You’ve knocked out your First Act and you have a killer Inciting Incident. What now? Well, it’s time for your Second Act, and in this act, your protagonist has one job-
A good First Act will end with a major plot point that will disrupt the protagonist’s life in a significant way. Need an example? Think of when Luke Skywalker returned home to the moisture farm only to find Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru murdered by Stormtroopers.
Now that your protagonist’s life has been seriously effed up, here are five things they should do in your Second Act:
Your protagonist shouldn’t be on the attack yet. That comes later. Right now they’re only reacting to the situation caused by the first plot point.
They’re confused and looking for answers. Or they’re reluctant, not fully committed to the journey that has begun. The best kind of hero is the reluctant one. This will give your character room to grow in the second half of your story.
Like I said, your protagonist doesn’t know what the hell is going on. Not yet, at least.
They don’t understand the antagonistic force they’re up against, and they don’t know what it will take to overcome the obstacles you’ve thrown in their path (remember, as the writer, it’s your job to torture your characters!).
So, what do they do? They run! This can be a metaphorical retreat from their problems, or it can mean that quite literally your character is running from their problems. Like idk…
A freaking dinosaur!
If your character isn’t much of a runner, you can also have them hide during this portion of the story. Your protagonist can hold-up in a shelter or some safe harbor while they try to get a handle on the situation.
Anyone remember that DC film Suicide Squad? Oh yeah, we’re all trying to forget that movie ever happened right? Well, one of the many things wrong with that dumpster fire was that it built a team, or “Suicide Squad,” 😏 with absolutely no recruitment montage!
In fact, the majority of the movie was just an extended Third Act. They skipped what should have been the middle of the film altogether. Had it been a good movie, there would have been a solid fifteen to twenty minutes of recruitment after the First Act.
This would consist of Rick Flag and Deadshot traveling around the world to exotic locations, hunting down team members, and convincing them to join in the fight against that weird Cara Delevingne Voodoo witch, or whatever the hell she was supposed to be. We would have had a good introduction to each character that included a showcase of their abilities and a hint at their backstory.
Instead, they just threw all the characters on the screen in the first ten minutes and sent them off the fight the Voodoo witch. The result was a total lack of emotional resonance. The audience had nothing invested in these people, and when the final battle came we just didn’t care.
And to think, it all could have been fixed with a solid Second Act!
The Second Act is also a great place to deliver some information to your audience. If you set up a mystery in the First Act- say the discovery of a murder victim- then the Second Act is where you want your characters to start collecting clues.
Now, don’t give away too much. Just enough to give the reader some context. The first few layers of the onion. The protagonist should start to piece together a little bit of what’s going on, but she could also make some mistakes as well. The Second Act is not a time for your character to have a brilliant revelation. That comes later.
What is your protagonist trying to achieve? If a mugger killed her fiance, then the Second Act would be when your character settles on a path of murderous revenge.
Or maybe, you hero inherits his estranged father’s farm. In the First Act he was determined to sell it to the highest bidder, but now he’s had a change of heart. He’s going to work the land, and finally prove that he was always good enough to be his father’s son!
The point is, by the mid-point of your story your protagonist should have a set of clearly defined goals that they’re working to achieve, and the Second Act is where you reveal to your audience what those goals are.
The Second Act is unique in that it’s split into two parts, with the second part accomplishing different story goals than the first.
We’ll go over that second half, but that’s for another time.
For now, if you’d like to learn more about the second act check out these books on Amazon. These are affiliate links, but they’re all texts that were vital in the research for this post.
And while you’re at it- Leave me a comment!