Last week, I began a three-week series on the three act structure. Most commonly used for screenplays, novelists have long borrowed the basic structure to help outline novels. Bottom line, the three-act structure is a proven story-telling technique.
This week, we’ll look at Act II.
Act II is most commonly referred to as the rising action. It’s marked by several things, but the two most important aspects are the escalation of tension and the further development of the character.
Act II shows us how big the problem can be, and it’s always bigger than originally thought. Things keep getting worse. The characters try to defeat the antagonist, try to resolve the conflict, but fail. It’s a process of learning what must be done to overcome. Or, if the characters already know, Act II is the quest to achieve whatever feat must be done to eventually emerge victorious.
The real reason for the escalation of conflict and tension is the failure of the characters. Our protagonists come to find out they don’t have the required skill set, or strength, or determination, or resolve (etc.) to overcome the antagonist. Thus, they must progress and grow—a process that is often aided by other characters close to our protagonists. If we think of The Empire Strikes Back, we see Luke undertaking a quest to become a Jedi. But even Yoda can’t prepare him for the challenge of Darth Vader. Ultimately, when Luke shows down with the evil Sith, Vader is the one who emerges victoriously. Defeated, but not dead, Luke must again train and prepare to fight an evil he thought he was ready for.
This act is process. It’s trial-and-error. It’s learning and development of characters. The intensifying adversity sharpens our characters’ resolve and determination. Our characters gather the strength they need to overcome whatever trial they will face at the end.
Last week, I used my YA Fantasy novel, The Hand of Adonai and the Book of Things to Come, to illustrate the action of Act I. If I continue that analysis, we see that Act II of HOA and the BOTTC forces our characters to realize the only way they’ll find their way home is with the knowledge contained with in the Book of Things to Come. They also must learn to work together and deal with their personal short-comings and work as a team to overcome the obstacles they face (in this case, scary monsters…lots of scary monsters). They also discover that the threat they face is larger than they anticipated. Getting home might cost them their lives.