I once heard someone describe writing as walking down a narrow winding path through the forest. You know what’s behind you, and what’s immediately beside you, but you have no idea what is coming next or where the path will end.
As someone who has been writing for several years now, I never found that to be the case.
I always know my ending. The ending is one of the first parts of any story that usually comes to me during the creative process, not just one ending but several equally attractive options. Likewise, the first act is also pretty easy, where you set up your world and your cast of characters that your audience will soon tag along with until the turning of the last page.
You have a clear beginning, and an ending in sight,and you just need to trudge through the muck and foliage to reach it.
Only you don’t know just how deep the muck is and that foliage looks like it has an awful lot of thorns. Yes, the ending of a story isn’t very difficult for me. The part that’s difficult is always the second act.
Why is this the case? One would think the action coming to a head would be the most critical part of a narrative, and it is in some cases. After all, the third act of any story contains a lot of the most memorable sequences, and that’s the point where the character arcs are settled. That’s the part where Indiana Jones and his father reconcile, where Romeo and Juliet join each other in death, and where Brian has to accept his fate on the cross while singing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
Those who focus on that do miss one key point, and that is holding the reader’s attention.
Take people who cover books and scripts for example. I covered scripts a lot during my internships, and it was always said that the first ten pages are the most critical part of any script. If you didn’t know what was going on by the end of those ten pages, chances are the script wasn’t worth reading. This is why you see books and scripts starting in big ways. A group of mysterious wizards dropping off a child at Privet Drive in the middle of the night, or a young girl getting killed by a shark off the shores of Amity Island.
But that’s just the start of the story. How do you sustain that feeling all the way to the third act? And that my friends is why the second act is the most important part of any story.
Nobody just remembers the opening and ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark. They also love the high adventure of Indy’s archeological and Nazi killing antics in Egypt. Who just recalls Harry’s arrival at Privet drive and surviving his first year at Hogwarts? They love seeing him go to class, introduce us to this strange new world and slowly unravel the mystery of Voldemort. People didn’t just want Sam and Frodo to arrive at Mount Doom straight off. They wanted to see them go through a long and treacherous journey of Balrogs, orcs and giant spiders.
This may be a poor analogy, but think of any story like a sandwich. The first and third acts are the bread that holds it together, but the second act is the cheese, vegetables and meat that fill you up. People don’t want to get roped into a story only to wait for it to get really good at the end. They want the story to be good right now. Nobody would feel full after eating two pieces of bread.
Imagine if Indiana Jones just sat around and found the Ark of the Covenant without the action. Imagine if Sam and Frodo just had a casual stroll with Gollum before things picked up at the volcano. Imagine if Harry just spent most of the time tediously studying before Voldemort showed up out of nowhere.
The second act is the most critical part of the story, because that is the journey. The payoff is great, but it needs to feel earned. Part of the joy of a mystery for example is the reader trying to figure out with the characters who is responsible for whatever crime was committed. How do you keep them guessing and keep them intrigued? This is true of any other story. In an adventure, they want to keep guessing who lives and who dies, in a horror tale they want to be wondering when the monster will jump out of the darkness again, and so forth.
This makes the second act the most open part of any story, which is one of the reasons it may be the most difficult, because how do you keep all the ideas straight so the ending seems like the appropriate conclusion? What conflicts do you introduce to spice up the characters? What challenges do they face before their final standoff with the big bad?
You think just linking point A and C would be a no brainer, but it really isn’t, because that second act is full of so much possibility, it’s sometimes hard for a writer to chose where to go. Where do you be funny, scary, sad or exciting? Through it all, how far can you go without losing your story’s spirit?
I have no answers on how to fix this problem. I’m hung up on a mere two chapters in my latest outline, even though the first and third acts of my next book are mapped out in advance. Sometimes it may be best to just wing it, because isn’t that where some of our best art comes from?
Regardless of how you or I solve the problem, I don’t feel the analogy of a story as a winding path is correct. It’s much more like climbing a mountain. You know where you’re starting, you know where you’re ending, but you still need to figure out the best route to take.
There are any number of ways to get to Mount Doom.