Act II: Part 1 —Team, Training, Tests
To continue expanding on the essential Act II: Part 1 Elements - here’s a simple way to remember the basics of this second quarter of your book or script:
Team, Training, Tests
THE TEAM is the friends, relatives, colleagues, and/or experts that will help the hero/ine get their DESIRE.
The hero/ine’s TEAM will be introduced in the second act if they haven’t already been introduced in Act I, and Act II:1 is where we’ll get to know and love them.
In fact there is often an entire sequence you could call ASSEMBLING THE TEAM, which often comes early in the second act: the hero/ine has a task and lines up a group of specialists to get it done. Action movies, spy movies, and caper movies very often have this step, and it often lasts a whole sequence. Think of Armageddon, The Sting, Mission Impossible (I mean the great TV series, of course), The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Star Wars, Inception. One of the delights of a sequence like this is that you see a bunch of highly skilled pros in top form — or alternately, a bunch of unlikely losers that you root for because they’re so perfectly pathetic.
I had fun with this in my ghost novel The Harrowing —even if you’re not writing an action or caper story, which I definitely wasn’t in that book, if you’ve got an ensemble cast of characters, the techniques of an Assembling the Team sequence can be hugely helpful. The inevitable clash of personalities, the constant divaness and one-upmanship, and the reluctant bonding make for some great scenes. It’s a lively and compelling storytelling technique.
And this goes for every genre! There’s almost always a sense of assembling a team in the first act or first half of the second act. (Dorothy meeting the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion on the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz; Harry meeting Ron, Hermione and Neville on the train in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone…)
Because it’s just like life:
When we have a strong, life-changing desire, we tend to call on our friends and relatives and colleagues for help; or if we declare our intention to the Universe, then previously unknown allies show up who can help.
The next few movies you watch, make a point of looking for the hero/ine’s Team, and you’ll start to see this important element in action.
VILLAIN’S TEAM/ MINIONS/ HENCHMEN
Of course your Villain will have a Team, too, and it should look—at least on the surface—much, much bigger and badder than the Hero/ine’s Team!
David vs. Goliath is one of the oldest stories in the human book, and creates natural suspense and jeopardy: How can our Hero/ine and their motley crew possibly win against the Villain’s legions?
A Villain always looks more powerful when surrounded by both distinguishable MINIONS or HENCHMEN (Henchpersons, I guess, but they are overwhelmingly men) and faceless crowds of FOOT SOLDIERS.
There is also often a TRAINING SEQUENCE in the first half of the second act. In a mentor movie, this is a pretty obligatory sequence. Think of Karate Kid and The Matrix and that priceless Meeting the Mentor/Training sequence that introduces Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, and Baby’s dance training in Dirty Dancing.
But I want to stress that Training is not just for action-oriented stories.
In a love story or romantic comedy, the Training Sequence is often a SHOPPING SEQUENCE or a WORKOUT SEQUENCE. The heroine, with the help of a MENTOR or ally, undergoes a transformation through acquiring the right clothes and shoes and hairstyle. It’s worked since Cinderella —whose personal shopper/fairy godmother considerately made house calls—and we’ve seen it in a million romances ever since. Think of Miss Congeniality, The Princess Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada, with their fairy godmother characters. This role is a natural actor-catcher, too — who wouldn’t want to score Stanley Tucci or Julie Andrews or Michael Caine for their cast? You might even create an icon! The 80’s rom com Mannequin should have died a laughable death, but it will live forever as a cult classic, thanks to the transcendent superpowers of its unforgettable Mentor: Hollywood Montrose.
In crime stories and mysteries, your protagonist might already be well-trained and experienced. So what you often see is an INVESTIGATION SEQUENCE. Even then, though, there will almost certainly be Training, in the form of the detective consulting experts who can explain the intricacies of the crime to both the audience and the detective/team. And stories in all genres tend to contain an element of Investigation in Act II: Part 1).
(More elements of Investigation here, and specific analysis in Silence of the Lambs).
But the fact is, over the course of decades I’ve analyzed hundreds (realistically thousands!) of books, movies, scripts and TV shows —and I would be really hard pressed to think of an example of a produced movie or published book of any genre that didn’t have some sort of Training Sequence.
Start looking for this element and you’ll quickly see exactly what I mean!
In Act II:1, and usually continuing into Act II:2, there’s often a SERIES OF TESTS specifically designed by the mentor (look at An Officer and A Gentleman and The Silence of the Lambs), or by the Villain/Antagonist (as we see so clearly in The Hunger Games). But even if there isn’t a mentor character or antagonist putting the protagonist through Tests, the Universe will be throwing Tests at the main character!
Because this is a universal human law: A hero/ine has to earn their heart’s desire.
It’s shocking — but true, right? There’s something in us that wants this to be as difficult as possible for the hero/ine, or it doesn’t mean anything to us.
And that’s where Tests come in.
A key element of both Testing and the Training Sequence is PLANTS AND PAYOFFS.
For example, we learn that the hero/ine (and/or other members of the Team) has a certain weakness in battle. That weakness will naturally have to be tested in the Act II FINAL BATTLE. A great illustration of this is in Star Wars: Yoda continually gets angry with Luke for not trusting the Force… then in his final battle with Vader, Luke’s only chance of survival is putting his entire fate in the hands of the Force he’s not sure he believes in. It’s a powerful moment of spiritual transcendence, a dramatic illustration of THEME.
Very often in the second act, we will see a battle or Test long before the Final Battle —in which the hero/ine fails signficantly because of this weakness, so the suspense is even greater when they go into the final battle in the third act. An absolutely beautiful example of this is in the film Dirty Dancing. In rehearsal after rehearsal, Baby can never, ever keep her balance in that flashy dance lift. She and Johnny attempt the lift in an early dance performance, Baby chickens out, and they cover the flub in an endearingly comic way. But in that final performance number she nails the lift, and it’s a great moment for her as a character, and an iconic, classic moment for generations of audiences — quite literally uplifting.
Another classic example of a plant is Indy freaking out about the snake on the plane in the first few minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The plant is cleverly hidden because we think it’s just a comic moment — this big, bad hero just survived a maze of lethal booby traps and an entire tribe of warriors trying to kill him — and then he wimps out about a little old snake. But the real payoff comes way later when Salla slides the stone slab off the entrance to the tomb, and Indy shines the light down into the pit — to reveal a live mass of thousands of coiling snakes. It’s so much later in the film that we’ve completely forgotten that Indy has a pathological fear of snakes, but that’s what makes it all so funny. (Of course it’s also a suspense builder in this case: the descent into the tomb is that much more scary because we’re feeling Indy’s revulsion.)
I very strongly encourage novelists to start watching movies for Plants and Payoffs (and I’ve included a whole section on the technique in the workbooks, Chapter 34, along with specific examples in the Story Breakdowns in each workbook). Other names for this technique are Setup/Reveal or simply FORESHADOWING (which can be a bit different, more subtle), and there’s a large element here of ANTICIPATION. The Devil Wears Prada does this beautifully with the long buildup to the comparatively late entrance of Miranda Priestley.
Once you’ve watched a couple of movies to see how this works, you’ll want to weave Plants and Payoffs all through your own story. Keep in mind that you can often develop these in rewrites, and it’s a good idea to do at least one read-through of your book or script just looking for places to plant and payoff.
The Training Sequence can also involve a WEAPONS, GADGET or TOOLS Sequence (GATHERING THE TOOLS).
The wild gadgets and disguises were a huge part of the appeal of Mission Impossible (original TV series) and spoofed to hysterical success in Get Smart (original TV series). TV series like CSI, Bones and House have used tech variations of this technique to massive popular effect.
Weapons are the crucial tools of action/adventure stories. Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games and The Walking Dead series are great examples of personalizing weapons (and creating the iconic look of their characters for action figures and cosplay!)
Of course fashion and accessories are the Tools of many romantic comedies.
And the fairy tale version of GATHERING THE TOOLS is a really useful structure to look at. Remember all those tales in which the hero/ine was innocently kind to horrible old hags or helpless animals (or even apple trees), and those creatures and old ladies gave them gifts that turned out to be magical at just the right moment? Plant/Payoff and moral lesson at the same time!
Finally, I’d like to point out that if you happen to have both an Assembling the Team and a Training sequence in your second act, that can add up to a whole quarter of your story right there! Awesome! Add your Midpoint Sequence and you’re halfway through your book or script already!
And more on the Midpoint on YouTube:
I’m continuing to link these posts on Act II: Part 1 here, for easier reference.
Questions? Comments? I always love to talk story!
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