Thursday, February 05, 2009

A novel in three acts: Act Two

First, thanks to everyone who responded to this last week! Your questions and feedback were very much appreciated.

Patrice Michelle brought up an excellent point at Fangs Fur & Fey, though, and it was one I failed to stress adequately in my little disclaimery thing. Guys, this is NOT the only way to write books, and it is NOT something you should get hung up about. Seriously. It isn't. Even I, who loves doing this with my books, do not look at it as gospel.

From Patrice's comment:

For new writers, the goal is to just write the story and then once it's written, go back and look at advice like this to see if it can help you tighten and streamline your story to give it the most impact to readers.

And this is exactly true. Just as there is no magic bullet to finish your book, there is no one exact right way to write. If stuff like this bogs you down, don't do it. If it feels too tight, don't do it. You can, as she said, ignore this while writing and go back later once it's done and see how it works for you. But please don't ever think that because you handle things differently, you're not "doing it right." Whatever works for you? That's what's right. Period.

For me this is just a way of keeping track and making sure I'm pacing correctly. When I hit 30k words, have I put in all my basic clues? Have I laid the groundwork? Have I given myself plenty to work with and expand later? Are all the characters introduced who need to be, is the basic set-up of the world and story clear?

And there's a little more to that as well; simply being 1/3 done is a little achievement. Writing a novel is hard work. When you first start out it can seem daunting. But once you get through the first 30k, you know you can do it. You only have to do another 30k and you'll be in the end zone. And that's a good feeling.

So. Last week I mentioned pacing. Anyone who's spent any time reading about writing is familiar with the phrase "sagging middle." The sagging middle hits all of us at one point or another; it is, basically, the long stretch of book from, well, 30-60k words or so, where...not much happens. The story falters. The characters start spending too much time thinking or talking and not enough time doing.

This is also, to put it bluntly, where characters start acting stupid. This is where, in our eagerness to have *something* happen, we send our characters alone into dark alleys, or have them pick fights with each other, or any number of things. Bad things.

It is my firm belief that the main cause of the sagging middle is pacing, and that the main cause of pacing problems is failure to allow for structure. There are other reasons, of course; too much telling is a big one, too. But I'm assuming you all know the basic rules of writing (such as they are) and so are not writing a book that's nothing but a big long infodump.

We have pacing problems because we have inserted too much information into our first Act, and we have pacing problems because we have not given ourselves enough clues to work with.

It sounds like an oxymoron, I know. But let's go back to last week's example, Jennifer the detective with the elderly grandma and the just-ended relationship.

Our story started when a body was found. Let's say there was no obvious cause of death. Now, using the three-act structure, we can make a decision; do we want to find out the cause of death before the act ends, thus giving ourselves the second act to explore it? Or do we want to wait, maybe pile up at least one more body?

It's up to you and the story you're telling. But if you're not thinking in terms of using Act One for clues and Act Two for expansion, if you're not using that first act to thoroughly ground your characters and their world and introduce some issues for them to deal with, you may find yourself with no choice but to give us a cause of death, simply because something has to happen next. If you've gotten too deeply into your subplots in the first act you may not have room to add complications to them in the second act, either.

Here's the thing. If in the first 30k you have introduced plenty of characters and situations, the second act will essentially write itself, and I'll tell you why.

Because of logic.

Your entire second act is simply adding more complications and doing what would logically come next.

For example. At the end of Act One Jennifer finds another body. In the beginning of Act Two she learns cause of death. So what would Jennifer logically do next? She would start studying/researching that cause of death. Let's say it was an overdose; a particularly pure, new form of heroin. Okay. We learned a little about our first victim in the first act (because we were planting clues). So we know the victim was not an IV drug user; that's a dead end.

To gran a few examples from mid-air, Jennifer might now logically start talking to drug dealers or users. That could be a nice suspenseful scene, her interview with a tough local drug dealer. That could have enormous complications that might effect the main plot; it could draw some new people into the case, perhaps, or cause jennifer problems with the police.

And we have her grandma. The poor lady might have a stroke at the end of Act One and thus be in the hospital. The plot if to some degree resolved; Jennifer knows that her grandma can no longer safely stay with her. But that introduces new complications; Jennifer has to research homes and residences. Perhaps she decides to kill two birds with one stone, and go to the residence where the first murder victim's mother works? That might provide us with a nice way to tie those subplots together later, right?

So already we have some action for the second act; we're meeting drug dealers and having wary conversations with them--perhaps a flirtation, depending on what kind of book this is?--and we're getting involved more closely with a victim's family and trying to find a place for grandma and expanding conflict with the cops. When we add that to researching the second victim and trying to find connections between them--perhaps they went to the same college, and Jennifer can go there and discover they had a class together? we've got a good 15-20k or so worth of action.

Any time you get stuck in writing that second act, every time you feel the story flagging, you have only to stop and think back or look back at your first act. What seeds did you plant there that now need to grow a little? Maybe in the midst of all the turmoil with meeting scary drug dealers and putting her beloved grandma in a home, Jennifer's ex shows up and wants to get back together, there's a complication. Maybe the college connection falls through but it's there that Jennifer gets another idea for a possible motive, one she needs to explore. Your Bad Guy should show up again, for whatever reason; let Jennifer interact with him/her, however briefly. Let her feel close to or uncomfortable with the BG.

Your second act is all about expansion and information. Otherwise known as "the plot thickens." The second act is where a new clue or two turns up; the second act is where you might illustrate a connection between one of your subplots and the main plot.

And remember, nothing should be easy; we need conflict on every page! You don't want Jennifer to just meet someone who tells her who the Bad Guy is in exchange for money; you want them to tease her with the info, make her perform tasks, put her in danger. Information should be a reward or compensation, never (or very rarely) a given.

There are two other things I like to do/check with Second Acts. One, just as the first ended with a bang, so should the second. An even bigger bang (sometimes literally, heh heh; see below). I used Silence of the Lambs last week, so I'll mention it again here; Dr. Lecter's escape comes right around the end of the second act.

The other is, by the end of the second act, I like to leave the reader with no idea how things are going to work out, or who the bad guy is. I like to know, at the end of the second act, that all of my main threads are still loose but are closing in on each other; I like to be in a position where there's only one more big clue, or one more fact to be uncovered, before everything falls into place and we're ready for the climax. I like to think of someone reading to that point and thinking there are so many open holes there, there's no way they can all be resolved by the end.

Now, I write UFs with thriller-y, mystery plots; you may write romance, in which case the end of the second act is right about where you'll put your big sex scene and have it make everything even worse. (The end of the second act is a place I tend to put sex scenes as well and always have, and I'm not alone. I think most romances or UFs with romantic elements do the same; it's usually a bit past the halfway point, so anywhere from 50-60k words, but again, that's not set in stone and of course if you're writing a more heavily erotic story you may well have had sex all throughout.)

But the end-of-act-2 bang should put everything in jeopardy. It should leave the reader doubting they'll get a happy or even a decent ending. It should raise the stakes exponentially.

So, to sum up (and I realize this segment was a bit longer and wordier, sorry, but I think I covered everything I needed to):

*The second act should be about expansion and information.
*The second act is the logical next step of the first; I always think "What would they do next?"
*The second act is where you watch your first-act seeds grow. Don't forget them!
*The second act is where everything gets deeper and more complex. You can solve a msytery or two and that's fine, but you should bring some new ones in to replace it, or have the resolution of one question only bring up more questions.
*The second act is a good place for sex scenes ;-)
*Nothing should be easy; good information or realizations are worth paying for. Keep the conflict high, don't let that middle sag!
*The second act must end with a very big complication; just as the 1st-act-end raised the stakes or made the problem more personal or trapped the hero/ine into solving the mystery, so the second should make it clear there is no out, this is very dangerous, and they have no choice but to follow through. Thus setting us up for Act Three and the climax.

So, any questions? Anything that doesn't make sense, or needs expansion?


Charles Gramlich said...

I find it's always helpful to think about and read about how other writers do things, even if it's not the way I work.

circe said...

I like the idea of the second act as the place where ideas develop and then point the way to Act III.

The middle in my draft isn't too saggy but I need develop what happened in Act I and how it will lead to Act III.

My main character lives with two different foster families and there probably needs to be more conflict between these two families.

circe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Using professional advice in honing a completed manuscript makes a lot of sense to me. Writing the manuscript from professional advice - not so much.

I like the seed theory. If the seeds are missing in the first part, the alarm bells need to be going off. :)

laughingwolf said...

no Qs as such dee, thx for these insights....