Rise Up & Commit:

Story structure points 5 & 6

When we left our hero, at the end of story point 4, his plan for solving the central story problem had just fallen apart. So now he has to create a new plan, to solve a story problem that he now knows is bigger/ more complex/ different in some important way than he’d originally assumed. But by now (generally) he knows what he’s really up against. I added that “generally” because you can have other plot twists, other ways the story problem changes size or shape. But in most cases, this second plan is the one that he’ll be pursuing throughout the Second Rising Action (story structure point 5) all the way to the climax.

The Second Rising Action is the dreaded “middle” of the story, where so many authors find themselves struggling for something interesting to put on the page. And if you find yourself struggling, it’s usually due to one of three causes:

1) You haven’t made your story problem big enough in the first place — in which case, you need to go back to square one and figure out how to make whatever your hero wants harder to get.

2) You’re afraid to make things too hard for your hero. You like him too much to really make his life miserable. You want to write him out of all those horrible situations the moment he gets into them — instead of chasing him up a tree and then throwing rocks at him. And then having one of those rocks hit a hornets’ nest. If you’re one of those writers who doesn’t want to see your protagonist suffer … well, you’re going to have to get over that. Making your hero’s life miserable is an author’s job, because that’s what makes your protagonist into a hero. The degree to which he not only suffers, but struggles against everything you can throw at him, directly determines how much the reader wants him to win.

3) The final thing you may need to do, if you find yourself struggling in this middle section of the book, is to get your villain into the fight. Your antagonist may not be a evil-doer — but in terms of story structure that makes no difference. This is someone who, whatever their motivation, opposes the hero. So let them oppose him actively! The Second Rising Action is a great place for the villain to become aware of the hero’s efforts and start fighting back. If your villain is doing everything he can to try to bring your hero down, you won’t have any problems with a sagging middle. And it doesn’t matter whether the villain is putting your hero’s code into the lock pad when he steals the top secret whatever, or if she’s bribing/blackmailing the seamstress to take two inches out of the waist of your heroine’s prom dress — as long as they’re doing something to mess with your hero they’re helping your plot. (See my previous writing tip: Villains: Because a good bad guy is the author’s best friend.)

But all of this affects only your plot’s external action — and the Second Rising Action is also great place to start bringing your hero up against problems where his personal flaws and weaknesses start getting in his way. You should have established those internal flaws and weaknesses right at the start of the story, and they probably played some part in the first third of the story. But this middle third-to-half of the story — which is roughly the amount of page space your second rising action will take up — this is where the character’s internal problems can come to the fore and really start giving him trouble. Maybe even to the point that he begins to doubt his willingness to pay the price to reach his goal, or his ability to get there.

Which brings us to The Commitment. This is the climax of the second act, and though it’s often called a plot twist — it can be a plot twist — more often, it’s an escalation of the stakes. Suddenly the hero learns something that makes reaching the goal not just harder, but more important than it was before. This is the moment in classic action adventure where the bad guy kidnaps someone the hero loves, so now his task is not only complicated by the need to stage a rescue, but the outcome has become deeply personal as well. In a romantic comedy, it’s the place where whatever forces are operating against the lovers actually succeed in separating them.

But the reason I call it The Commitment is because this is often the moment where the protagonist finally, completely, dedicates himself to the story goal. Internal weaknesses can be confronted and, if not overcome, rejected — or even accepted. The hero also accepts the risks and sacrifices he may be forced to make. He knows that if he goes forward with his plan the bad guy might kill his beloved whoever. The romantic comedy hero/heroine might actually lose their job, or whatever secondary value is at stake. But the ultimate goal matters enough that they commit to taking that risk, to going through with it.

This isn’t generally the culmination of your character’s arc — that usually occurs closer to the climax, where he actually overcomes his flaws, or makes the necessary sacrifice. But this is often the moment where the hero makes the decision to make that heroic choice when the time comes.

And that decision will lead him directly into story structure points 7 & 8, the Ramp-up to the Climax and the Dark Moment.

Spring 2012

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