Developing Themes In Your Stories: Part 10 –The Act II Crisis

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

There comes a point in every story when, despite the protagonist’s best efforts, everything goes wrong. The midpoint taught her to take an improved approach to achieving her story goal. But that won’t protect her from experiencing the worst possible setback in her pursuit. Now her goal seems unattainable, her task insurmountable – and the protagonist hits her emotional rock-bottom. Many writers call this the “dark night of the soul.” For our purposes, we’ll call it the Act II crisis.

Today we’ll explore the Act II crisis as part of Developing Themes In Your Stories. Using brainstorming and writing activities, we’ll discover how literary themes arise from this critical moment in the story as well as how the protagonist finds the strength to carry on. We’ll also revisit Bilbo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Veronika from Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die, and see what themes emerge from each darkest hour.

What is the Act II Crisis? Why Is It So Crucial to the Story?

Here are the basics of the Act II crisis, as well as what this plot point typically accomplishes:

  • It occurs around the 75% mark, and represents the end of Act II and the beginning of Act III.
  • It shows the protagonist at her lowest emotional point in the story and ready to give up on her goal.
  • However, it compels the protagonist to reflect on her journey again before summoning the courage to prepare for her eventual showdown with the antagonist.

Think about what would happen if the protagonist abandoned her goal now. Wouldn’t readers (and even you) feel disappointed to see her walk away, after all the progress she’s made? So, just as this disaster endangers her goal and forces her to question everything, something else about it must remind her of why she’s fighting for that goal in the first place. And in that moment of darkness, she realizes that, if she wants to succeed, she’ll have to do what she’s been scared to do all along.

This is why the Act II crisis is one of the most crucial moment – if not the most crucial moment –in the story. Yes, it raises the stakes yet again, but it also emphasizes the why behind the character’s motivations and her earlier struggles and choices. In other words, the Act II crisis will pulse with the story’s themes more strongly than any previous plot point. How this moment affects the protagonist and what she chooses to do in response will therefore need to be carefully considered.

What Causes the Act II Crisis?

First, something needs to cause the Act II crisis. A game-changing lie might be revealed, and the protagonist finds the truth devastating. Or, a plot twist orchestrated by the antagonist might turn the protagonist’s life upside-down again. Either way, the event is a crushing blow for the protagonist, and one that frequently employs a literal or symbolic death (e.g., loss of a valued object, a life-threatening situation, a required sacrifice) to underscore its devastation. Even worse, it scraps any plans the protagonist may have had and pushes her story goal out of reach – for now.

So, when considering your story’s Act II crisis, think about what events or revelations could make this crisis possible. What’s the worst setback that your protagonist could face right now? How does it seem to make her story goal unreachable? Does it also threaten her desires or re-trigger her fears? Remember that the more personal the protagonist’s goal is, the more explosive the cause of the crisis should be – and the more devastating its impact will be on your character.

Let’s look at what causes the Act II crises in Bilbo’s and Veronika’s stories:

J. R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

After Smaug the dragon is slain by Bard of Lake-town, the Mirkwood Elves and the survivors of Lake-town travel to Erebor, where Thorin Oakenshield, the other Dwarves, and a disgruntled Bilbo are hiding out. When Bard requests a share of the Dwarves’ treasure to rebuild Lake-town, Thorin refuses, calling his adversaries “foes and thieves” and demanding that their army leave before further negotiations. (286 – 287) His behavior, as Bilbo realizes, could turn the stand-off into all-out war – and that would endanger everyone’s lives, not just Bilbo’s.

Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die:

Veronika watches as Eduard, whom she’s developed romantic feelings for, undergoes an electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) treatment (157 – 160). The controversy behind this therapy, as well as Eduard’s violent reaction to the treatment, provides a stark contrast to Veronika’s goal to live life more fully.

Activity #1: Review the scene that serves as your story’s Act II crisis (or, if you haven’t written it yet, brainstorm possible scenes that could act as the Act II crisis). What event or revelation causes this crisis? How does it threaten the protagonist’s story goal while touching on her fears or desires?

How Does This Crisis Affect the Protagonist?

After the event or revelation that causes the Act II crisis, the protagonist often plunges into an “all-is-lost” state of mind. She’ll be fraught with anger, fear, despair, and other painful emotions that are appropriate for her and the circumstances. These emotions should differ sharply from those that the protagonist experienced when the story’s midpoint ended. Instead of feeling empowered, she now feels utterly disempowered.

Take some time here to explore your character’s current state. What immediate effect does the Act II crisis have on her? What is she thinking or feeling at this moment? Then, consider what kinds of scenes would demonstrate this character on the verge of quitting her story-goal pursuit. Be careful to not prolong this section of the story, though. Only one or two scenes should be sufficient for offering a glimpse into the character’s “dark night” and outwardly manifesting her internalized defeat.

How are Bilbo and Veronika affected by their Act II crises? You might be surprised by how different their reflections are:

The Hobbit:

Bilbo, who was already agitated with the Dwarves, “disapprove[s] of the whole turn of affairs.” (288) He agrees that he and the Dwarves are partly responsible for Lake-town’s destruction. Thus he understands why Bard would request financial compensation, and is bewildered when Thorin refuses. He also worries what might happen if the Dwarves discover that he’s hiding their crown jewel known as the Arkenstone (289), which Bilbo found days earlier.

Veronika Decides to Die:

Though Eduard’s ECT treatment lasts only a few seconds, his reaction frightens Veronika so much that she becomes physically ill (160). Later, when fellow patient Zedka visits Veronika while Eduard sleeps, Veronika appears “distant, as if she had lost all interest in life”, and says, “… there are no reasons to continue battling away beneath the sun.” (161) Her hopelessness and aloofness are evidence that she has once again lost her desire to live.

Activity #2: Brainstorm your protagonist’s state of mind immediately following her Act II crisis. What thoughts and emotions does she experience? Why does she believe her story goal is unattainable now? Finally, what kinds of scenes, dialogue, and actions would illustrate her “dark night of the soul”?

The “Why” That Motivates the Protagonist to Continue

Once again, the protagonist is left with a choice: to walk away from her story goal, or to find the strength to continue. And in the moments before she makes that choice, something will remind her of that all-important “why.” It echoes of why her story goal matters so much to her and what else she stands to lose if she gives up now. This “why” isn’t just the motivation behind her story-goal pursuit – it’s also the story’s thematic heart at its most visible.

But let’s focus on the decision first. As you craft the end of the Act II crisis, allow the protagonist to review her options, the consequences of each, and (since we already know she’ll choose to continue) what action she must take next that will begin her path to the story’s climax. In some cases, she might receive insight from a supporting character that encourages her to press on. In others, though, she might have only seconds to decide before she’ll need to act.

Whichever route you choose, ensure that the protagonist knows why she must reach her story goal. She can voice that “why” through dialogue or share it only with readers through her thoughts. Either way, this reason should be conveyed in the text – and the protagonist should be frightened of taking this action, yet clear-headed enough to know it’s the right thing to do.

So, what motivates Bilbo and Veronika to carry on after their Act II crises? And what action does each protagonist take immediately afterward?

The Hobbit:

Despite his worries, Bilbo works out “the beginnings of a plan” with the Arkenstone (289). Once he learns that Thorin’s cousin’s army is days away from attacking the Elves and Lake-town survivors, he sneaks out of Erebor and gives the Arkenstone to Bard and King Thranduil of the Mirkwood Elves, encouraging them to use the jewel for bargaining with Thorin. He also says that he’s “merely trying to avoid trouble for all concerned,” yet remains loyal to the Dwarves (“I don’t think I ought to leave my friends like this, after all we have gone through together.”). (293 – 294) This scene, where Bilbo explains his “why” and takes drastic action to prevent a war, marks the culmination of the courage he’s been building all story long.

Veronika Decides to Die:

During their conversation while Eduard sleeps, Zedka offers this advice to Veronika: “You’ve got nothing to lose… [T]here are a lot of things at risk, a lot of future and a lot of past. In your case, there is only the present.” (162) This, along with Zedka’s other insights, gives Veronika pause for thought. Perhaps living and dying “with [a] heart full of love” is better than doing so without (162). Thus, she chooses to stay by Eduard’s side until he wakes, then asks him about the hallucinations he experiences due to his schizophrenia. It’s not a kinetic act like Bilbo’s, yet it demonstrates her willingness to give both life and love another try.

Activity #3: Determine the protagonist’s motivation for continuing her story-goal pursuit after the Act II crisis. Why does her goal still matter to her after this apparent defeat or failure? Does she have much time after the crisis to consider her options or receive advice? If so, what are the options and/or advice? How does she share her “why” with readers and/or other characters? Finally, what action (if any) does she take immediately after her reflection that will bring her a step closer to the story’s climax?

Are Your Story’s Themes Beginning to Look Familiar?

See how all of the brainstorming activities we did in past Developing Themes posts have led up to today’s? Each internal aspect of the Act II crisis, from the protagonist’s affected fears and desires to the “why” behind her choice to carry on, is part of our working definition of “theme”. And if these fears, desires, and motivations are consistent with those from earlier plot points in the story, then the literary themes arising here should also be familiar.

Read over the activities you’ve completed so far for the Act II crisis. What high-level ideas are emphasized? How does the danger that this event poses to the protagonist and her story goal, as well as the character’s reasons for trying again, shed light on the story’s heart? Then compare the themes you discover here with those you dug up during the inciting incident, the Act I choice, and the midpoint. Don’t be surprised if you find any repeats across most – if not all – of these scenes.

Here are some literary themes from our example Act II crises:

  • The Hobbit: Courage, wealth, loyalty, cleverness
  • Veronika Decides to Die: Death / mortality, love, happiness, mental illness

Activity #4: Review your answers for Activities #1 through #3, and write down any themes that emerge from the Act II crisis. How do the temporary defeat and the protagonist’s renewed persistence highlight why the story goal is so important to your character? Once you finish, compare your list of themes to those of other plot points we’ve covered during this series. Do any themes repeat across multiple scenes?

What are some memorable Act II disasters from stories you’ve read? Does the protagonist(s) in your WIP face his/her own “dark night of the soul”? In all of these examples, what are some of the themes that emerge from this scene?

Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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