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.


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.

Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett

7 thoughts on “15.33: The Long, Dark Second Act of the Soul”

  1. Brandon, Victoria, Dan, and Howard fell into the valley of the second act, and found plenty of interesting spots to talk about! Blow something up, burn something down, have a fight, make something happen! Connect the dots! Lots of ideas about how to make the second act shine! Get your own muppet chest buster! Go ahead, read all about it in the transcript available now in the archives.

  2. I had spent a long time struggling with the second act – it is truly the darkest of all the souls. Then I took a step back and focused on the moto of the Knights Radiant;
    “Life before death. Journey before destination.”
    The journey is the fun and the most important part. Us beginner writers focus too much on the first chapter and even the first line, while the beginning and the end do not work without the middle.
    Thank you Lord Sanderson, Victoria, Dan and Howard for stressing on the fact that middle is often overlooked while it can be where the story shines the most.

  3. Victoria is a great addition to the show. I have listened to the entire run of the show multiple times, so I’m used to the guys and Mary’s ideas (she was a great addition years ago!). Victoria has great confidence & energy and an alternative POV and it adds to the show. Great call to bring her on.

  4. Something I think they failed to mention is that by giving a multistage event for the characters to go through, it becomes a lot more intuitive to push through second acts. Tournaments, an exam, moving through the floors of a building, travelling even a chronological year. These all inherently allow for easy signposting as well as the changing of environments & challenges.

    The more I think about it, 2nd act problems seem more like a world building issue. If the author has established what has happened in the 1st & 3rd acts and has a well realized world in their mind, it seems like the structure of the 2nd act can be easily built atop the geography of the world. For example LotR (simplified).

    1st act: Frodo & Sam have the Ring in the Shire.

    3rd act:Frodo & Sam throw the ring in Mount Doom.

    What happens in the 2nd act very naturally becomes the various obstacles & villains they meet along the way.

    A story that doesn’t move -let’s say an exam to get into a mage school- can be solved by identifying the value system of the world or the institution and then creating parts of the exam to test for those values.

    Or story where the specific location of things is not important -let’s say rebels planning to overthrow the empire- can be solved by understanding what are the infrastructures that hold up the empire and creating a plan to destroy them.

    I think the bigger difficulty then becomes appropriately raising the stakes, making sure the 2nd act has thematic/character relevance, and other kinda abstract stuff like that.

  5. In classical music, the second movements of symphonies and concertos is usually the boring one. I wonder how old this “the second act sags” phenomenon is.

  6. I love the second act! It’s where I feel things really start to deepen… the world is established, so now I can show fuller aspects, the characters really show their colours and the shit really starts to hit the fan! The progress and pace lights up, and each new disaster is another step towards the finish line.

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