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  • Karina Sokulski

Three-Act Structure...Less Rambling and More Act II


Onto part two of this exploration of the three-act structure and, as the title suggests, less rambling about the mixed feelings writers have towards it. Less is the key word here. This act is the bulk of the three-act structure formula that has the most sections to fill because it is a breakdown of the longest part of your story.

This second part of the formula also occasionally proves to be the trickiest as there is minor confusion regarding sections of this Act on two counts. The first being the issue many have with pacing in this section of their story because of their trying so hard to facilitate the parts in this Act. The second being there's one particular section in this Act that has a pretty misleading name, which by the way I'm talking about the "Midpoint." This section causes writers some pacing problems and confusion on where this event should take place in their story. Put a pin in this one. I promise we'll cover it.

Fair warning once more on the slightly different terms that may appear in my break down of the next Act as, again, I was taught by a screenwriter rather than a novelist so some names may change from what you've seen. There are also some liberties I've taken (as anyone usually does when explaining this structure) because there are some sections of this act that I believe can be made more simple by breaking them down further.

Act II

Act II of this structure is not only the bulk of your story, but it is also the section where your main character will face many trials and overcome them to reach the end of the story. This is the section that is most demanding of a story because you will have to accomplish three significant feats. Those feats will require you to advance the plot, develop the character arc(s) you have set in place and advance the conflict faced in both (and no you're not just limited to those three, especially if you're adding in a subplot). Act II of this structure will frame out what will be required to complete this section of your story.

First Culmination

We're sticking with the same example of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz / The Wizard of Oz because why change it when we're halfway in? This is going to be the first (and not the last) instance where I break down a wrung on this structure's latter a little further to make this easier to understand. I also want to break this down a bit further for the sake of simplicity and pacing being less of a headache when using this structure. The First Culmination and the Rising Action are part of the same section, but the First Culmination offers specificity to an event in the Rising Action. The First Culmination is the moment your main character proves themselves, typically in the first trial of their journey--only to then have to face the trials to come. This first "proving" moment isn't always a happy one. This moment can be your protagonist barely managing to scrape by or catching the antagonist off guard by unexpectedly demonstrating their potential. There's a large enough range here on the first culmination of how this moment can look like, extravagant or otherwise.

Example:

Dorothy and company face many trails in the form of pranks produced by the Wicked Witch along their way but interestingly Dorothy has this moment when they arrive in the Emerald City, and the doorman won't let them through to the Wizard. Through tears and a lot of heart laced in her plea for help, Dorothy moves the doorman to let them through. This is an excellent example for the First Culmination on the grounds of how different this moment can look from story to story, especially since Dorothy managing to get to the Wizard results in her courageously standing up to him and later undergoing the dangerous trial of retrieving the Wicked Witch's broom.

Rising Action

Here is where the obstacles you've set up for the main character will commence. Your main character becomes familiar with their new surroundings and begins to comprehend the nature of their challenges. They will quickly become aware of the road ahead with each challenge that presents itself along the way. It would be beneficial writing-wise to make sure your reader is acquainted with all the characters, primary or otherwise. This is also the opportunity to take to elaborate more on the antagonist or antagonizing forces of your story.

Example:

As Dorothy and company proceed to follow the Yellow Brick Road, they encounter obstacles like the temperamental apple-throwing trees and the sleep-inducing field of poppies. During this time we get to know each character, their weaknesses, their strengths, and their camaraderie through their willingness to protect each other through each trial. The Rising Action encompasses a far broader section of the story than the First Culmination, which is why I listed it first. All culminations in this regard make up the entirety of the Rising Action until they lead to the Midpoint and Main Tension sections (bare with me, we'll get there).

It's also important to note the placement of the First Culmination and the Rising Action. The Rising Action is the shaded section of the structure's incline, and the Fist Culmination is usually set to occur just before the Midpoint. Don't mind the labels you see here too much as, again, there may be some differences in the section titles I use versus what you see here.

The Midpoint

Ah, the Midpoint, the deceptively named step of this entire formula. Before we go into why let's first understand what the Midpoint is: The Midpoint is the moment when your main character gains a shift from reacting to the story to taking action within the story. The main character has learned the wisdom (and or ability) to take action and now pursue their goal rather than run from it.

Example:

This is more on the example of Dorothy's encounter with the Wizard. The Wizard ends up being a total disappointment and forces them to put themselves in harm's way (by tasking them with retrieving the Witch's broomstick) to receive his help.

Here's why the title of this section is deceptive, and you may have already guessed, but the Midpoint does not have to be in the middle of your story. At all. The Midpoint, despite its place in the visual of this structure you see above, is the Midpoint of the three-act structure and its placement can vary in a story. Sizes will vary on each step of this formula when writing your story. For example, a longer first or third act will ultimately result in the midpoint shifting in terms of the page number in the final product.

Main Tension

Here's where we typically mark the end of Act II. The original goal our protagonist had in mind has been somewhat tied up, and a new tension gets introduced for Act III and the story's end game. Many times this will also be a point of reflection for your character regarding the trials yet to come. Your protagonist's resolve will need to be bolstered here as a result.

Example:

Now that the Wizard has given Dorothy and company the price of his assistance, Dorothy has to decide whether to take the risk of confronting the Wicked Witch or give up on her chance to go home. She, bolstered by her comrades, choose to face the witch. It's important to note, through the examples provided for these last three sections, we've stuck pretty close to practically the same scene. This should illustrate how close together narratively these points are.

Incredibly this brings us to the end of Act II, the bulkiest part of this formula with sections that can be somewhat confusing without a small degree of exploration. We'll focus on Act II in the next post and conclude this little series.

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