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Your Act II Climax: The Dark Night and the Dawn
These two key story structure elements are very, very often the CLIMAX of Act II: Part 2. They almost always occur next to each other, one coming right after—or soon after—the other. There might be a climactic action sequence before or after, but these elements will be the true turning point of the Act. And it goes like this:
After the Hero/ine’s blackest, bleakest moment, there is a moment of insight so profound that the Hero/ine will be able to make a new PLAN and go into the FINAL BATTLE of Act III, recharged and re-energized.
Let’s get into how that works!
Here’s the overview:
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Now let’s get into some examples.
ALL IS LOST
This darkening third quarter of your story is almost certainly going to culminate in a scene or sequence that, since the ancient Greeks, has been called THE LONG DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL (also known as ALL IS LOST or THE BLACK MOMENT or APPARENT DEFEAT or VISIT TO DEATH). Your protagonist has been spiraling downward, and now the detective is thrown off the case, the crucial lawsuit is dismissed, a key witness is eliminated, a major battle is lost, or an ally is killed — or several of these at once. The hero/ine metaphorically dies in this scene, and often it’s because a loved one has actually died.
In a mythic structure or Chosen One story or Mentor story, this is almost always where the mentor dies or is otherwise taken out of the action so the hero/ine must go into the final battle alone (and often emotionally devastated. (See Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Matrix, The Fellowship of the Ring, Silence of the Lambs)
The All Is Lost scene is one of the most important elements of your story, and it deserves a great SETPIECE: a visual representation of the despair of your character. It’s often played as an action scene that ends in a huge, heartbreaking loss.
And the second part of the climax is almost certainly going to be:
THE REVELATION: Reveal, Discovery, Twist.
That first story structure guru, Aristotle, called it Anagnorisis: the point in a play, novel, etc., in which a principal character recognizes or discovers another character's true identity or the true nature of their own circumstances.
Anagorisis is hard to remember, let alone spell! So you more commonly hear this moment called the Revelation, Reveal, Discovery, or Twist.
And the reveal is one of the greatest pleasures we get in storytelling.
A big Revelation almost always comes right after the All Is Lost scene, or even within it. The hero/ine figures out the missing piece of the puzzle, and like the phoenix rising from the ashes, they regroup and formulate one last desperate plan— coming out of the Long Dark Night even more determined to win.
It’s a double punch of two key scenes -
—and so big that that double punch is almost always the Act II Climax (page 90 of a script, page 300 or so of a 400-page novel).
It’s sheer emotional manipulation—but having a blinding new insight right after your character’s Black Moment creates a rollercoaster feeling of exhilaration.
And this is why I keep stressing that it really helps your story if you figure out how your main character is wrong about what they want in some fundamental way, and design a Revelation scene in which they finally figure that out.
This final revelation before the end game is often the knowledge of who the opponent really is.
- In The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimble realizes that his friend and trusted colleague, Chuck, has set him up, and that leads to the final confrontation and fight/chase). The Fugitive has a satisfying structure because at the same time that Kimble is realizing the true nature of his real antagonist, the apparent antagonist, Marshal Gerard, who has been chasing Kimble for the entire film, also becomes convinced of Kimble’s true nature – that he’s innocent—so there’s in effect a double revelation. (Also, The Fugitive is a good film to watch for SETPIECES!)
I will digress for a moment to note that it’s a very common storytelling device: the hero/ine’s main ally is revealed to be an enemy, or the main enemy, and it also often happens that the hero/ine’s enemy is revealed to be more of a friend than we ever suspected.
Of course that reveal plays as a twist!
- Besides the Marshal Gerard arc in The Fugitive, a classic example of this takes place in the climax of Casablanca, when Rick’s supposed opponent Chief Renault not only covers for Rick’s murder of the Nazi Strasser, but junks his post to go fight the Nazis with Rick. It’s so exhilarating that it makes up for Rick giving up Ilsa.
- In Encanto, the harm Abuela has done to the Madrigal family is so subtle and insidious that many fans of the movie still won’t call her the Antagonist! But she is the main opposition that protagonist Maribel has to overcome. And Abuela herself has to have the revelation that she has been doing this harm. It makes the film that much more poignant when Abuela realizes she’s the villain, and Maribel realizes the trauma (Ghost) that has been driving Abuela’s behavior. Then in Act III, the two work together to repair the family and their magical Casita, and restore their village.
In Act II:2 of New in Town, Lucy realizes her real antagonists are the executives of her own company, who are about to close the factory that Lucy has come to love. This is quickly followed by a revelation that Lucy might be able to save the factory, and all the workers’ jobs, by using her ally Blanche’s secret tapioca recipe (a great and unlikely PLANT that pays off big). And shortly after that, her biggest antagonist, the factory foreman, becomes her biggest ally in revamping the factory.
Full breakdown of New in Town in Writing Love.
While we’re on the subject of romance —
In love stories the All Is Lost scene is very, very often a scene I call THE LOVER MAKES A STAND.
In this scene, the Lover, the one of the couple who so far has loved most deeply, basically says to the Loved One: “I’m not going to take your bullshit anymore. Make up your mind. Either commit to me or don’t; but if you don’t, I’m out of here.”
- In It’s Complicated, Steve Martin tells Meryl Streep that she’s not done with Alec Baldwin yet, and Steve doesn’t want to see her while she’s still emotionally involved with him.
- In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant tells Julia Roberts that between her “foul temper” and his far less experienced heart, he doesn’t think he would recover from being discarded again, and turns down her offer to date.
- In When Harry Met Sally, Sally refuses Harry’s offer to go to the New Year’s Eve party as a friendly date: “I’m not your consolation prize, Harry.”
In all of the above scenes, the Lover’s Stand forces the Loved One to step up and commit just as deeply as the Lover is committed. But it seems that very, very, very often, it’s one character, the Lover, who has to force the issue.
Also in romance, the All Is Lost moment is often the scene in which the WRONG PERSON PROPOSES (or the hero/ine proposes to the wrong person!), and All Is Lost because the hero/ine, for whatever reason, foolishly accepts.
(I write much more about this Lover/Loved One dynamic in romance and love stories in Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II.)
And the NEW REVELATION in romance is, of course, the newly dumped Loved One realizing that a life with the Lover is the most important thing in their world.
No matter what genre you’re looking at, together these two scenes, ALL IS LOST and a NEW REVELATION, are almost always the climax of the second act because it’s such an exhilarating reversal 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.
I’ll go into more detail in more examples in the next post.
But before I sign off I should mention that for the next few days the first five books in my Huntress Moon series are on sale on Kindle in the UK for 99p each. Five books for less than the cost of a paperback!
US readers can read all six books for free with Kindle Unlimited.
Hope everyone is staying cool!
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From Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, © Alexandra Sokoloff
From Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, © Alexandra Sokoloff