This month, continuing her series on Story Structure and Character Arc, Fiona Harper talks about the bit of the story that often gives her the most trouble, but can often be the most fun once you work out what to do with it!
So far we’ve dealt with ACT ONE:
The character in their ordinary world, before something unusual happens (trigger, call to adventure) that catapults them into a period of debating about whether to take a course of action (or denial that they have to do anything about whatever the trigger set in motion), and then they are pushed into making firm plans to achieve a particular goal (end of act one turning point).
I always love writing act one. Act One is full of potential and possibilities. I’m getting to know my characters, throwing anything I like in there, bringing out their backstory and conflicts a little… It’s a blast. But all that messing around can’t go on forever. At some point my character needs to make some firm plans and start working towards their main goal. So they step over the threshold of Act One into Act Two and…
Or a windswept desert with tumbleweed rolling by.
I always get stuck at this point. Always. Suddenly I can’t just be adding new things into the mix any more. I have to take what I’ve got and deepen it, develop it. Suddenly writing has become wading through treacle instead of soaring through the air.
However, I have discovered some tricks to help me move forward. Sometimes I only can see the next stepping stone – but that’s enough, right?
Blake Snyder calls this section of a story Fun and Games. Fine, you say. But I’m not writing a comedy; I’m writing a hanky-a-page weepie. What am I going to do with that?
Well, think about what you’re story is about on a surface level. How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days is about two people trying to advance in their career: a girl who’s got to write an article on how to drive men away by dating one and recording her progress, and a guy who is going to win an advertising account by making a woman fall in love with him. And fate (and some scheming rivals) makes sure they end up with each other. This is the point in the story when whatever your main story is about comes to the fore. So for Andi and Ben in How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days, this is the point where she’s trying to drive him away and he’s trying to make her fall in love with him. And in a romantic comedy, this will result in some actual fun and games.
Snyder says that many of the clips in a movie trailer are from this part of the film, and it’s true. You don’t want to show anything too far along, because you’re going to give away the plot. You also want to give the audience an idea of what the story is about. So, if you were making a movie trailer about your story, what would you need to include? For a visual learner like me, asking myself this question has helped enormously.
Have a quick think about what’s happening in the first half of Act Two in these other movie examples:
Strictly Ballroom/Dirty Dancing: the couples are rehearsing together in secret, learning to work as partners, in other words, they’re doing the what the title says: Scott and Fran are rehearsing his non-federation steps and Johnny is teaching Baby to Dirty Dance.
Notting Hill: William has asked Anna out on a date and they go to his sister’s birthday dinner. We see a Hollywood star dating an ‘ordinary’ guy – what the film’s all about.
Sweet Home Alabama: Melanie is trying everything she can to get Jake to sign those divorce papers and generally getting irritated with the hometown she ran away from.
(I’m having a little aside moment here to chuckle about the moments in Sweet Home Alabama when Melanie realises she can clean out their joint account, and when Jake realises she has… Okay, moment over.)
If you read Dara Marks’s Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational Arc, she says this is the part of the story where the protagonist is making headway towards their goal – and they’re having some success. However, they are still stuck in old ways of thinking and their old way of doing things will only get them so far. Eventually your character will run out of steam and have to try something new (and this change often happens at the mid-point, but more about that next month!). The first half of Act Two is all about exhausting that fatal flaw your character has, of making them realise that they will have to change to accomplish whatever it is they desire.
So ask yourself: what does my character need to learn? What aren’t they doing right at the moment that is stopping them getting what they want? Once you have the answer, make them do that thing! Make them hurl everything they’ve got at the problem, but don’t let them grow and change too much yet. They’ve got to work out why they need to change and this part of the plot is going to help them do that. And it is fun to throw obstacles at your characters and see them (rather cluelessly) try to handle it. At least I think it is. Maybe I’m just twisted.
Next month, my favourite bit of the book - the middle! How to stop it sagging and how to make it a pivotal part of your story.
Fiona's next book Always the Best Man will be out in North America in August:
The best man...for the bridesmaid?Standing at the altar, Damien is breathless as the woman he loves walks toward him-to marry another man. Knowing bridesmaid Zoe's watching him makes it harder still. The opposite of the bride, Zoe's too loud, too vibrant, too...everything!
Zoe can't resist provoking him-just once, she'd like to see "Mr. Perfect" lose his cool. She can tell there are fireworks smoldering behind those pale blue eyes. But before the wedding night is over, their unexpected connection will threaten to undermine everything they both believe about themselves and each other....