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How to Write a Freaking Cool Novel – Step 8: Flesh out a 3-act breakdown part 3 – Draft Act II

novel writing tipsNOTE: This article is part of a series, to get the most from it, you might consider starting from step 1.

Undoubtedly, now that you have written a roadmap for act I you have a pretty good idea of what you want your protagonist to accomplish in act II. Let’s get started.

When writing a long form piece like a novel or a feature screenplay, it is helpful to employ a mechanical approach to building out your story. A detailed plan is like a skeleton. Once all the bones are in place, you can release your creative side and flesh out the skeleton with unbridled character, description, and voice without having to think about where your story will wander next. Act II in your 3-act breakdown is perhaps the most mechanical part of the story building process.

Act II Conflict Sequences
Act II can be broken down into a series of conflict sequences (usually 3 to 6). These sequences must pit your protagonist against his nemesis. Remember always that your protagonist and antagonist must have conflicting goals. If one wins, the other loses. Hence, each of your conflict sequences should center on both your antagonist and protagonist’s attempts to undermine each other’s goals while advancing their own agendas.

Act II conflict sequences need not, and should not, all be head to head smash matches between the protagonist and his nemesis. There are always other characters on the chessboard. Earlier conflicts might be between the protagonist and the antagonist’s minions. The protagonist might not even know throughout act II the true identity of his nemesis. In this case, all conflict sequences will occur between the protagonist and characters that support the antagonist’s goal.

The original Star Wars trilogy is an excellent example of act based story telling. Luke Skywalker undoubtedly acts as the story’s protagonist. He is the prime mover throughout the trilogy. However, when asked who the antagonist is, most people will say, Darth Vader. This is not correct. The true conflict in the story is not between Luke and Vader; it lies between Luke and the Emperor. Vader acts as the Emperor’s minion. Vader is the will and fulfillment of the Emperor’s wishes. At the end of The Return of the Jedi, who is defeated? Not Darth Vader, he merely completes his character arch by turning back to the light side. It is the Emperor who is taken out in the end. The emperor loses. Luke and Vader both win.

It is interesting that most of the conflict between Luke and the Emperor throughout the trilogy occurs between Luke and the Emperor’s minions, between Luke and storm troopers, between Luke and Jabba the Hut, between Luke and Darth Vader. Luke must overcome these conflict sequences, each sequence leading him up to his final conflict between him and the Emperor.

The Empire Strikes Back, the second movie in the original trilogy, stands out as an effective act II. It builds through a series of conflict sequences up to a climax. Act II of your story should follow the same model. The conflict sequences of act II should each have their own purposes. Your antagonist must have a short-term conflict sequence goal. And the goals for each sequence must be unique. However, each of these goals must propel your protagonist closer to accomplishing his overall goal.

Think of act 2 as a pie chart and each conflict sequence as a pie piece. As your protagonist attains each conflict sequence goal, one of the pieces of the chart is filled in. At the end of act II, the pie chart is whole. Your protagonist has all the tools and experience he needs–or possibly has been beaten down hard enough and long enough—to engage with his nemesis in endgame styled conflict.

If you were to diagram act 2 of your story, you would draw a point somewhere on the left, lower third of a piece of paper. You would plot a line in an inclining slant towards the upper right corner of the paper. Just before you reach the right edge of the paper, the line shoots upward at an extremely steep angle, perhaps right off the page onto the table top. The point is, make sure that the conflict builds throughout act II then spikes hard with a compelling climax. Don’t pit your antagonist against an army in the first conflict sequence of the act then have him sit down to tea for the second conflict sequence.

So how do you get started in fleshing out your act II action sequences? It’s best to begin with a quick, 1 to 4 (or more) paragraph synopsis for each action sequence. Place them along your plot line in story-telling order. These synopses must contain clear descriptions of your protagonist’s sequence-wise goals. They must also contain descriptions of what your protagonist must go through in order to achieve these goals.

Here’s an example:

Act II Conflict Sequence 1: Luke and Yoda

Luke must become adept at using the force in order to face the Emperor. To accomplish this goal, Luke visits Degobah, the home world of Yoda, an ancient teacher who has spent his life mastering the light side of the force and training Jedi. As Luke struggles to learn the force, he is racked with feelings of self-doubt. He doesn’t feel he is the one who can face Vader and come out victorious. As he progresses through his training, he comes to feel more confident in his powers as a Jedi. Further conflict arises when Luke learns that his friends are in danger. He struggles with the decision to either stay and finish his Jedi training and possibly allow his friends to die, or leaving Degobah to help his friends without the full vestment of Jedi powers he will need to face Vader and the Emperor. In the end, he decides to leave.

This action sequence has it all. There is a clear definition of the protagonist’s sequence-wise goal: learn to become a Jedi. There is also a definition of why he must attain this goal to accomplish his overall goal: to defeat the Emperor. There is a brief description of what Luke must do to accomplish his goal. In the end he is faced with a critical decision; he decides to leave Yoda. The jury is out on whether Luke has done the right thing in leaving Degobah before completing his training.

The Act II Pinch(es)
Your protagonist has his back against the wall. One of the antagonist’s minions has him against the ropes. His options have run out. He must decide: does he push on and continue to fight against his nemesis? Does he continue to try and get the girl even though she seems to be in love with his best friend? Does he save the village, even though its villagers are ready to give up? Does he go after the suspicious man wearing a fedora, or does he come down hard on the girl who hired him to dig into her husband’s life? Pinches, plot points that occur 1-4 times throughout your story, act as crossroads in your main character’s journey.

Pinches act as the shaping points of your protagonist’s character. Think about it, we are the results of long paths paved with the decisions of our lives. We make hundreds of small decisions. We make a few large decisions that can be considered pinches. Did you chose be get married or remain single? Did you decide to continue with college or drop out? Such decisions have huge, permanent impacts on us. These are the kinds of decisions your protagonist should make, decisions that can make or break her. And it doesn’t much matter if your character comes out on top or under the table bloody and beaten. The magic is in the cause and effect, no matter what the effect might be, as long as it is permanent and unrelenting.

Looking back at the example from Return of the Jedi, Luke faces a pinch: does he stay on Degobah and finish his Jedi training or does he leave to rescue his friends?

In George Orwell’s 1984, when the antagonist, Winston, receives a note from a dark-haired girl in a hallway that reads, “I love you,” does he turn her in, or dies he try to make contact with her?

In Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, after hearing Long John Silver conspire with other members of the crew to start a mutiny, does Jim Hawkins lay low, or does he draw a line in the sand by telling Captain Smollet about the plot, even though he has learned to like Silver’s easy-mannered mentorship?


Act II Disaster
At the end of act II, your protagonist must face disaster. This is the point when it’s all or nothing. Your protagonist, even after facing obstacle after obstacle in the form of act sequences, must confront a seemingly impossible task.

Throughout your story, you must take on a diabolical viewpoint. The old writer’s adage says, to write a great story, you first run your protagonist up a tree then throw rocks at him. The biggest, hardest, meanest rock you throw happens at the end of act II. This is the rock that has the ability to, in one fatal smash, send your protagonist flailing and plummeting towards the ground, risking a broken neck. Your protagonist might fall. Or he might be resourceful and find a way to maneuver around the rock for a controlled descent out of the tree. Personally, I like smashing the crap out of him.

Throughout your story, you must repeatedly give your protagonist bloody noses, black eyes, broken arms, and internal injuries. This can all happen literally or figuratively. Whether you are dealing with your character’s physical well being or the stability of his psyche, you bust deal your best, blow by blow, until you protagonist is so backed into a corner that he must engage in brutal, endgame style battle to get out of his situation. Make it dangerous. Make his situation seemingly impossible to escape. The more thickly you can lay layers of conflict and trouble onto your protagonist during his disaster, the more resourceful your protagonist must be to return his life to some form of normality.

As I mentioned earlier, the original star wars trilogy stands as a great example of the 3-act structure. At the end of Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, we are left with a distraught Luke Skywalker. After losing his hand in a light saber battle with his sworn enemy, he has discovered that Darth Vader might be his father. Han Solo has been cryogenically frozen and sent back to Jabba the Hut to suffer a probable ignominious fate. Lando and Chewbacca head off in the Millennium Falcon to save Han. In the meantime, the Empire is in the middle of constructing an even bigger, meaner death star.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Van Helsing, Seward, Morris, Homwood, and Harker discover that several boxes of earth, shipped by Dracula to Carfax Abbey, are missing. This means Dracula must be hiding elsewhere. Meanwhile, Dracula kills Seward’s patient, the insane Renfield, but not before Renfield warns the vampire hunters that Mina is in danger. They hurry back to Seward’s house where they find Dracula forcing Mina to drink his blood. They successfully drive the monster away, but not before the love of Harker’s life is infected with vampirism. Now it’s a do or die battle to defeat Dracula in hopes of freeing Mina from her plight worse than death.

Act II Breakdown in Summary
To bring it all together, breaking down act II of your novel is like compiling a series of steps that lead upward to a seemingly unconquerable disaster.

After finishing your act II breakdown, you should have a series of conflict sequences, each describing, in perhaps 100 words or less, your act II layout plan. Each of these sequences must describe your protagonist’s sequence-wise goal and how that goal helps propel your protagonist towards attaining his overall, story goal. Each sequence must also describe your protagonist’s sequence actions.

At least 1 of your act II sequences must contain a pinch where your protagonist is forced to make a critical decision that will affect the final outcome of the story and perhaps even the rest of his life.

The final act II sequence paragraph must contain your story’s disaster, the event that brings your protagonist to her lowest point in her journey.

In the end, you should have a series of 3 to 6 act II conflict sequences under your 3-act breakdown document’s Act II header.

What About Gus the Plumber?
To further bring it home, lets continue breaking down the story of Gus the Plumber by adding an Act II breakdown to the story’s 3-act breakdown document. We’ll pull it out of the story canon and add the details of act II.

Gus the Plumber – 3-act Breakdown – Act II Breakdown

Act II


Act II – Conflict 1 – Gus Verses Larry the Cultist
A sincere gentleman named Charles Lawrence calls Gus and asks him if he can come to his place of business to clear some trouble in the executive bathroom. When Gus shows up at the posh corporate offices, Larry, the CEO of Lawrence and Finnigan Law Firm, shows him to the restroom. Gus gets to work, readying his tools. He starts by flushing the toilet and discovers that there is nothing wrong. When he turns around, Larry is robed in cultist regalia and coming at Gus with a sacrificial dagger. Gus defends himself against the cultist. Larry calls up monsters from the deep. They come out of the plumbing and attack. Gus defends himself with a length of lead pipe. In the end, he lays out Larry the cultist and finds his way out of the law firm.

Gus goes on a lunch date with Dierdre. She’s excited about their wedding plans. When Gus tells her that something has come up and that they might need to push the wedding back, she bursts into tears. Gus tries to calm her down, but in the end tells her that it’s nothing he can’t handle. He’ll see to his business and make sure the wedding is on.

Act II – Conflict 2 – Pinch – Locating Mark Atwood
After his close call with the cultist, Gus decides he needs weapons. He isn’t a gun guy so he sticks with what he knows best, his craft. He makes a few tools out of plumbing equipment, pipes, springs, and other implements. He puts the weapons into a special case in the back of his van and goes to visit the Man in Black.

The Man in Black meets Gus at a park where the two play chess. Gus asks how he can find his friend Mark Atwood. He discloses that he has wedding plans and he needs to find Mark Atwood, his best man, get Vorvadoss off his back, and convince Harper that delving in black arts to increase his business will do nothing but incite world domination from pandimensional beings.

The Man in Black says he can help Gus but that it will be dangerous. Gus doesn’t care; he only wants results. The Man in Black says he will need something of Mark’s and something of Gus’s, preferably something intimate. The Man in Black tells Gus to gather the items and meet him at his basement.

Gus goes to see Mark Atwood’s wife. She gives him a pair of Mark’s whitey tighties. Gus grabs a pair of his own from home and goes to meet the Man in Black.

The Man in Black warns that getting information about Mark might be dangerous. Gus shows his resolve to help his friend by telling the Man in Black to proceed. The Man in Black burns the two sets of whitey tighties as part of an intricate ritual. He summons a demon from another dimension. Gus has to subdue the demon before he can learn the answer to his question. There is a wrestling match. Gus wins after a struggle, breaking up furniture and expensive spell paraphernalia in the Man in Black’s basement.

The demon reaches into his pocket and takes out a steel ball about the size of a marble. He gives it to Gus and tells him to hold it tight while thinking about his friend, Mark Atwood. Gus does but nothing happens. The demon tells Gus that, because the indicator isn’t working, Mark must have been abducted to Vorvadoss’s plane. To find Mark, Gus must go to the other plane. Gus says he’s seen portals to the other plane in his line of work. The demon tells him to take one of the portals. After the exchange, the demon disappears.

The Man in Black tells Gus to forget Mark, that he will never survive in Vorvadoss’s plane. He tells Gus to go back to Dierdre and get married. Mark will be lost. But the Man in Black is working to summon other cultists, like the Man in Black, to return from another war to help ensnare Vorvadoss.

Gus is faced with a hard decision: does he go back to Dierdre and forget about Mark and let the cultists fight Vorvadoss? Or does he go after his friend and Vorvadoss? Gus decides he’s all in. He’s going after Mark and Vorvadoss. His hope is to bring back his friend and stop Vorvadoss in case the cultists don’t return in time.

The Man in Black discusses Vorvadoss’s powers with Gus. He says that a warrior can capture Vorvadoss in a cage of his own making, but it’s dangerous. The spells are complicated. The ritual is detailed. Gus says he can build such a cage. He only needs instructions.

Act II – Conflict 3 – Gus vs. Harper
Gus works on the cage in his shop, building it on a round sheet of iron. He inscribes cult symbols into the bottom of the cage as per the Man in Black’s instructions. The cage will be just big enough to fit into a knapsack. A small TV set drones on in the background as he works. An advertisement for Harper Plumbing comes on the set. Harper is now offering demon-hunting services along with his plumbing services. Angered, Gus decides it’s time to face Harper head on.

Gus arms himself with a homemade projectile launcher and visits Harper Plumbing’s headquarters. He camps out in a hidden location across the street until he sees Harper leave the shop. Gus follows Harper to a barren area of town. He pulls up next to Harper’s car and shoots a tire out. Both cars stop in the middle of the street under an overpass.

Gus and Harper talk. Harper levels with Gus, telling him that he’s gained power and with that power, he has learned that there is money in demon hunting. If Gus can’t move along with the times, he’ll die like a dinosaur. Gus warns Harper that using Vorvadoss’s power against him will only bring his wrath. Harper laughs and pulls a gun on Gus. He threatens to shoot Gus, but witnesses show up. Harper warns Gus to watch his back. Harper will be making Gus enemy number 1 among his plumbers. It will be shoot first and ask questions later.

Gus pulls away, leaving Harper to deal with his flat tire.

Act II – Conflict 4 – Gus visits Vorvadoss’s fortress
Gus visits the elderly woman whose pipe he repaired at the beginning of the story. He asks if he can take a look at her plumbing. She lets him in.

Gus looks under the sink, cuts a hole in the drywall and recites an incantation written phonetically by the Man in Black. A portal opens to Vorvadoss’s plane. Gus leaps through. He lands in an alternate reality parallel to the city in which he lives and works. The alternate is lit with a green tint. The old woman is gone.

Gus moves out into the street. He sees a group of slaves, led by a taskmaster. Gus hides as the taskmaster whips them by. Gus sees other, similar groups of slaves. The taskmasters are all different, some look human, others look alien.

Gus formulates a plan.

Gus hides until one of the groups comes close. He takes out the taskmaster with a length of pipe and convinces the group that he will let them all to freedom if they will just act like he is their new task master. They agree. Gus asks where they are going. One of the slaves says they are heading to the fortress. The slave leads Gus to the fortresses location; it’s a nether worldly version of the Harper’s Plumbing building.

Gus takes a second to stash his backpack in some bushes. He leads his slaves into the building where he is taken to a waiting area. The slave who led Gus to the fortress informs Gus that they will see through him. He suggests that Gus should act like a slave and let him do all the talking. With no other options, Gus agrees.

The slave, now acting as taskmaster, leads Gus and the others to a processing area. Someone pays off the slave; Gus and the others sold out. A fortress guard escorts Gus and the others down the halls, deeper into the fortress. Gus ducks behind a corridor, out of site, letting the group move on without him. He sneaks down the hall until he finds a bathroom. He goes inside and kicks at a toilet pipe until it explodes. He sneaks out of the bathroom and finds a place where he can hide.

Someone notices water coming out of the bathroom and shouts out that the place is being flooded. Can somebody please help? Gus comes out of hiding and maintains that he’s the guy that was called in to fix the leak. He asks if he can be taken to the tool supply room. The guy leads him hurriedly to a supply room. Gus puts on a Harper’s plumbing coverall and loads up a bag with a bunch of pipes and tools then heads back to the bathroom.

Act II – Conflict 5 – Gus finds Mark Atwood
Gus fixes the leaky pipe then exits the fortress. Once outside, he takes out the orb given to him by the demon he wrestled earlier in the Man in Black’s basement. He concentrates on the orb, thinking about Mark Atwood. The orb pulls away from the fortress to an abandoned area of town. Gus finds a small group of controllers standing outside a building, weapons aimed at the structure.

Gus moves around the building and finds a manhole cover. He pushes up the cover and jumps into the sewer. He finds some pipes that lead up into the building and starts banging the rhythm to Low Rider. Eventually, someone bangs on the pipes from above, answering with the same rhythm.

Gus exits the manhole and heads towards the building. The other enforcers tell him that the fugitives in the building have weapons and that Gus will be shot down. Gus ignores them, assuming that Mark Atwood is in the building looking for him. He moves towards the building, a couple of enforcers in tow. The two enforcers are shot dead with zip guns from inside the building.

Gus enters the building and finds Mark Atwood. Gus says they have one other task to perform before Gus can get him back home.

Act II – Conflict 6 – Caging Vorvadoss
Gus and Mark head back to the fortress. Gus finds the same man who allowed him to fix the leaky toilet and, inspired by Larry the cultist, convinces him that he needs to inspect the bathrooms in the executive restroom. The demon complies, taking Gus and Mark up to the top floor. The Boss, Vorvadoss, is out. Gus and Mark are instructed to do their work quickly before he returns. Gus and Mark get to work, rolling up the carpet and taking things out of Gus’s pack.

Gus sits at Vorvadoss’s desk and waits until the assistant comes in to check on him. The assistant is angry with Gus. Gus reveals his true identity. The assistant takes out a orb like Gus’s and crushes it under her foot. Vorvadoss appears in the middle of the room. Gus smack talks Vorvadoss. Vorvadoss tries to attack, but is held back by an arcane symbol Gus and Mark have drawn in chalk under the carpet. Gus takes out his cage. Vorvadoss says Gus can’t possibly know how to recite the incantation to contain him. Gus pulls out a microrecorder and clicks the play button. The Man in Black’s voice recites the incantation. Gus captures Vorvadoss in the cage and puts the cage back into his pack.

Gus and Mark flee the Harper’s plumbing building and re-enter the prime realm just hours before Gus’s wedding.  Gus takes Vorvadoss to the Man in Black’s Basement. The Man in Black is furious; bringing Vorvadoss physically into this plane without the power of a cultist quorum to properly incarcerate him is dangerous. Gus says he’ll get rid of Vorvadoss after the wedding but that he has to go.

Act II – Conflict 7 – Disaster – Wedding Sacrifice
Gus’s wedding seems to go without a hitch until Harper shows up with an army of Harper’s plumbers. The plumbers are under some form of zombie-like mind control. They attack the wedding patrons and coral them in.

Harper steps out of the group and says that he’s there to free Vorvadoss forever. Gus tells him that Vorvadoss will only envelop their plane and make everybody into slaves. He claims that he’s seen Vorvadoss’s work. Harper laughs at Gus’s warning and taps out Dierdre as the sacrificial lamb that will free Vorvadoss.

Harper clears the altar table and forces Dierdre down, while Gus is held back by Harper’s minions. A cultist is brought out of the crowd to read the sacred rite. The cultist raises the sacrificial dagger. Gus breaks free from Harper’s plumbers and tackles the cultist. The two of them wrestle on the ground. Gus knocks the cultist out before he is pulled off from the cultist.

Dierdre says she is okay, that there is only a cut on her finger. She holds her hand up to show a superficial wound. A single drop of blood falls on the alter. Immediately, Vorvadoss’s cage is broken and he escapes. He flies down the street from the Man in Black’s basement, taking on his true form: a fire clad demon wearing a dark green cowl. Plants curl and die as he flies by. The world is painted with the same eerie, green color Gus saw in the other plane.

Vorvadoss shows up at the wedding and thanks Gus for being the essential piece of the puzzle that brought Vorvadoss through the membrane into the prime plane. Gus’s actions were all part of Vorvadoss’s plan. Now Vorvadoss will turn Gus’s plane into a slave state to mine the resources Vorvadoss needs to continue growing his power to envelope other worlds.

Now it’s your turn
Your assignment for this week is to create act II of your 3-act breakdown. You should have your 3-act breakdown document stored in your story canon folder. Open it and add the act II conflict sequences as outlined above. Make sure the plot points, pinch and disaster, are present at their appropriate points along your story timeline.

Good luck and I’ll see you next time.

To read the next article in this series, click here.

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