by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky
It seems that every time I reach the middle of a WIP, I start musing on the problems a second act can cause a writer. Second acts are notoriously difficult for writers – there are hundreds of books and articles out there decrying the flabby belly, the second act bog, the meandering middle, the belly of the beast, “the time which is not the beginning and not the end, the time in which the artist and the protagonist doubt themselves and wish the journey had never begun” (David Mamet, Three Uses of the Knife).
My struggle, it seems, is all to do with divergence and convergence. As a former intelligence analyst, the process of positing a reasonable theory involved both modes of thinking – divergence: brainstorming as many ideas, variables, possibilities as you could think up, and just running with them; and convergence: critically analysing the options to identify the strongest and then pushing them to their limits to see which would break and which would stand up to the assault.
It’s the same with drafting a book. Act I is drafted with what I call acute divergence – all wild ideas are welcome and there is no internal consistency that has been established or needs to be obeyed. This is creativity unleashed – it’s the exciting, adrenalin-fuelled writing rush. It’s why I have a thousand story ideas lurking on index cards and why I started a dozen stories in my youth but never got beyond chapter five.
But, after Act I, comes Act II. The first part of the second act (Act II(a)) is drafted with I call obtuse divergence – there’s still a lot of room for movement and creativity, even though the rules of consistency have been established. The world, the characters, the way things work have shape and form, but are still, to a certain extent, malleable. Like a child out of the womb; the features are formed – eyes look like eyes, toes like toes, the external tail of the embryo now a coccyx – but the bones haven’t yet set. When I draft Act II(a), I know there isn’t as much free reign or creative licence I had in Act I, but there’s still enough to take one of the story threads and let my imagination exploit it.
That all changes after the Midpoint and the arrival of Act II(b). Now, I’m firmly in obtuse convergence. The parameters of the story are well-established – the bones have set – and I can feel myself chafing against the harder boundary. What’s worse, there’s no forward/downhill momentum – everything is still so vague with all these story threads to manage, it all just seems to coalesce in the middle. The epitome of a sagging belly! There’s no magic cure for this – you just have to power through it. Keep converging your story – tightening the plot, weaving the story threads closer together, shedding dead weight, and sharpening the spear-point.
Because if you do that, you’ll get to Act III – the point of acute convergence. Here there is no creative licence to go off track – everything is firmly in place. But in a good way. With everything finally tightened, you have clear sight to the end. You have the forward/downhill momentum. It’s at this point, much like the first act, where the story seems to take on a life of its own – the driving force of the earlier acts pushing it towards its natural conclusion. I find that I write fastest (and with the most confidence) in the first and third acts – because there is acute plotting, drafting, and creativity at play.
Knowing that obtuseness is the enemy of my writing productivity, I’m now on a mission to discover tips and techniques to help deal with it… I’ll keep you all updated on what I find!
And if you have tips and techniques of your own – share them below in the comments!