plotting act 2, my book therapy, novels

Conversations: Plotting Act 2

“I hope you brought your calculator,” I said to Sally as I slid into the chair at the coffee shop.  Presidents Day meant no school, and I noticed her two children playing in the reading nook in the corner.

“I didn’t realize I needed to know math to write a novel,” she said, but pulled out a notebook. “That may be a deal killer.”

I laughed. “I know I said we’d talk about heroes and heroines this week, but I thought it might help to fill in the gaps of Act 2.  See, last week we talked about storyflow, and I taught you how to put together what I call the bookends – Act 1 and Act 3. But these two acts comprise only 30-40% of your story.  For example, for a 90,000 word novel, which is a standard trade-size length, usually Act 1 is the first 50 pages, or about 12-13K words.  And Act 3 is about the last 50-75 pages, or about 15K.  So, if you do the math, that is about 30K words, leaving 60K for Act 2.”

“Why can’t I have a longer Act 1, or Act 3?”

“It’s all about rhythm.  Act 1 is about setting the stage. If you take a long time to set the stage of your story, then readers will complain that it ‘took a long time to get into the story’. And if you have a long Act 3, then they’ll say, ‘it dragged out the ending.’  Keeping it succinct solves those problems.

“Here’s what I do.  I always write 20 chapter novels.  If I am writing a 100K book, then each chapter is 5,000 words.  (I might have 2-3 scenes within that chapter.)  Here’s the trick – I always contain Act 1 in the first three chapters, and Act 3 in the last 3-4 chapters.  That way, I know I am only using about 30% of my novel.  If I’m writing a 60K novel, then each chapter is 3,000 words.  But I still keep Act 1 only 3 chapters, and Act 3 about 3-4 chapters.  It is an easy way to make sure I’m keeping the right rhythm.”

“Okay, that makes sense. But what about the 60% in Act 2?  What do I do with that?”

“That’s what I call the “fun and games” of the story.  It’s where the challenges, emotional journey and romance happens. And it is comprised of 4 main parts:

1.     The Attempt and Failure of the Goal
+ Which leads to the Cost Consideration + Rewards
2.    Training for Battle
+ Which is comprised of 3 events that cause him to learn and grow
3.    Attempt and Mini Victory
+ Which leads to a hope of Victory
4.    The Black Moment Event
(Which leads to Act 3)

“Can’t I just have him fall in love?”

“Sure. But let’s think about that:  Even when a hero falls in love, he has a journey.  After the initial meeting, when he decides to pursue the girl, (Act 1), he’s going to run into something that will thwart his goal.  Maybe she turns him down, or he finds out she’s already dating someone. That’s the Attempt and Failure. But you must have this part, otherwise there’s no challenge, no conflict, and no real emotional change. It’s just too easy….which means it’s boring.

“However, after his failure, he needs a reminder of WHY he wants to pursue the girl (or run after the goal). This is where he envisions a happy ending, as well as figures out what it’s going to cost him.  Only then can they decide to go forward.

Then, you plot the “training for battle part” – the steps your hero will take to win the girl.  The ways he shows up in her life, the changes he makes to woo her, the things that happen that cause conflict and internal change. This is where you dig deep and figure out how the physical plot will cause emotional changes.

In other words, the Disappointment (conflict, or event) causes a “Y in the road” or some sort of choice your character must make.  This choice changes him in some way, and is a result of his values and his goals.”

“Which is why I had to figure out what he wanted, and why.”

“Exactly.  At some point in Act 2, you need to give him another Attempt and this time…a Victory Show him how he’s headed in the right direction. The girl may tell him that she’s been looking for him all her life, or that he’s just the man she wants…whatever.

“He has to get a taste of that happy ending…because you’ll end Act 2 with the Black Moment Event – that thing he fears happening.  (You plotted this part last week when you worked on his Dark Moment.)  This Black Moment Event is the end of Act 2.  And then you’re into Act 3, and the climatic ending.”

“It sounds so…structured.  I thought I’d just start the story and see where it took me.”

“Yes, you can do that.  But invariably, you’ll get into Act 2, and wonder…what’s next?  These are simply Act 2 Roadmarkers, or stepping stones to help you brainstorm that answer. Some might even call them Turning Points. But yes, what happens between these stepping stones is up to you.”

She looked at her notes.  “How many words between each Stepping Stone?”

“I usually have about 2-3 chapters between each one, including the Training for Battle steps. But I always make sure I have tension in every scene, so even if it’s not a major turning point, there is always something my character has to grapple with.  But we can talk more about this in our scene construction stage.

“For now, here’s your homework.  Plot the Act 2 Roadmap using the Stepping Stones, plus the three events during the Training for Battle that help him learn and grow.

Then, you’re ready to write your story synopsis.  By doing this, you’ll see the entire journey laid out and you’ll know if your story works.”

Her eyes shone. “And then, please, do I get to write?”

“Yes.  And I promise, next week, I’ll teach you a few tricks about heroes and heroines.”

Truth:  Plotting out the major turning points in Act 2 of your novel will help you bust through Writer’s Block.

Dare: Plot the Roadmap of your character’s Act 2 journey, and you’ll discover if you have any holes in your plot.

Tomorrow, in Quick Skills, I have another chart to help you plot Act 2. Stop back!

Happy Writing!

Susie May

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Susan May Warren

About Susan May Warren

Former Russian Missionary Susan May Warren is the best-selling author of more than 40 novels and novellas with Tyndale, Barbour and Steeple Hill, and Summerside. A Christy award and RITA winner, and multiple finalist for the RITA, Christy and winner of Inspirational Readers Choice contest, Susan currently has over a million books in print. A seasoned women’s events speaker and writing teacher, she is the founder of an online community for writers, and runs a fiction editing service teaching writers how to tell a great story. Visit her online at:

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One Response to Conversations: Plotting Act 2

  1. Jodi Janz May 28, 2012 at 9:26 am #

    Thanks for this info. I have been trying to find a page number/chapter number to break down how much time you spend where. This is golden!

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