: attempt to identify where the second act begins and ends. Then make a list of what you love about the second act. Now take that list, and map it onto your OWN second act, in order to build a second act that you love.

Thing of the week: Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: How do you make the second act interesting? When you’re stuck, make something happen. Also, admit that it is going to be rewritten. Think about the second act as the fun part, where trailer scenes come from. Play with things, build fun scenes. Connect the dots! Know what you have to do, and find the most exciting ways to do it. Treat your chapters and scenes like episodes, with plenty of escalating miniature arcs. Act one, introduce things, Act three, blow them up. Act two, make trailer moments, show us a new context. Fill the second act with try-fail cycles. Foreshadowing moments, little lessons and pieces of information building towards the resolution. Use the inherent tension of how. Make the problem larger, involve more characters, expand the scope. Try-fail cycles can give the reader some awesome, too! It’s not just a hamster wheel, more of a winding path towards the climax. Character change. Don’t worry too much about this during writing, but use it for outlining, revision, and when you get stuck. Get your Muppet chest buster.

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 33.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, The Long, Dark Second Act of the Soul.

[Victoria] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Victoria] I’m Victoria.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] Howard named this episode, if you couldn’t tell.


[Brandon] Second acts. Let’s talk about second acts. We got a lot of questions about how to make middles of your story interesting. One question is, “I’m pantsing my SF book and started with a vague wouldn’t it be a cool idea to begin with and went from there. I quite like how the character’s progressing, but I’m basically stuck in the second act.”

[Howard] The best advice that I’ve got for pantsers. It’s in two parts. The first part is, when you are stuck like this, make something happen. Blow something up, burn something down, a couple of people get in a fight, just make something happen. The second is admit to yourself that this is going to need to be rewritten. That you may need to chop off the front, you may need to rewrite the ending, you may need to prune bits out of the middle. But, for me, when I pantsed, getting unstuck was way more important than sitting down and outlining the end. On several occasions, that exercise of getting unstuck… I’m going to make something really exciting happened… Reinvigorated me and I realized, “Oh. Oh, that’s right. Oh, that’s what I wanted to do.” And off I go. The thing, in about half the cases, didn’t end up exploding. It did something else.

[Dan] So, one of the things that made me change the way I think about second acts was I was reading a screenwriting book. It was talking about the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story. In talking about the second act, it said, “This is the fun part where most of the scenes in the trailer come from.” I thought I’ve never thought of it that way. This is the part where the characters have entered a new situation or they’ve gained some new powers, they’re doing something new and they’re playing with all of those new things. So now I try to put that into my second acts, and say, this isn’t just the part you slog through to get to the end. This is where you get to play with all your fun toys and build the fun scenes that are going to end up in the trailer.

[Victoria] I mean, the hard part is, right… The first act, you get to introduce all your toys. The third act, you get to make them blow up. You get to put them where they’re going to land. In the second act, somehow, you have to get between those two points. I mean, I fully admit, I am not a pantser. But, even before my extreme outlining days, where I am now like finding so much joy in execution, I would try and give myself what I used to call the connect-the-dots theory. Which I would try and make between 3 to 6 points in my story. Even if I didn’t know where the story was going or how I was going to get between those two points, even having three meant that I had something I was moving towards. I could say, “Okay, here I am in the story, and I have this one spot, one thing I know I want to have happen before the end, and I am moving toward it. What’s something that could happen between here and there?” And I figure out another dot. Now I’ve got half the distance between. I go, “What’s something that could happen?” You’re essentially playing a choose your own adventure game. I had a friend who used to say, “How do you make it worse?” Basically, like, she wrote a zombie novel, and the zombies chased these two kids up the tree. There up the tree and it seems like it’s pretty bad. The question is how do you make it worse. She set the tree on fire. Right? Like, it’s that moment. Sometimes it’s just finding ways to play, but I do think this is the hard part. It can’t just be play, because you also need to progress the story. Nothing is more frustrating than when you get to a really interesting book that has an amazing first act, you get to the second act, and all of a sudden, they’re in the fire swamp, right? They’re just like wandering through it, without any real purpose except to kill time.


[Victoria] And maybe gain assets and like toys and things that they’re going to need to fight the final battles.

[Dan] So, let’s look at Star Wars. I’m old enough that when I say Star Wars, I mean Episode IV. Okay? Act Two Is the Death Star. The things that have to happen narratively are we need to rescue the princess and we need to lose our mentor. Both of those are opportunities for big set pieces. We lose the mentor, and it’s not just well, we’re going to… They die in the fire swamp. It’s a lightsaber battle. That’s the only lightsaber battle we get in that movie. Rescuing the princess… There’s this whole gun chase, and then they get thrown into a pit with a monster that tries to eat them, and then they drown and all these things. So, knowing what you have to do, and then finding the most exciting way of accomplishing that is kind of what the second act is for.

[Brandon] I think readers/viewers are really sensitive to the second act thing, without knowing it.

[Victoria] Yeah.

[Brandon] This is one of these things that, just by consuming media, you pick up on. I’ve noticed that a lot of the movies that people love and the sequels that people love are all ones that are surprisingly good in the second act. Right? Star Wars is a great example. But even when people say, what are the best sequels of all time? It’s always the second movie that you expect to be bad because the first one was good, and we’ve been trained that the middle’s the weakest. Yet, the best Star Wars movie, a lot of people say it’s the second one. The best Godfather movie, The second one. The best Toy Story’s movie is the second one. I think this is partially because people are expecting it to be bad, and it’s good. Those expectations are then subverted. If you can do a good second act in your story, I think that that will just make the readers unconsciously say, “Wow, this is fantastic. I don’t expect this to be the most exciting part, and it is.”

[Victoria] I mean, this is one of the reasons we discussed in a previous episode that I was on where we disc… I discussed treating my chapters and scenes like episodes. I think it’s in part to help me avoid the lull of the second act by creating miniature arcs within the story that bring their own satisfaction, and then stitch together into something. To me, a part of it, and we can talk about this more later, is I pretend there is no second act. I don’t break it into three. I find that very, very stressful. I work forward from the beginning and backwards from the end, and I populate it with escalating arcs, because I think we put so much pressure on the second act that it becomes a place of dread. The middle of a book is already a place of dread because it’s when you’re most likely to quit writing it. It’s when the shiny new idea sweeps in, it’s when you’re full of distraction, and you’re beginning to get bored because everything’s becoming familiar and you have to begin delivering on promises that you made in the first act. It’s a very treacherous place to be. So I do think maybe also like take some of the pressure away of thinking of it as the 2A and 2B, of thinking of it as this central part of your narrative which has to hold the whole roof up. Start to look at those exciting episodes like in Star Wars where there are things that need to be accomplished and there’s a very exciting way to do those things.

[Howard] Something you said earlier, Victoria, about the first act is where we’re introducing all the things, and that’s fine and that shiny. The last act is where we’re blowing them up, or there blowing each other up. For me, if I don’t break things into three acts, I will continue to introduce things through Act Two, and that breaks the story. Because it just… It bloats in bad ways. So it’s useful for me to think about it as if we’re describing the items in a room during Act One. Act Two, we change the lighting in the room, and now everything looks different. It’s the same thing, we’re just now seeing them all in a different light and were tripping over them. It’s now whatever. Then, Act Three, the house is on fire. I don’t know. It’s a dumb metaphor.


[Howard] The idea here is that the point at which you stop introducing things structurally kind of defines the second act. So that’s a point for you to create these trailer moments, like Dan was saying.

[Victoria] Yeah.

[Howard] By changing the lighting, by changing the environment, by changing the context. That’ll make it a lot more exciting, I think, than just a fire swamp.

[Dan] One of the reasons I think people get intimidated by Act II is because Act I sets stuff up, Act 3 resolves it. What do I do… I’m treading water for half my book. So one of the things that I try to do is make sure the second act is filled with try-fail cycles. It’s not that my characters know they have to wait to a certain point before they can end the story. They spend all of second act trying to end the story.

[Brandon] It should always be upping the stakes and escalating. Your sense of progress for that middle is that things are getting worse or the stakes are getting bigger and bigger.

[Victoria] I think of… So, obviously, we referenced the fire swamp. The Princess bride is one of my favorite examples of an archetypal narrative that follows this very, very well. You meet your players by the end of Act One, then spend Act Two with Wesley and the Princess trying to flee, being continuously failed, being abductive, being separated, trying to reassemble. We reassemble the teams by the end of Act Two, and then in Act Three, we have the fight in the war and the conclusion. It’s a beautifully simple story. But it’s a very satisfying story across all three acts. It starts… One of the other things that Act Two gets to do is introduce the foreshadowing moments, the little lessons and pieces of information that we’re going to need in that resolution. So in a… I always say it’s like it’s getting all of your weapons together, it’s gathering all of your forces. These are beautiful moments in Act Two, through that try-fail cycle, to achieve the motifs and the little things which are going to come back around in Act Three.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. You actually, Dan, have a book you were talking about how great the second act is.

[Dan] Yeah. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett, which I talked about a while ago. Tiffany Aching is my favorite Terry Pratchett series by a mile. Wintersmith is an interesting one to bring up in a structural episode, because it has a very weird structure. But its second act is its strongest one by far. Its second act is basically Tiffany Aching is apprenticed to an older witch named Miss Treason. Miss Treason is very weird and she’s very dark and she’s very spooky. It’s very slice of life-y. We know from the prologue that there’s going to be this big evil problem with the Wintersmith. The third act, we deal with the Wintersmith. In the middle, it’s just Tiffany learning how to be a witch. She will go through kind of the daily life and she will learn various lessons. It’s so powerfully done because it is framed with her arriving there and it ends with Miss Treason… Spoiler warning… She dies. We get her funeral. We know she dies chapters before she does, because she’s a witch, so she knows everything. But the way that it is built, I think really is a fantastic example of how to do a powerful second act.

[Brandon] So, let me ask about this. Along those second act ideas. I feel like it can get frustrating for a reader in that second act because it feels like you’re going nowhere, as we’ve mentioned, but also the heroes, the protagonists, are often failing over and over again. How do you keep a sense of momentum when you’re failing over and over again? The reader knows, in the back of their head, because they have the page count, that they can’t succeed here. So, how do you work with that as authors?

[Victoria] I like to break it up. I like to break up the literal team. I often write ensemble casts. That’s one of my favorite times, where they get separated and they’re finding their way not only toward the goal but back towards each other. I like to put them in peril. I like it because you know, with so much of the book left, that they’re going to find a way through that, that there’s going to be things that happen. Then, the question becomes how. I think that there is an inherent tension in the how of something, in the understanding that there’s a lot of book left, what feels like it might be a climactic moment is almost like a tease. Then it becomes a lot like, “How are they going to pull this off? How are they going to achieve this goal?” I think we can sometimes underestimate the inherent tension of how.

[Dan] One of… So the book and movie Crazy Rich Asians does something very cool in its second act. I think one of the ways to do what you’re talking about is to expand the scope, use the second act to expand the scope of what we’re looking. The problem itself gets larger or it starts to involve more characters. Crazy Rich Asians does this with the cousin Astrid. A lot of the plot focuses around the main character trying to fit in better with the very Asian sensibilities of the fiancé’s family. She doesn’t have any allies. So, second act throws Astrid at her, the cousin who A) becomes a powerful ally, but B) is rejecting a lot of the very Asian attitudes. Becomes much more independent and much more Western in the way that she views her own family. So it’s exploring the same themes from a different direction and including more characters, but all in a way that eventually is going to give the main character the tools she needs in the third act.

[Howard] I think that the try-fail cycle model, Dan, that… Or… Yeah, Dan, it was you that had described the try-fail cycle, coupled with the idea of scenes from the trailers. Yes, the viewer… I remember my son, we were watching a movie and I asked him… I just turned to him and said, “You think their plan’s going to work?” He was 10. He says, “If their plan works, we don’t have a whole movie.”


[Howard] I was so proud. I was so proud. I wept in that moment. It had nothing to do with the film. But the reader knows that the plan isn’t going to succeed, because they can tell how far through the book we are. They can tell through the page count. So, the try-fail cycle has to give us… Has to give us one of these trailer moments. Has to give us some awesome. We should come out of it not with a sense of, “Oh, that didn’t work,” but with a sense of, “Hah! That went terribly, but now I have a machine gun. Ho, ho, ho.”

[Dan] Yeah.

[Howard] Then we’re cheering during the second act.

[Brandon] Well, I always also like the structure that in the second act, you try something, you succeed, and then you realize…

[Howard] You’ve made it worse.

[Brandon] You’ve made it worse. This happens in the story structure… What is it, the seven points, the nine points?

[Dan] Seven point.

[Brandon] The seven point, that Dan really likes. When I was reading about that once, there’s this broadening of goals during the second act, where you realize the thing that you wanted, even if you achieve it, is not the thing you wanted all along. Suddenly, you realize, “Oh, by achieving this thing, we are in much bigger trouble.” To reference Diehard again, “Oh, the FBI’s here, everything’s okay. Oh, crap, that was part of the plan.” Those sorts of moments are really great.

[Victoria] Yeah. I agree. I think that it’s also… When we talk about try-fail cycle, I think there’s an erroneous visual that happens, of like a hamster wheel. That’s not what it is at all, because when you get forward and you realize something’s wrong, and when you fall backwards, you gain some advantage. There’s always something happening, which is giving you kind of a winding path towards your climax.

[Dan] Well, I’m glad that you brought up the kind of the character change that can happen in the second act. Because sometimes that is I’m about to get what I want and realize that’ll make everything worse. But just as often, it can be… The second act is where they change their attitude. They realize the goal they been pursuing is actually bad, and they decide to pursue a different one. That is going to change the focus of the rest of the story.

[Victoria] Can I say one last thing before we run out of time? I also just… I’m going to be the devil’s advocate here of I don’t think about these things when I’m writing.


[Victoria] Like we’re articulating things in a way that I do not sit down and think, “Oh, I’m here in the second act, I better think about the way that my character is going to evolve.” I think part of that is like, and we’ve talked about this in previous episodes, there is an intuitive level here. I think it can be really overwhelming when it becomes a codified level. Like, yes, these are things which you should be able to analyze, perhaps in the revision cycle or if you get stuck, but I think it’s also okay if you’re operating on a draft level in an intuitive way, and you don’t feel like you’re stopping and checking your map for these kinds of things every step.

[Brandon] That’s really great to bring up. It can’t be reinforced too much. The idea that a lot of what we do, we’re doing by instinct. The more I’ve written, the more I am conscious of these things during outlining and revision. I still, when I’m actually writing, am not focused on this nearly as much as it might sound that we are. But when I wrote my early books, I wasn’t focused on it at all. I was just learning how to write a story. Some of those books got published, and people loved them. Even though I wasn’t as conscious about it. It’s talking about it, it’s teaching it really that forces you to analyze these things and look at what you’re doing.

[Victoria] I just refer to it as developing an internal story monster, which is like a tiny Jim Henson-esque monster that lives in your chest and feeds on narrative. The more that you watch and the more that you read and the more that you write, the more you teach that internal demon figure what works and what doesn’t, and the more…

[Howard] You’ve given me a Muppet chest buster.

[Victoria] Exactly. Exactly.

[Howard] Thank you. Thank you for that visual. Thank you.

[Brandon] All right. We are out of time. Howard, you have some homework for us.

[Howard] I do. I just turn the page from it, which was a very silly… Ah, there it is. Pick your favorite book or movie, or favorite entertainment of whatever kind. Identify where the second act begins, where the second act ends. Then, with a notebook in hand, make a list of the things that you love about that second act. Now, if your favorite thing, the second act is your least favorite part about it, make a list of the things that allowed you to muscle through the second part in order to get to the ending that you love. But, this is homework that involves writing. Because you’re going to take that list of the things that you love, and you’re going to try to map that onto the second acts where you are stuck.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.