Bong, bong—please take your seats. My Act II analysis of Better Nate Than Ever is about to begin! If you missed the first installment, start here, and then the usher will sneak you in as we mosey through Act II.
ACT II: Sequence of Obstacles
The second act is the middle and the longest part of the book. It’s an obstacle course of problems for your main character. Of course, there should be some obstacles in the first act. (Good Fiction=Conflict!) But the second act is where the going really gets rough. First, though, your hero gets to have some fun.
When we last left Nate, at the Act I mini-climax, his long-lost Aunt Heidi had suddenly appeared and helped him transition over the threshold into the figurative new world of Broadway (aka the big audition for E.T. the Broadway musical.)
The Training Sequence
When a mentor is part of the storyline, many times the second act will feature a training scene or sequence of scenes. This is the classic “learn the force, Luke” moment. In a more comedic story, the training scene becomes a makeover scene—think Princess Diaries. Whether this sequence falls into the first half of the second act, or the last half of the first act depends on the rhythm of the story.
In Nate’s case, we get a makeover scene right after the Act I mini-climax. Turns out long-lost Aunt Heidi is a (former) actress who Nate’s mom effectively disowned after she ran off to NYC (which is why Nate didn’t really think about her when he was running off to NYC himself.) Aunt Heidi takes one look at Nate’s bizarre outfit and promptly rushes him out to Old Navy where she gets him some more appropriate audition clothes, tosses out a few auditioning pointers, then ushers him into the big cattle call.
The Premise Pays Off
In the first half of the second act, “the promise of the premise” is revealed—so says screenwriting guru, Blake Synder. I love this way of looking at it. Whatever the story is about—whether it’s a wizardry school, a puzzle-filled lock-in at the world’s coolest library, or a deadly reality show, Act II, part 1 is when we see the hero experiencing the “fun” of pursuing the goal. Matt Bird (husband of Betsy Bird of Fuse #8 fame) over at the excellent blog Cockeyed Caravan, urges screenwriters to think of this as the section of the movie that serves as the basis for the trailer, which I think is a very helpful, and visual way of thinking about this section of the plot for novel writers, even if we don’t get to have a “trailer.”
The premise of Better Nate Than Ever’s promises to let us take a peek inside the Broadway audition process. And this first half of Act II is exactly where we get to enjoy the nitty gritty details. We get to see what the audition room looks like (nothing much), get to meet the kooky characters who run the audition, and experience the steps to landing a part (turns out it’s not quite as glam as it might seem). It’s not exactly fun for Nate, but it’s certainly a thrill, and you can completely visualize how this scene would feature prominently in a trailer, if there ever were a trailer. (Psst, Hollywood, get on that! This book would make a fantastic film.)
At some point early in Act II or sometimes in Act I, the hero reveals a special skill that will later come into play in the resolution of the story. The special skill should be unique and interesting but it should also be something that feels organic to the character. There’s nothing worse than a random special skill that resolves the story but is out of sync with everything else we know about the hero.
In the early part of the audition, Nate worries that all the other kids have shown up with hidden talents to augment their performances. One kid does a handspring, another a tap routine. When it comes around to Nate, he bursts out that he can walk on his knees just like in Fiddler on the Roof. But thanks to Aunt Heidi’s makeover, he’s wearing jeans so tight that he can’t squat. Embarrassingly hilarious! But that plot point’s not there just for laughs. This will come into play at the end of the book.
The first half of Act II leads up to the midpoint. We find out some important new information. A character nearly dies (or, if they’re unimportant enough, actually dies). Something goes horribly wrong.
In Nate’s case, he exits the audition, feeling humiliated. They hated him, he thinks. He cries. And when they announce the callbacks, he’s not on the list. Aunt Heidi escorts him back to the bus station, just in time to catch the last bus back home.
After the midpoint, the hero becomes even more committed to the goal. You might see him doing something he didn’t think he would ever do—showing just how much he really wants whatever he’s chasing.
Nate recovers with a last-minute reprieve. Just as the bus is pulling out of the station, he pulls out his flaky cell phone and discovers a voice mail from the casting assistant. There was a mistake! He got a callback after all! He rushes off the bus and buys a pair of cheap shorts so he can perform his special knee crawl.
Back in the rehearsal space, Nate sings his audition song, and then must perform a monologue. He wasn’t really prepared—he offers to perform a monologue from Hamlet and is humiliated again when the casting director chides him to do something more appropriate for a modern play. Duh! And then “something breaks in [him] or snaps.” He literally feels himself changing, doing something he didn’t expect. He bursts out with the monologue he’d prepared, not for the audition, but for what he would say if someone questioned what he was doing in NYC alone. (Set up in Act I). And he blows them away. He shows them his special skill knee crawl. Then, in the best scene of the entire book, Nate cold reads a section of the script; not understanding he’s meant to read only ONE part, he acts out the part of every single character in the scene, gestures and all. The producers have never seen anything quite like it. He’s embarrassingly, yet endearingly newb-ish. They love him.
Matt Bird talks about the first half of Act II as the character chasing the goal “the easy way” whereas in the second half, he does it the hard way. Nate certainly proves that pattern. The first half of his audition is easy—all he does is stand there, in a herd of drama kids. Whereas in the second half, he has to sing and act, alone in the spotlight. He doesn’t really know what he’s doing, but he’s doing it with all his heart.
The Ticking Clock
After the recovery, a “ticking clock” may come in to pick up the pace. The hero must complete some action in a literal or figurative time limit, and the simple suspense of “will he make it in time?” turns up the tension.
In Nate, the ticking clock isn’t overt, but it’s definitely there. He has two “ticking clock” problems. Back home, his parents have returned and are panicking. His best friend, Libby is trying to stall, but can only do so much. He has until tomorrow morning to reappear or they’re calling the FBI. But first he has an even bigger problem. Night has fallen and he’s homeless, starving, almost penniless, and there’s no bus back home until tomorrow. He’s got to find food and shelter, fast.
The Long Dark Night of the Soul
Just before the climax to Act II, the hero will experience a spiritual crisis, which some call “the long dark night of the soul.” Often it takes place literally at night or in the dark and the hero is alone. Although the internal goal should be woven throughout the story, this is a point where the character’s emotional storyline takes center stage.
Nate knows Aunt Heidi works at a restaurant downtown, but he doesn’t know where exactly. And so begins his odyssey from midtown to Soho, on foot, in the dark, with only Libby’s Googled directions as his guide. As he’s walking, Nate flashes back to a time he was beat up by homophobes. Then, closer to downtown, Nate walks by a club, where he catches a glimpse of boys dancing, then kissing, and is shocked to discover they aren’t going to get beat up, like he was. It’s an a-ha moment—between the prospect of living his dream on Broadway and experiencing life in a city where he feels accepted for who he is, no strings attached, maybe he’s found a place he belongs. But everything’s still not great. Nate makes it to Aunt Heidi’s restaurant, but she’s pissed. He ends up crying in the bathroom restaurant, and it only gets worse from there.
The reversal is the hero’s lowest point—where everything he’s been working to achieve completely falls apart. This is also the climax of Act II.
Like most reversals, Nate’s is very obvious. Nate’s in the bathroom crying and when he comes back, he gets the bad news. E.T. phoned to “release” him. It’s over.
And that’s a wrap—for now. Next week, we’ll walk through Act III!
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Act II: Sequence of Obstacles
- Experience a Training Sequence
- The premise pays off
- Demonstrate Special Skills
- Build to the Midpoint
- Recovery, with more determination than ever
- A Ticking Clock picks up the pace
- Highlight internal storyline in the Long Dark Night of the Soul
- End with another climax, the Reversal