The following is the 5th installment of our series on story structure. Prior posts are available under the Story Structure Series tab in the Categories menu.
#5 — Part 2 of Your Story… The Response
There’s no turning back now. You’ve opened a dramatic can of worms, and your hero is in the thick of it. Welcome to Part 2 of your story, where the fun really begins.
By now you’ve introduced the hero. You’ve shown us where she or he is in their life, what their agenda is, their dreams, their issues, their immediate plans. You’ve foreshadowed where the story is headed by giving us a glimpse of the forthcoming change. And you’ve pulled back the covers and shown us the dark shadows that hold your hero back.
You’ve established stakes for the story. We care. In fact, we don’t even know how much we care, because those stakes are not yet in jeopardy.
But of course all that changes. You drop the bomb. You bring in the heavy dramatic artillery. You pry open that can of worms and let us see the writhing creatures within.
Plot Point One changes everything. Something whacks the hero upside the head. What they thought was real, isn’t. What they thought they’d be doing and thinking tomorrow won’t happen quite that way. You’ve given them a new quest, the pursuit of new goals, the need to solve a new problem.
And just possibly, the need to save their own ass.
Part 1 is over. The story begins right here.
As complex as the context of the Part 1 set-up is – you need to tell us everything while actually telling us nothing – the context of Part 2 is comparatively simple: everything about Part 2 is about the hero’s reaction to the new journey you’ve just launched for them. And that includes their reluctance to accept it.
What would you do, in real life, if everything changed? If someone was out to get you? If the world was about to crash around you? Would you immediately jump in and try to save the day? Would you be the hero right off the bat? Would you make the best decision the first time out? Would you try to make it go away overnight?
Probably not. No, you’d first and foremost seek shelter. You’d run. You’d hide yourself and those you love from danger. You’d protect them and yourself. You’d flee to safety to take stock of what just happened.
You’d seek information. You’d explore options. Research possibilities. You might try something, test the water. Chances are it wouldn’t work as well as you’d planned, so you’d drop back and regroup.
That’s what Part 2 of your story is all about. All of that, and more.
Of course, the specific response of your character depends on the specific nature of the changes wrought by your First Plot Point, and the stakes you’ve put into play. Your choices here need to make sense, we need to understand and respect the decisions and actions your hero makes in those first tension-filled moments after the First Plot Point.
If your lover tells you that you are not the one, you retreat in pain. You seek an explanation. You try harder to win them back. Or perhaps tell them to buzz off and leave town.
If your lover or someone else tries to kill you, you defend yourself. You hide. You report them to the FBI. You seek to understand. You make a plan.
If the airplane you are in loses an engine and begins spiraling to the ground, you scream. Then you pray. Then you comfort the person next to you.
What you don’t do is rush the cockpit and take over. That comes later. For now, your hero is still very human. And their reactions need to be in context to that humanity.
Give us something to care about.
If you’ve done your job in Part 1, we’re already caring for and empathizing with the hero as they face this new antagonistic force and the call to a new quest. And because you’ve established stakes by now, we feel the risk and the potential loss or gain at our own core.
In which case we, the reader, are completely hooked. That’s why you wait until now to unleash the darkness. We need to care before we feel their fear.
You have 12 to 15 scenes to concoct in Part 2. All of them come from within a context of response. If you’re tempted to have them start saving the day, it’s too early for that. You can – and sometimes should – allow them to try, but it can’t work. Not yet. It’s too early.
If they do try, they must learn something from that failure. The antagonist seems to only be growing stronger, getting closer. The hero faces their own shortcomings – their inner demon – during this first failed Part 2 effort to bring about a solution.
What they learn from that attempt, both about themselves and the antagonistic force, will be applied to their next attempt to fight back in Part 3.
Introducing the concept of the Pinch Point
Somewhere toward the middle of Part 2 something important needs to happen. You must remind the reader of the nature and intention of the antagonistic force. We need to see what it is that’s threatening and/or standing in the way of our hero.
It’s called a Pinch Point, and it’s very simple: show us the bad guy – again, the same thing that appears at the First Plot Point – in full glory.
Give a flash of the storm. Show us the disgust of the withdrawing lover. Remind us of the cost of losing a job. Have the pursuing killer come close to succeeding. If it’s a bear chasing your hero through the woods, show us that bear chewing up another camper, just as it will if and when he catches up to her/him.
Pacing and Scene Selection
Pretty much anything you concoct in the way of retreating strategies or doomed attempts to strike back will eat up more than one scene. You’ll need a sequence of scenes, each logically building toward something. With three things to go for here – a retreat and regrouping, a doomed attempt to take action, and the reminder of the nature of the antagonistic force – those sequences pretty much consume the 12 to 15 scenes you have to work with.
Just as you were heading toward a destination called the First Plot Point for the entirety of Part 1, you are also heading for a destination during all of your Part 2 scenes. The context is response, and the dramatic destination is the mid-point, where once again something new will enter the story and change the nature of the game, both for the hero and the reader.
A final note of reassurance: your ability to fill in the blank spaces where your scenes will be will grow as you progress into the story. It won’t quite write itself, but what the story needs will become increasingly clear as you move forward.
That’s what happens when you write from a context of understanding the generic model of story architecture – knowing the mission of what must happen, and where to put it. As you fill in the blank spaces with specific scenes early on, your inner storyteller will be suggesting ideas for future scenes as you go.
If they aren’t, perhaps you should consider taking up painting or competitive body building.
The trick is to know where to place those elements – not too early, not too late – to maximize pacing and dramatic tension. And once you understand story architecture, and whether you’re outlining or writing organically, it’s much harder to make a mistake.
Next installment: #6 – Wrapping Your Head Around the Mid-Point Milestone.