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Nailing Your Act II Climax
The Dark Night and The Dawn, Part 2
No matter what genre you’re writing in or looking at, the climax of the second act of a book or script is almost always a double-punch of the ALL IS LOST scene and the REVELATION that comes out of that moment of despair.
It works like a charm - because it’s such a boost of energy to go from losing everything— to gaining that key piece of knowledge that will power the hero/ine through the final confrontation to the end.
If you haven’t read it, Part 1 of this discussion is here: The Dark Night and The Dawn
Get a quick overview in this video.
I find it helpful to consider two other terms for the All is Lost moment:
Playwrights of the Golden Age of Greek theater called this scene or sequence THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL.
I love this imagery because it conveys both the despair of the scene and its inner, intuitive nature— and it brings in the deeply personal and moral dimension of the soul. I find stories especially satisfying when the protagonist undergoes a transformation of soul that leads to the answer—and this Dark Night scene is generally where that alchemy happens. (The Proposal and The Hunger Games, discussed below, are good examples.)
Mythologist Joseph Campbell called it the VISIT TO DEATH.
There will often be a literal death in this scene, but the phrase “Visit to Death” is also helpful as a reminder of how profound the loss should be, or at least feel, to the protagonist.
Let’s look at some examples in detail, in three of the movies we’ve been working with. These are what I consider “teaching movies” —they illustrate these essential story structure concepts so perfectly that no matter what genre you’re writing in, you can use them as a kind of textbook to lock these tools and tricks into your brain forever. I highly recommend that you put a few of them on your own Master List!
Silence of the Lambs
The ACT TWO CLIMAX here is not just one scene but an entire, excruciating action/suspense/horror sequence: Lecter’s escape from the Tennessee prison. (Which includes a horrific VISIT TO DEATH — Lecter massacres the two sympathetic police guards before escaping.)
Protagonist Clarice’s PLAN, set up in Act I, was to use Lecter to help her catch Buffalo Bill and save his new hostage, Catherine Martin.
With Lecter gone, that Plan has failed. The complete REVERSAL and huge DEFEAT make for a great ALL IS LOST moment. (All is Lost is very often a huge failure of the Plan.) And to make it clear how badly the plan has failed, there is a line from Clarice to her roommate Ardelia, “It’s over. She’s dead.” Because Clarice thinks that she needs Lecter to save Catherine.
But Lecter, like the great mentor he is, has taught Clarice enough that she can catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine herself. So no (answering the CENTRAL STORY QUESTION) - Lecter is not going to help Clarice catch Buffalo Bill and save Catherine. Clarice is going to have to rise from the ashes of that ALL IS LOST defeat to find Bill on her own and save Catherine. It’s graduation time.
So now Clarice and Ardelia go through the case file again— and this time they find a note from Lecter written on the map that Crawford gave Clarice early on, with the locations of the body dump sites. Lecter has written on the map, calling the body dumps “desperately random.” Clarice remembers the first girl killed was the third found, because she was weighted down. None of the other victims were. Clarice and Ardelia piece together what Lecter said, fixing on the phrase: “He covets what he sees every day.” They realize Buffalo Bill knew Frederica Bimmel— who lived in Belvedere, Ohio.
This is of course that crucial REVELATION, the CLUE that comes as a double punch after the Dark Night ALL IS LOST moment. A breakthrough clue is often the Climax of a mystery, thriller, spy, or action story.
And as I’ve said before, this scene also has that powerful element of a VISIT TO THE GODDESS - the goddess being Ardelia.
The Hunger Games
In The Hunger Games, the Act II Climax ALL IS LOST moment is a VISIT TO DEATH: the death of Katniss’s ally Rue after she is shot by one of the other Tributes. The younger, vulnerable Rue is also a surrogate for Katniss’s beloved little sister Prim.
As Katniss holds her, crying, Rue repeats Prim’s plea: “You have to win.” (This is a DEATHBED CHARGE, which in all stories means the Hero/ine is obligated to carry out that final wish). As Rue dies, Katniss sings her the song she has always used to comfort Prim.
Katniss rages over Rue’s body, then gathers white flowers and creates a funeral bier. Then Katniss stares up into the ever-present cameras, and raises her hand defiantly in the sign of the rebellion.
So in THE BLACK MOMENT, her moment of deepest, helpless despair, Katniss gets that all-important REVELATION: she realizes that she can use the cameras, the broadcast, to fight back. She has gone into the abyss and taken her POWER.
And it works! On a TV screen, we see the watching crowd in District 11 (Rue’s Distric) raising their arms in the sign of the rebellion with her. And then the crowd turns on the police and riots, setting fires and overturning the Game-watching platform. It’s a powerful, exhilarating moment, and huge turning point in Katniss’s CHARACTER ARC.
But when a whole guard of military marches in, dressed in white armor like storm troopers, it’s obvious this is not going to be an easy fight. (SETPIECE, INCREASING FORCES OF OPPOSITION).
That’s all pretty climactic! — but there’s more to come before the end of the Act. In the Capital, Katniss’s mentor Haymitch is working frantically behind the scenes to try to keep Katniss alive and in the game. (Full details here.)
And now as Katniss sits huddled in the forest, she hears a PA announcement: The rules of the Game have been changed to allow two victors—as long as they’re from the same district.
It’s a TWIST that ends Act II:2 and gives us fresh HOPE and a NEW PLAN: Now that they can team up, Katniss runs toward the river to find Peeta.
Full story breakdown in Writing Love.
In this romantic comedy, Margaret’s PLAN, which she’s coerced her assistant Andrew into going along with, is to marry Andrew to get a green card to stay in the US. To do this they fake an engagement and a loving relationship—and so far they’ve pulled it off.
Now in the Act II Climax, a crowd gathers in Andrew’s family’s huge barn for Andrew and Margaret’s wedding. (SETPIECE here — the production team really makes the barn look lovely). Margaret comes down the aisle, but we can see she’s extremely conflicted. At the altar, Margaret suddenly turns to the crowd and CONFESSES that the marriage is fake and tells everyone that she blackmailed Andrew to marry her in order to get a visa to stay at her publishing job. She speaks her REVELATION aloud: “It’s not easy to ruin someone’s life once you find out how wonderful they are.”
Margaret surrenders to the antagonist, the INS agent, and leaves with him to catch a flight home. And the CENTRAL STORY QUESTION is answered: No. Margaret and Andrew do not succeed in carrying off a fake marriage. It’s a nice statement thematically — they can’t fake it. So in this case, Margaret’s REVELATION comes before ALL IS LOST — which I think makes it quite powerful. Her deliberate surrender is a selfless sacrifice and a demonstration of true love—a great CHARACTER ARC.
The Proposal follows classic romance structure: the lovers are equal protagonists. So now, as a double double punch to the Act II Climax, we get Andrew’s ALL IS LOST scene and REVELATION.
Andrew goes up to his bedroom to find Margaret already gone, her wedding dress abandoned on the bed (great IMAGE!), along with the manuscript of the book he wants to publish and a note in which she admits it’s special. She writes how wonderful he's been for three years and that she will buy the book before she leaves for Canada. Losing Margaret is Andrew’s ALL IS LOST moment. Andrew rages to his ex-girlfriend Gertie, who has come up to check on him:“She makes me crazy.” Gertie answers, “Are you just going to let her go?” Andrew REALIZES he loves Margaret, and dashes for the airport to try to prevent her from leaving.
This is a great example of how effective it is to use double or parallel scenes as an Act or Sequence Climax - a powerful technique not only in romance, but for any story. The parallel scenes could be a climactic scene in the protagonist’s storyline, followed (or preceded) by a climatic scene in the antagonist’s storyline; or a subplot climax followed by a main plot climax. Finding parallel scenes like that to combine for a double punch is often rewrite work. If you practice doing it consciously, it will strengthen your story’s structure and maximize the impact of these scenes on your reader or audience.
And I’ll end with something I say A LOT — but understanding the dynamic of this pivotal Act II Climax is so important that I hope you’ll take the time to read some of the Act II: 2 breakdowns I’ve posted, or written about in the workbooks—and/or screen some of the Act II Climaxes on your own Master List. A little time devoted to this work will serve you for the rest of your writing life!
Need more examples? Let me know which movies you’d like me to discuss!
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From Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, © Alexandra Sokoloff