Going Off the Structural Rails with the Second-Act Plot Point in Your Novel

The second-act plot point is the main character’s action from the decision coming out of the midpoint complication. It propels the main story conflict

Going Off the Rails with the Second-Act Plot Point

Going Off the Structural Rails with the Second-Act Plot Point in Your Novel (According to Brain Science)

What Brain Science Says about Writing with Story Structures #10

The insights from cognitive psychology can help us understand the effects and usefulness of story structures, and this is what I break down in this series. In these articles on story structure elements, I dive into the effects of story on readers and how these structures play a part in that. I also offer suggestions for what writers can do to have the best of both worlds — both the joy of just writing and creating a tale readers will want to read.

Your main character has some new, crucial information. What she had thought all along was not what it seemed. Everything she’s been working toward has suddenly gone sideways. Or maybe something has directly threatened her goals in an unexpected way. The stakes have been raised. This midpoint complication has all but forced your character to consider a choice. How will she move forward now that everything is a bit (or a lot) different? It changes how she goes after her goal—or maybe changes her goal entirely. But now it’s time for your character to make a new decision. The action from that decision marks the second plot point.

…And this is the beat where I go off the rails a bit when it comes to usual plot point definitions. Here’s the thing: the most commonly referenced structures are hardly intuitive. After the midpoint, it’s like we suddenly enter this structural haze in which everyone just mumbles through until the climax before we all come out again on the other—clearer—side. So much confusion surrounds which beats strike when, and I’ve seen plenty of internet arguments over the matter to back me up. But as always, I argue that in the end, these structures are all still getting at the same basic points.

I’m not actually trying to add yet another story structure into the ring. But I do see that a common structure exists, and I want to boil it down to the most essential pieces in the most clear and intuitive way possible.

However, I’m also not condemning any of those other favorite structure models. If one of those connects better for certain authors and makes the sparks fly for a compelling, well-paced novel, I’m all for it. I want more awesome, quality books above anything else. If the hero’s journey, Save the Cat, or one of the many variations on the three-act structure helps authors deliver, I want them to keep doing what works.

But if you’re an author who, like me, might be a little overwhelmed by all the different structural recommendations—or gets confused about which beat is supposed to be which when you just want some clear signposts as you plan or revise your story—I hope to offer an alternative. An alternative that’s open enough to accommodate basically any story type yet maintain some continuity with other structures and deliver on their usual promise: a sense of progress and momentum for readers while connecting everything to how it relates to the character’s transformation.

Therefore, I loosely follow a basic three-act structure, but I aim to break it down to the most important signpost points for the best reader experience. I also rename and tweak definitions for each beat in order to best highlight the reasons readers should care about the story, which is influenced by brain science insights and centers heavily on theme and character arc.

So, this murky spell between the midpoint and the climax becomes rather important. The conflict is becoming more urgent. The climax is nearing. Not much preparation time remains and final pieces need to fall into place to bring the climax about. Most importantly, your main character will need to be pushed to the brink of change. We can’t afford to get lost in the murk. So let the second plot point guide instead of confuse you and your readers.

What Is the Second Plot Point?

Eh… It depends which story structure model you want to follow! And even then, well… it varies?

In any case, the second plot point is not, of course, only the second beat in your manuscript’s story structure. It’s not only the second big point that happens. To avoid confusion and call it something more intuitive, I like to refer to it as the “second-act plot point.”

The first plot point, after all, occurs in the first act. The second—at least in many versions of the three-act structure—falls in the second act. It’s how I’ve always thought of these two beats without letting the terminology confuse me. Therefore, it seems best just to tweak the common name for this beat to include “act” to reinforce where it’s placed.

What Is the Second-Act Plot Point?

So what is this beat? As I break it down, the second act plot point is the main character’s action from the decision coming out of the midpoint complication. It propels the main story conflict forward in a new way, challenging the protagonist’s goals.

I define it as such because it helps to show the fractal nature of story structures—the ever-growing ripple from one potent drop of a smaller piece of structure. It mirrors the first plot point in this way and maintains a larger iteration of a small structural pattern. Note that this beat may not hold quite the same place as the second plot point of other three-act structures.

How Does the Second-Act Plot Point Compare to the First?

In a lot of ways, the second-act plot point is much like the first plot point. But it’s brought about by the midpoint complication instead of the inciting incident. A significant event presents a choice (inciting incident and midpoint) and raises the stakes. Now the protagonist must make a decision about how to proceed, and the major action taken from that decision (the first and second act plot points) propels the story forward with greater momentum (read: conflict to help bring about your character’s necessary transformation).

So while your main character is already involved in the main conflict by the second-act plot point, she’ll still be forced to adjust plans and essentially enter a new stage—quite like the entering of the “new world” of the first plot point. It once again moves the main character out of her relative status quo.

Also, the second plot point may not directly follow the midpoint just as the first plot point doesn’t always immediately follow the inciting incident. If they did, these plot points could probably be rolled into the same beat. But sometimes the main character experiences a bit of trial and error before coming to the final decision on how to move forward after such a life-altering incident.

I do think this delay tends to be more common with the inciting incident and first plot point since things start to move more quickly by the latter half of the second act with the protagonist more on the offensive. But other scenes may still come between the midpoint and the second-act plot point.

What’s most important is showing how the protagonist overcomes this major shift and greater stakes. As we know from the insights of brain science, readers’ underlying desire is to learn how the character transforms to overcome obstacles and adversity. So it’s necessary to show conflict in action and demonstrate what’s driving the character to make the decisions she does to keep going on.

Recall how the inciting incident choice prods the main character’s points of discomfort based on his or her inner conflict. From there, the decision the character makes comes from a flawed place, but one that still has a flicker of hope for attempting to reach the character’s desire. The same is basically true again at the second plot point. This time, the midpoint is (often) a direct challenge to the protagonist’s goals, which she (possibly mistakenly) believes will get her to whatever she most desires (think more universally—things such as happiness, love, belonging, etc.). It’s also usually a very disruptive event.

The protagonist may flounder for a bit. While the protagonist is reeling from the revelation (or whatever the midpoint encompassed), she might make some poor decisions that lead to more complications and so on. But these still (in the grand scheme of things) may be merely stepping stones to the true, more settled decision about the midpoint complication. The action taken from the more finalized decision is where I slap the second-act plot point label for ease of determining pacing and narrative drive along the character’s path to transformation.

Mapping the Second Act Plot Point from Examples

So let’s make all of this more concrete by mapping the second act plot point from the midpoint complication in these well-known speculative novels:

The Lord of the Rings:

  • Midpoint complication: Frodo is invited to the Council of Elrond. Many stories and ideas are brought to light, painting a fuller picture of the status of the world and those already falling to Sauron’s corruption (information is revealed).

  • Choice: When the aging Bilbo suggests he should take the Ring, the themes of selflessness and sacrifice reassert themselves with Frodo feeling compelled to take the Ring himself, as if it’s his burden to bear.

  • Decision: Frodo’s goals to give up the Ring and return to the Shire completely shift as he realizes he must be the one to destroy the Ring. It also directly prods his unease at the thought of being corrupted by the ring, as he has just been reminded of with Bilbo’s sudden change with his continued lust for the Ring himself. Frodo’s decision to take the Ring to Mount Doom to destroy it leads to the action — the second act plot point.

  • Second-Act Plot Point: This beat is ultimately the start of the journey to Mount Doom. The Fellowship of the Ring forms with Frodo as the bearer. After they’ve made preparations, the company sets off on its journey.

Harry Potter:

  • Midpoint: Harry makes the connection that Hagrid’s mysterious business with the package for Dumbledore is the item being guarded by the three-headed dog on the forbidden third-floor corridor.

  • Choice: Harry’s choice is to leave the mystery of the package alone or take more risks to find out what it is.

  • Decision: With further suspicious activity from Snape, Harry commits to solving the mystery since he firmly (if wrongly) believes that Snape is trying to steal the package for evil purposes. Snape “winning” and potentially coming to greater power at Hogwarts is a direct threat (as Harry would see it) to maintaining his newfound belonging and identity (and otherwise better fortune away from his life with the Dursleys).

  • Second-Act Plot Point: Harry puts together information that the mystery package is the Sorcerer’s Stone and that Snape is trying to steal it. He begins to actively spy on Snape, as we see when he follows Snape after a Quidditch match.

The Hunger Games:

  • Midpoint: Katniss is cornered by the Careers and barely escapes (with Peeta’s help).

  • Choice: Katniss isn’t invulnerable, and she faces the conflicted choice of giving into the Gamemakers and Capitol by playing the game and truly playing the game to win to pursue her original desire to make it back alive to Prim.

  • Decision: Realizing she can no longer run and hide, Katniss goes on the offensive and decides to fight. Katniss’s decision to go after the Careers shows her adapting to her situation and surviving by fighting. It also makes her a threat to be dealt with, hurling toward the climax.

  • Second-Act Plot Point: Katniss allies with Rue and attacks the Careers by destroying their stock of food.

By mapping the steps in more detail from the midpoint to the second act plot point, we can get a clearer sense of the strong cause-and-effect chain and how it gains momentum toward the climax. In each, we see the new plan toward the characters’ goals taking hold. What I see in common in each of these examples is a provision for some of the final pieces necessary to bring about the climax. They’re not necessarily locked in yet, but we’ll talk more about that in the next post.

Goals for Your Novel’s Second-Act Plot Point

To best fulfill the second act plot point beat for your novel, you might consider working backward from your climax. It’s easier to map your route when you know where you’re headed!

What’s your character’s final transformation? Do you have an idea of how that manifests externally in the plot? If you know the answer to the latter question, consider what will basically force your character to get there.

Outward logistics play a larger role in the second act plot point than some of the others, but of course, also keep the protagonist’s internal conflict in mind. The midpoint has already threatened the protagonist’s goal and plan. Now there’s a new plan in place. What action will your protagonist take from that new decision? Remember the fear and inner demons driving your protagonist. This is important to know for having your character take believable action that the audience can understand based on what they know of the character.

Also consider the new world the protagonist had to get used to. Just as she’s adapting, pull out the rug again. Shift her into further discomfort to push hard toward that final transformation. But remember that other scenes may take place between the midpoint that first jolts your protagonist out of whatever relative comfort she’s found. She may not take action immediately. She might take a bit of time to plan or decide first. But soon, your protagonist will need to act in a definitive way, and that action marks the second act plot point. It sets your protagonist more firmly on the rapid path to the climax.

Categories: story structure

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