ACT 2 STORY ELEMENTS

 

Act 2.1: The Call to Adventure

Act Two is twice the size of acts one and three, but is broken in half at the midpoint of the story, so in effect, Act Two is two acts.

The first half of Act Two is the under the umbrella of “The Call to Adventure” caused by the catalyst from the end of the first act. This is where the protagonist’s journey actually begins. Act One sets up who the protagonist is, who the antagonist is, and Act Two is where they begin a trajectory that will bring the antagonist into conflict with the protagonist.

The Call to Adventure ultimately disrupts the comfort of the protagonist’s ordinary world and presents a quest that must be undertaken.

This section is about deliberate pacing, and I break it down into the following beats.

Refusal of the Call

Change is scary and for a moment the main character doubts the journey they must take. This could be due to a sense of obligation, fear of the unknown, or a whole range of range of reasons.

In the Matrix, Neo refuses the (quite literal) Call to Adventure because of his fear of falling, which leads to him being arrested, and Agent Smith giving him the anthesis to the Call to Adventure.

The purpose of the Refusal of the Call is to give the protagonist a sense of agency. If he or she does not show a sense of reluctance to give up their mundane, safe life, then they may come across as fickle or flighty, and thusly they are a much more passive character.

Further, drama is created by tension. As a writer, we create tension by pushing and pulling our character. The necessities of the plot is pushing him into the adventure, but the character needs to pull back against the plot. Leaving the every day comfortability of life that the character has been stuck in needs to be a sacrifice that isn’t taken lightly.

The Lock-in and Crossing the Threshold

After at first refusing the call to adventure, the character is confronted with a new development that causes them to reassess their refusal, and choose to heed the call. Once they choose to follow the Call to Adventure, they cross the point of no return and commit to the change.

In other words, the lock in propels the protagonist into a new direction in order to accomplish their new objective throughout the second act.

In The Matrix, Neo is arrested, and the antagonist Agent Smith overplays his hand. Neo has already refused the call, and has allowed his fear to keep him from crossing the threshold and accepting the call to adventure. He will continue to be Mr. Anderson. But Agent Smith tries to double down on that fear by removing Neo’s mouth, and putting a tracking device spider robot into his belly button.

Instead of becoming more afraid, it actually has the opposite effect, revealing the artifice of Neo’s reality, and compelling him to take the Red Pill, and see how deep the rabbit-hole goes. There is no turning back from the Red Pill. He is Locked In.

The Lock In is a choice that the protagonist commits to, and Crossing the Threshold is the immediate ramifications of that choice. It is a rite of passage of transition to adulthood. It is a symbolic act that indicates the first active decision of responsibility and independence. Stepping into a bold new world is often a very scary act, moving from the safety of home into an unpredictable and dangerous world, where the rules are different and the cost of failure is high.

Thresholds are often guarded by people, monsters or other difficulties which have to be overcome. For Neo, he is swallowed into a liquid mirror. Symbolically, Neo’s perception of himself and his surroundings was flawed, like the broken mirror — he perceived the illusion of the Matrix as real. The healing of the mirror is the first step in his beginning to perceive the Matrix for what it really is.

By touching the surface of the mirror, Neo takes a step across the boundary between the Matrix and the real world, a step whose irreversibility is shown by the mirror swallowing up Neo completely.

A Whole New World

This part is the paradigm shift of the character. Having crossed the threshold, the protagonist is introduced to this new world and faces his first trials and challenges. There maybe some needed exposition orienting the character into this bold new world, and the best writing makes this exposition seamlessly fold into the narrative, and most importantly, SHOWS NOT TELLS.

In Jurassic Park, after spending a lifetime digging up multi-million year old bones of extinct dinosaurs, Alan Grant has had the entire foundation of his reality shaken by being confronted with an entire island of living breathing dinosaurs.

Steven Spielberg brilliantly weaves the necessary exposition showing how this was accomplished by making it part of the park. He turns what could be visually boring exposition into a ride.

Not only does this convey what could be dull information in an interesting, exciting manner, it also is a clever bit of world building, helping us envision how the park would actually function in the real world. Plus, the scene continues to pull us into the world, as Alan and company become swept up with excitement, take initiative, break the ride and go physically behind the scenes instead of passively listening to Hammond’s prescribed, juvenile cartoon exposition.

The expositions continues, but now our protagonist experiences it hands on, watching a baby dinosaur be born.

Which leads them right into the next plot beat…

Bad Guys Close In

David Mamet brilliantly lays out some dramatic rules in his Masterclass, at the beginning of the second act, we need to remind the audience who they love and who they hate. We’ve been spending the bulk of the Second Act thus far with our protagonist, but now it is time to change it up a little and give our antagonist some of the spotlight. After we get all of that exposition out of the way, we need to amp up the threat, tighten the screws and start ratcheting up the stakes.

In the aforementioned scene in Jurassic Park, we shift from a moment of blissful awe at the birth of a dinosaur, and take the scene positive and flip it into a negative. Grant recognizes the baby dinosaur as a Velociraptor, the very species of dinosaur that ate a dude in the beginning of the movie, and a fossil of which Grant used to scare the piss out of a little boy. There are several antagonists in Jurassic Park, including Dennis Nedry and the Tyrannosaurus Rex, but the Raptors are our Big Bad.

So from the tender scene of birth, we quickly turn to a scene of death, as a cow is lowered into the Raptor Paddock and is torn apart.

This serves as a foreshadow of what our hero is up against and is the first time that our protagonist and antagonist cross paths, building anticipation for the inevitable the final showdown. From there, we move into the Midpoint, and to ACT 2.2:The Promise of the Premise