The second act is the longest section in a novel, and it's where your protagonist, having passed the first plot point and entered into a new situation, meets increasingly difficult challenges. There is one important point during act two which is crucial to moving your narrative forward: the midpoint.
The midpoint in The Martian comes when Mark Watney finds out the supplies he’s expecting are delayed, forcing him to take responsibility for staying alive until his provisions arrive.
In Ender’s Game, the midpoint change comes when Ender finishes his training and finds himself in charge of a group of low-achieving students. Instead of being told what to do, he has to take charge, command and train them.
When we open a novel and step out of our own lives into the fictional life of another, I’m sure that you, like me, have certain expectations. However, if after a great beginning, that fictional life becomes monotonous, we close the book and find a new one that fires our imagination.
Act two, where your plot builds, subplots weave in and out, writers can find themselves bogged down in those selfsame subplots or following plot threads that lead nowhere. This is known as the saggy middle. One way to stop readers falling asleep during this section is to use variety.Although the dramatic arc is depicted as a line of rising tension, varying the pace in your scenes and chapters increases the drama. Instead of running straight up the mountain, you can rachet up the reader’s involvement by taking two steps up, then one step back, or one step forward and pause to catch your breath. Each forward movement takes you higher than before, but dashing up a mountain not only leaves you exhausted but you miss what’s around you as you climb. By creating variety in the pacing of your scenes you allow your reader to catch up with where you’re taking them.
There are multiple ways to create drama in a scene that on the surface appears calm but which is actually filled with conflict. If your heroine is sipping tea with the wife of the man she’s having an affair with, a writer can find plenty of opportunity for drama. Does the wife know? How much inner conflict will be revealed? Two elegantly attired women, false smiles for the benefit of onlookers, yet talking in low voices as one confronts the other doesn't have active phsycial movement but is filled with tension. Make them best friends or sisters and you have the potential for a real battle. Static scenes can be used to delve into suppressed emotions or hidden conflicts, and they’re excellent opportunities to show, rather than tell, the reader what’s happening.
However, these apparently quieter scenes aren’t merely gap fillers between the dramatic action. They provide contrast and prevent a spill into the melodrama that non-stop action presents. Characters and readers alike need to catch their breath. Static scenes offer respite, a change of pace and a chance to provide details that would be difficult to place elsewhere; they also provide space for conflicts to build. Nevertheless, they’re not frozen tableaux and shouldn’t stall the forward momentum of the narrative.
When you combine a series of increasingly intense actions with more private moments of equally important revelations, you can approach and pass the midpoint, bringing your audience with you. The end of act two takes you to the second plot point, which signifies the beginning of act three—the climax and the resolution of your story.
Exercise 1. Using the book you’re currently reading or another you finished recently, figure out the midpoint, its effect on the protagonist and how it changes the story going forward.
Exercise 2. Using your own story, think about the midpoint: have you created a situation for your main character that will result in a different attitude toward his situation, one where she/he must now take responsibility for how they will deal with the problems facing them? If not, spend some time figuring out how you can adapt what you've written (or write a new scene) to give your story a midpoint transformation.
Exercise 3. Consider what kind of scene you prefer to read—one where action takes place or where the tension is less tangible and more descriptive. Examine your own work and see if there’s a dominance of one or the other.
Exercise 4. Using different colored highlighter pens (or font color), take a few chapters, color your scenes accordingly (red for dramatic, green for static) to create a visual depiction and study the balance between the two. This exercise lets you know where you might need to make changes to achieve a good rhythm between drama and stasis.
The Martian by Andy Weir: 2011 (self-published); February 2014 (Crown)
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, 1985, Tor Books.
Photo by Simon Hattinga Verschure, Unsplash.