What the Second-Act Complication Needs to Accomplish in Your Novel (According to Brain Science)

The second-act complication is a major beat in a story in which the main antagonist puts pressure on the protagonist.

What the Second-Act Complication Needs to Accomplish in Your Novel

What the Second-Act Complication Needs to Accomplish in Your Novel (According to Brain Science)

What Brain Science Says about Writing with Story Structures #11

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.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the second plot point is where I start going most off the rails from the most common plot point definitions. For this post, I continue that trend by usurping the second pinch point with the second-act complication.

Remember, I’m not actually trying to add yet another story structure to the vast mix. 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.

Yet, I’m 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. But I offer this loose three-act structure alternative, which better helps me communicate what stories need when working with my clients.

Why I Call the Second Pinch Point the Second-Act Complication…and Move It Around

In my post on the first complication (essentially the first pinch point), I noted that there are far more than the two labeled pinch points in the many versions of the three-act structure — at least in most novels. In other words, the antagonist shows up, looms ominously in the distance, or otherwise has an effect on the protagonist’s world more often than in only the first pinch point and second pinch point. So labeling them as such seems a bit misleading and is, at minimum, confusing.

I don’t generally see the designation of two major pinch points all that helpful for writers. Yes, it’s useful to make sure the antagonist is being introduced and appears more than once to create conflict and raise stakes (all for the purpose of pushing your protagonist toward an inner transformation). So in that respect, two pinch points at fairly universal placements are fine to reinforce.

But here’s where I have a harder time with these beats: some structures seem to imply that the second pinch point is the instance that brings the protagonist to his or her lowest point — which I would say is a third-act beat. Others place it in the second act and separate it from the disaster that brings about the low point in the third act.

So what are we to make of this? My reasoning is that it fosters better pacing to keep the two second-half “pinch” points discrete. Plus, I love a good false triumph right before the fall. Having the second pinch point prior to the climatic disaster easily accounts for this common segment of structure.

But I have to go one step further and complicate things a bit more. The plot of a novel usually dictates something more for the equivalent pinch point beat in the second half of the novel than in the first half. As the protagonist’s plotline closes in on the climax, I find there is usually a final piece of the puzzle needed to bring about the climax. It’s true that usually the antagonist facilitates punching in this finishing piece, but it feels like more than just a “pinch point” to me.

Therefore, I find the “second-act complication” to be a more accurate label for the beat. This label not only maintains consistency, then, with the first-act labels for the first plot point and first complication but also describes its placement in the overall story structure and adds nuance.

I believe some structures would actually peg my second-act complication as the “second plot point.” But the consensus on whether the second pinch point, then, comes prior to or after the second plot point is divided. It seems clearer to continue the same cycle of structure as in the first act and allow for a pinch point following the actions coming out of the midpoint. Therefore, complication seems a more suitable term to depict how this beat affects the protagonist and plot arcs with potentially more weight than a pinch point implies and more structural purpose as a major, instead of a minor, beat.

How Does the Second-Act Complication Compare to the First?

The first complication is all about really introducing the antagonist and clarifying the stakes. The second-act complication does this too. But the roles they play differ due to their placement in the novel.

The first complication helps to get the ball rolling. It prods the protagonist on her story journey in the first place. By the second complication, your character is already well into that story journey. So the second complication may be another point in which the antagonist rears his head, but it serves a slightly different purpose here.

More than showing the antagonist and clarifying or raising stakes, the second-act complication provides the final piece of the puzzle — the lynchpin — for getting your protagonist to the climax. Perhaps this means a final piece of information or, as my label suggests, complicates the goals of the protagonist in such a way that the climax becomes inevitable.

What Is the Second-Act Complication?

The second-act complication is a major beat in a story in which the main antagonist puts pressure on the protagonist. This beat raises and clarifies the stakes and complicates goals in the second act — prior to the climactic disaster that brings the protagonist low. Ultimately, the second-act complication provides the final catalyst to bring about the climax.

Likely, the second-act complication will arise as a consequence of the actions the protagonist took following the midpoint decision. The midpoint complication sent the protagonist reeling, presenting a choice. The protagonist made a decision and acted on it — often in a way that put the protagonist firmly in the offensive. But, as with any good story with juicy conflict, nothing the protagonist does comes without risk. If the protagonist made an attack (literal or metaphorical), she probably couldn’t do so without attracting her antagonist’s wrath.

Ending the Second Act with a Complication

It’s easier to see how everything is connected — how the cause-and-effect chain links through the story — by seeing it in action in well-known examples. To finish out the story beat map for the second half of act two of three iconic stories, I’m going to tack on the second-act complication to the main beats previously pointed out:

The Lord of the Rings:

  • Midpoint: 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).
  • 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.
  • Second complication: Galadriel shows Frodo visions in her mirror, and he realizes the Eye of Sauron is searching for him. Frodo offers Galadriel the Ring but she refuses. Frodo continues to bear the burden himself. We also see Boromir’s possible hints of corruption after Galadriel’s testing of the Fellowship.

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.
  • 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.
  • Second complication: Harry encounters Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest and concludes that Snape wants the Sorcerer’s Stone to bring him back to power.

The Hunger Games:

  • Midpoint: Katniss is cornered by the Careers and barely escapes (with Peeta’s help).
  • Second-act plot point: Katniss allies with Rue and attacks the Careers by destroying their stock of food.
  • Second complication: Rue is attacked and killed; Katniss promises her that she’ll win. More than that, the Gamemakers announce a rule change: two tributes from the same district can win together—literally changing the game yet again for Katniss.

Before the mob revolts, I want to acknowledge that yes, there are other complications (or pinch points) before the second-act complications I’ve defined. These stories also have some very crucial moments that, when not mentioned in the lists of major beats, seem like an oversight. But no, I did not forget Gandalf’s battle with Durin’s Bane or his fall. (*Sob*! Who could forget that?) While this event is a pivotal moment for the Fellowship and for Gandalf’s own arc, it is not the key piece of the puzzle that will bring Frodo to the climax. However, the loss of Gandalf does set the pieces in motion for unrest within the Fellowship and its ultimate breaking.

Likewise, crucial pinch points occur in Harry Potter prior to Harry’s detention in the Forbidden Forest. For example, Harry walks in on Snape and Filch, seeing Snape’s bitten leg, which confirms for him that Snape is actively attempting to get past Fluffy to the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry is almost caught by Filch and Snape while out of bed past curfew. Harry believes Snape is trying to curse his broom during the Quidditch match.

These are all important to keep driving the story arcs forward. But they’re a lot like all the trials faced by Frodo and the Fellowship — they’re important for setting pieces into motion, but none of them provide the lynchpin to get the protagonist to the climax.

To bring Harry to the climax, he needs to understand the true urgency of his mission to keep the Stone from the enemy. It’s only when Harry understands the full stakes — that the Stone has the potential to bring back Voldemort, putting the whole world at risk — that he launches into the climactic action.

How to End Your Novel’s Second Act with a Complication

As you plot plenty of run-ins with antagonists and keep leveling up your protagonists in preparation for the final literal or metaphorical battle, consider what final piece of the puzzle is needed to push your character to the climax.

Perhaps it’s a doubling down on the midpoint decision like in The Fellowship of the Ring. Or it might be a final revelation, such as in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In The Hunger Games, it’s a very direct consequence of the second act plot point actions. Usually, this complication is facilitated by the antagonist or the threat of the antagonist.

Whatever it is, it creates the necessary shift to enter the third act. Your protagonist is moved to action or makes a new commitment to oppose the antagonist. In the case of a false victory, the second-act complication might be the moment in which the protagonist realizes it’s not over yet. She might have won a battle but not the war, so now she must see it through to the end.

As usual, I like to work backward to make sure my story goes where I need it to go. So consider your climax, look back at your second act plot point, and then figure out what crucial moment will need to happen to get your protagonist from the second act plot point to the climax. What is the final catalyst that can’t be ignored? This is likely your second-act complication.

Categories: story structure

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