The ABCs of Act Two (NaNoWriMo Week 3)


Toy Story and its characters are owned by Pixar.

Posts in this series so far:

I talk about the second act in my series on plot. Here I’ll continue examining how these 8 C’s of Plotting combine with Theme in Toy Story‘s second act..

The Ocean

Act One gave us a character with a desire that’s threatened. Woody wants to be the favorite toy, and Buzz’s appearance threatened Woody’s position.

The character’s mistakes (or, in a passive protagonist, his inaction or avoidance) put her into an impossible situation or foreign location. This is the “ocean” of Act Two. (The term “ocean” comes from the Paper Wings Podcast.)

Toy Story’s Act One is character-driven. After the inciting incident (Buzz’s arrival), everything that happens in Act One is a result of Woody’s decisions.

Act Two serves three purposes—ABC:

1) provide the protagonist with Allies and Abilities (or, in a tragedy, Enemies and Flaws)

2) develop the B story or Belief (theme), and

3) Challenge the protagonist with different kinds of Conflict

Complication, the Break into Act Two

When we last left Woody and Buzz:

Sheriff, this is no time to panic.

This is the perfect time to panic!
I’m lost, Andy is gone, they’re going
to move from their house in two days,
and it’s all your fault!!

My fault? If you hadn’t pushed me
out of the window in the first place–

Woody and Buzz are stranded at the gas station. Woody nearly got ran over by a semi truck, and he is freaking out. Being lost is the worst possible situation for a toy desperate to be favorite.

Preparation and Problems

The Preparation and Problems section of the plot is the longest section. It’s also the part where most movie trailers gather material from. Blake Snyder calls this section “fun and games”—and that is how the audience will view it, but all of the ABCs listed above need to be introduced and built up during this section. After the Preparation and Problems, the main character should every thing he needs to succeed during the confrontation and the climax.

Note the B story is optional and flexible. When you frame your story with theme, your B story is going to give another opinion or point of view on that theme. If your story is a romance or buddy story, the B story will be the arc of that secondary protagonist.

In Toy Story, here’s the beat sheet:

  1. Introduce Buzz’s delusions as the B Story (He thinks he’s supposed to save the galaxy from Emperor Zurg—Woody knows he’s just a toy)
  2. Woody tricks Buzz into getting on the Pizza Planet delivery truck
  3. W & B sneak into Pizza Planet (obstacle)
  4. Woody finds Andy; Buzz finds a spaceship crane game (conflicting motivations)
  5. Sid gets an alien, Buzz and Woody out of the crane game
  6. Sid takes the toys home, gives the alien to his evil, toy-killing dog Scud (stakes, antagonist)
  7. Sid steals his sister Hannah‘s doll and performs toy surgery on it (new character; stakes)
  8. With Sid gone, his room comes to life. B&W are in toy hell—populated by mutants (situation, new characters)
  9. At Andy’s House, the toys are still looking for Buzz. Andy comes home without Woody. Toys consider it a sign of Woody’s guilt. (pinch point)
  10. Sid tortures Woody with a magnifying glass, starting his forehead on fire (stakes, tool)
  11. Trying to escape, Woody uses Buzz’s karate-chop action to fend off the mutant toys (B story)
  12. Woody and Buzz run into Scud. Woody’s pull-string wakes the dog up. (challenge)
  13. Buzz sees a commercial for a Buzz Lightyear toy (B story midpoint)
  14. Buzz tries to fly (B story elation)
  15. Buzz falls, and his arm pops off, confirming he’s a toy. Hannah picks him up. (challenge, B story collapse)
  16. Woody falls out of the closet entangled in Christmas lights and finds Buzz at a tea party with Hannah. Woody imitates Hannah’s mom’s voice to get her to leave (tool, obstacle, belief)
  17. Buzz is Mrs. Nesbit (B story gloom); gives Woody idea to fly out window (obstacle)

Through this section, Woody gains allies (Buzz, the mutant toys) and abilities (the magnifying glass, talking to humans). Buzz’s B story, which was suggested in Act One, gets its own arc here. Woody’s beliefs start changing—earlier he’d be destroyed by truck or magnifying glass before breaking his “toy” character. Woody and Buzz are both challenged, revealing their weaknesses. We also get a “pinch point” reminder of the antagonists Woody will have to face next:his fellow toys at Andy’s house.

Confrontation, Elation, Collapse

Woody throws the Christmas lights to Andy’s toys, and some are happy to see him (elation), but Mr. Potato Head still doesn’t trust him, and reminds the other toys what he did to Buzz. Woody tries to get Buzz to prove to the toys that he’s okay, but Buzz, still depressed, throws his arm at Woody. Woody pretends to be Buzz with just his hand. The toys might just believe him … until he slips up and shows them the severed arm. Now they’re positive he’s a toy killer, and they close the window.


Pixar movies tend to have lengthy gloom periods because they follow big, emotional collapses. Compare this to Dreamworks movies, which tend to have less intense gloom periods. In many stories, especially visual fantasies, the environment or weather conditions will reflect the gloom period.

Here’s a beat sheet for Toy Story‘s gloom:

  1. Woody tries to save Buzz from the Mutants, who actually mend Buzz’s arm (allies)
  2. Sid is coming back, and Woody tries to drag Buzz out of the way, but Buzz is still depressed (B story)
  3. Woody hides, gets trapped; Sid decides to blow up Buzz, but he has to wait until the thunderstorm is gone (obstacle, stakes)
  4. Andy really misses Woody; he’s moving tomorrow (hope, stakes)
  5. Woody asks Buzz for help, but Buzz is still depressed.
  6. Woody explains why being a toy is great. He says Buzz deserves to be the favorite.


As I’ve said before, the Midpoint can happen any time between the Confrontation and the Comprehension. The Midpoint occurs at about 50% and is a shift in thinking or purpose. In Toy Story, Woody’s Confrontation and Collapse happen in the same scene, right after Buzz’s. The Midpoint often occurs during a sequel—when the character has a moment to think. For Buzz, the midpoint is when he’s lying on the ground. He’s not going to keep trying to get back to Star Command anymore—his motivation has changed. For Woody, the plot midpoint starts when Slinky drops the blinds. Woody isn’t going to be the favorite among toys anymore. But Woody’s emotional, character midpoint starts when he says this:

Oh, come on, Buzz. I…Buzz, I
can’t do this without you. I need
your help.

and ends when he says this:

Why would Andy ever want to play
with me, when he’s got you?
I’m the one that should be strapped
to that rocket.

Listen Buzz, forget about me. You
should get out of here while you can.

Woody stops focusing on himself being Andy’s favorite toy and starts to realize that he needs others to help him. He starts thinking of Buzz and Andy rather than his own position.

The plot midpoint is the scene, and the emotional midpoint is the sequel. All together, you’ve got a big Scene at the middle of the story that shows a change in direction or motivation.


The comprehension is whatever drags the character out of the gloom.

Come on, Sheriff. There’s a kid
over in that house who needs us.
Now let’s get you out of this thing.

Yes Sir!

Once out of the gloom, the character needs to make a new plan, which starts Act Three.

Writing Act Two

Have you figured out what your character’s deepest, unconscious desire is?

What does your character believe in Act One? How will that belief change or evolve? What shift will your character experience during the midpoint?

What kind of people, places, and obstacles will help your character arrive at the midpoint?

Remember the 12 different types of antagonists. Brainstorm problems your character might face while en route to the midpoint.

I’m donating some edits for an auction benefitting Summer Heacock. The top 5 bidders will win their choice of a full plot critique or an intense line edit of their first ten pages. Bid here before Monday November 23rd.

Next: Act Three

Act One: Threatened Characters Make Mistakes (NaNoWriMo Week 2)


Toy Story and its characters are owned by Pixar

Two weeks ago I shared my tips for Speed-Writing Your First Draft. Last week I talked about the five building blocks of a story as well as the three elements of scene. In the weeks to follow, I’ll give you some benchmarks and plot ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

If you haven’t read last week’s post about goals, conflict, the 12 types of antagonists, and sequels, go do so now. Today I’ll build upon those, so even if you have read it, you might want to skim through it again.

Overarching Goal = Passion or Fear

Another way to think of your character’s overarching goal is to consider what they’re passionate about. Remember, a character’s goal is what drives them. Something they only feel lukewarm about isn’t going to compel them to keep going to the end of the story.

This passion needs to be established early on.

If you’re not sure what your character is passionate about, consider what they’re most afraid of.

Consider Toy Story. Woody is afraid of being replaced as Andy’s favorite toy. But he’s not just passionate about being Andy’s toy, he’s passionate about his position as Head Toy. When Woody is Andy’s favorite toy, all the other toys look to him for guidance and reassurance.

Enter Buzz Lightyear, the coolest toy ever. Now Woody has a story, he has conflict, he has something that will change his current life and force him to make decisions.

The inciting incident is a Change which introduces fear or risks passion. 


When your main character experiences this initial change, he or she is going to react. In my 8 C’s of plotting, I go into more detail about the reaction, so I’ll stick to the Toy Story example here.

Buzz arrives in Woody’s spot, and Woody tells him so. Buzz meets all the other toys, who are very impressed by him and compare him to Woody:

BUZZ pushes his button. “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue!”

The toys all GASP IN AWE.

Hey, Woody’s got something like that.
His is a pullstring, only it—

Only it sounds like a car ran over it.

Buzz is delusional and thinks he’s not a toy but an actual space ranger. Woody is the only one who seems to notice this, driving a further wedge between him and the other toys. Even Woody’s girlfriend wants Buzz to be her “moving buddy.”

A montage shows Andy favoring Buzz and replacing all his cowboy-themed (Woody) decor with space-themed (Buzz) decor. Another montage shows all of the toys who once idolized Woody now enamored with Buzz.

Then Andy has to choose between the two toys, and he picks Buzz. Woody has been replaced.

Woody has had it. He confronts Buzz, calling him a phony and shoving him. Their altercation is interrupted by Sid blowing up a toy in the yard next door. (Now this scene is a Chekhov’s Gun. If you’ve planned your story ahead of time, you will include all the factors at play during the ending within your first act. If you discover your story as you write, you’ll go back during revisions and plant foreshadowing.) After Sid shows us the worst possible outcome for a toy, Bo Peep reminds everyone that they are moving away (more foreshadowing).


Next we have the Complication/Campaign. This step has a two-part name because it often starts with a complication and ends with the need for a new campaign or journey, which leads into Act Two. In a character-driven story like this, the complication:

  • is a bad decision, mistake, or accident
  • which grows out of the Reaction
  • and ends unfortunately,
  • resulting in the need to make new plans—the “campaign” of Act Two.

(See my 8 C’s post for other types and examples of reaction and complication, using the examples of The Fugitive, The Lion King, and The Hunger Games.)

In Toy Story, Woody actively but inadvertently causes his complication, which has its own mini-plot:

  1. Inciting incident: Andy’s Mom tells him he can bring one toy to the pizza restaurant—only one.
  2. Beginning: Woody is hopeful. He shakes the Magic 8 Ball asking if he’ll be picked. The 8 Ball says “Don’t count on it.” Woody throws the ball, which falls down behind the desk.
  3. Middle Part 1: Woody tells Buzz there’s a toy in trouble. He drives an RC car into Buzz to knock him behind the desk, but Buzz dives out of the way. There’s a chain reaction of bumps and knocks, which gets all the other toys’ attention, and
  4. Midpoint: Buzz is knocked out the window.
  5. Middle Part 2: Everyone reacts, including Woody, who didn’t mean for Buzz to fall out the window. The RC car tells the toys Woody did it on purpose, and the toys turn on him. Andy comes in, finding only Woody, and brings him into the van to the pizza restaurant.
  6. Ending: Buzz jumps out of a bush and onto the van. At the gas station, he confronts Woody. They fight, flying out of the car. They’re still fighting when Andy and his mom get back into the van. The van drives off, leaving Woody and Buzz at the gas station.

The Complication ends Act One and introduces the campaign or “ocean” of Act Two, which I’ll talk about next week! If you can’t wait that long, listen to this Paperwings Podcast on the subject.

Writing Act One

Ask yourself what your character’s immediate desire and greatest fear are.

In Tangled, Rapunzel’s passion is to see the floating lanterns. Her greatest fear is abandonment. If abandonment is her greatest fear, then her ultimate goal is to feel like she belongs in a loving family. See the 8 C’s of Tangled here.

Write your character’s fear and desire on a note and post it in your writing space. Refer to it every time you start writing. If you already know your character’s greatest desire or ultimate goal, write that down, too. Otherwise write it down as soon as you discover it.

Ask “What if…?”

Remember the 12 different types of antagonists. What kind of antagonist will introduce your character’s fear to the audience or reader during the inciting incident?

How can other types of antagonists drive your character to make the mistake that causes the Complication?

What impossible situation will your character find himself in—the “Ocean” of Act Two? How can you get your character there?

Moving On

Chances are, you have an idea of your character’s campaign or “ocean” when you write the Change.

The Change, or “inciting incident,” is what gives you a story. A character starts off with a sense of stability, something rocks the normalcy boat, and the protagonist is thrown into a sea of chaos. The boat gets shattered by a giant squid, the protagonist can’t swim, there are sharks in the water, and your guy floats on flotsam and jetsam until he gets to shore, where he finds a new stability. He kisses the sand, and the camera fades to black. —The 8 C’s of Plotting (underlined section suggests the “ocean” of Act Two)

If you’re already writing the ocean, consider what Preparation your character needs in order to survive the ocean and overcome her fear to achieve her greatest desire. What Problems will come her way? How can she win a small victory?

Next post: Act Two.

How to write scenes (NaNoWriMo Week 1)

Last week I shared my tips for Speed-Writing Your First Draft. Yesterday I talked about the five building blocks of a story. Today I’m giving you three elements of scene. In the weeks to follow, I’ll give you some benchmarks and plot ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

Every scene needs a goal (the beginning), conflict (the middle), and sequel (the end).


Your character needs to have overarching goals to push the story forward (download my free goal and backstory worksheet). At the midpoint, he or she will adapt, change, or redirect the Big Goal.

But each scene needs to have a minor goal, a step-stone goal.

These goals need to be external and active to drive the story forward and keep the reader reading.

Introspection is neither external nor active; it’s internal and passive. It belongs at the end of each scene.

Running away from something requires movement and action. However, it’s still passive. Pair it with another, active goal. The character needs to run away from a threat while also running toward something else, or while needing to protect someone else.

The longer your story is, the more of these stepping-stone goals you’ll need.


Conflict is the reason your character has to keep making all of these smaller goals.

Harry Potter wants to defeat Voldemort (external goal) and to have a family of his own (ultimate goal and motivation). So he needs to learn Defense of the Dark Arts. Unfortunately, the Defense of the Dark Arts professors…(this changes per book.)

Ways to come up with new conflicts for each scene

  • Use a template like the above. Main character wants _____, so MC must [scene goal]. Unfortunately, [conflict].
  • Ask yourself, “Wouldn’t it really suck right now if _______?”
  • Someone or something needs to get in the way of your MC’s goal. Pick from the following list.

Types of antagonists

  1. Self—the character’s own fears, problems, or past
  2. Family
  3. Friends
  4. Love interest
  5. Forces of nature
  6. Creatures—e.g. real or fantastical
  7. Society/Circles—e.g. your MC’s neighbors, co-workers, boss, fellow citizens
  8. Establishment—e.g. religion, government, political party, school
  9. Technology
  10. Objects or obstacles
  11. Supernatural or paranormal forces—e.g. fate, gods, or ghosts
  12. Nemeses, villains or bullies

Each move your MC and antagonists make drive the scene.


Sequel is the MC’s reaction to an antagonist’s move.

This is where your character gets introspective, faces a dilemma, makes a decision, or learns something new. This is where you can include that passivity.

Knowing your genre will tell you how much time to spend in the sequel. Beta readers and editors will tell you how much is too much.

Think of conflict, goals, and action as pedaling a bike. Sequel is coasting. If your story is going downhill, you’ll coast more than pedaling. Tragedy will include more sequel. The gloom period of your novel (in Act Two, after the Midpoint) will also include more sequel than the Preparation and Problems section.

Ending your scenes

Summary isn’t scene. You can summarize actions of the character over time or location in a paragraph or sentence—in fact, you’ll do that with your entire book when crafting a synopsis—but that doesn’t constitute a scene break.

An example of summary, from the first chapter of The Hunger Games:

We make out well. The predators ignore us on a day when easier, tastier prey abounds. By late morning, we have a dozen fish, a bag of greens and, best of all, a gallon of strawberries. I found the patch a few weeks ago, but Gale had the idea to string up mesh nets around it to keep out the animals.

On the way home, we swing by the Hob, the black market that operates in an abandoned warehouse that once held coal. When they came up with a more efficient system that transported the coal directly from the mines to the trains, the Hob gradually took over the space.

The first twenty pages of The Hunger Games spans places and hours, but Collins doesn’t include a scene break* until the end of the chapter. She finally ends the chapter with a reversal.

A reversal is whenever the direction of your scene changes. If the projection of your book is positive, the overall movement of scene progression will be positive, and reversals will be negative. If you’re writing a tragedy, reversals are positive.

In Chapter One, we have a foreboding sense that The Reaping is going to be an unfortunate event, but Katniss’s progress through the scene is fairly positive.

Then Prim, her sister, is picked to be tribute.

End of chapter.

Include a scene break* whenever your character is going to chase a new stepping-stone goal in a new place or after time has passed.

*an extra line break at the end of the final paragraph, denoted with a # in manuscript format

End your chapter after a new problem or antagonist move, but before the sequel. The reader will start the next chapter to find out the character’s reaction. That’s what a cliffhanger is—an ending that begs for sequel.

The Hunger Games’ first chapter ends with the inciting incident. When Prim gets picked, the chapter ends. Chapter Two starts with Katniss’ reaction. Then her sequel ends, and she acts:

But the scene doesn’t stop there. Peeta is picked. Then Katniss reacts to that. Chapter Two ends referring to a Capital-imposed dilemma that won’t be solved until the end: Would she kill Peeta to save herself? We keep reading until Collins will answer, will sequel, that question.

What will keep your reader reading? Think about that question while writing and revising your story.


Where do you get your ideas? (NaNoWriMo Day 1)

Today is the first day of NaNoWriMo 2015.

Last week I shared my tips for Speed-Writing Your First Draft. Today I’m talking about ideas. In the weeks to follow, I’ll give you some benchmarks and plot ideas to keep you from getting stuck.

NaNoWriMo is not about writing something that will see the light of day. It’s about writing recklessly, chasing plot bunnies, and sending your internal editor on a unpaid vacation.

It’s about generating lots of ideas and a big, sustaining idea to carry you through tens of thousands of words. Today we’re going to look at that question that writers are asked all the time.

Where do you get your ideas?

Unfortunately, that question doesn’t have an answer.

A book can’t be built upon a single idea. It’s built on many, and they can come in any order.

The “What If…?” Question

But let’s say you are flipping channels between teen reality TV and news coverage of the Iraq War.

“What if teen contestants in a reality show were literally at war?”

There’s the first idea that started The Hunger Games.

High-concept stories tend to start this way, with a big question filled with possibility.


What type of story are you telling? Sometimes genre dictates character and setting. Sometimes characters or settings dictate genre. Finding out which genre you’re writing will give you parameters to work in. It will give you a rough idea of where you’re headed and what might happen. You could have two love interests in the same house in the same city in the same year, but if you’re writing a domestic thriller, their story isn’t going to be the same as a romance.

If you’re not sure where to start with genre, look at your favorite books, television series, and movies. You’ll understand the tropes in those genres best.

You can write in a new genre, of course! But be sure to read heavily in that genre—then you’ll know what other readers will expect when they crack open your novel.

For more about genre, read What Genre Is This, Anyway? And Science Fiction and Fantasy Sub-genres.


The environment is your story’s reality. Is it set in our universe, with our laws of physics? What culture is your book set in? What are the climate and weather like? What time period? What region? City, town, country? What type of buildings? Who lives there? What’s the mood or the tone of the place? What props and furnishings are there?

Your novel needs to set a stage. It also needs to populate it with characters.


A character is a sympathetic being with motivations and goals.

Your character has a voice, quirks, likes, dislikes, fears, culture, relationships and occupations. Your character has an appearance, too.

These characters are affected by their environment and they affect their environment.

See my series on character for tips and free worksheets.

The Point

Some stories don’t have a theme. There’s no point to their story except “this will look the coolest” or “this will make them laugh” or “this will destroy the audience’s emotions the most.”

Many sequels don’t have a point other than capitalizing on a former success and milking the cash cow (Cars 2).

But stories that last—stories that are re-watched and shared among generations—tend to have a deeper meaning.

And as I explained during TruestSem, theme is not a single word. “Love” is not a theme. “True love casts out fear” is a theme—it’s what unifies Frozen.

Themes can be argued. 

They are proven and disproven by characters. Watch Frozen and notice how each character is a variation (positive or negative) on the theme of love overcoming fear. Look at how the theme forms over the course of the film. In Act One, we are introduced to characters who experience love and fear. In Act Two, those loves and fears are challenged. There’s one character who is loved but should be feared, and another who is feared but needs love. In Act Three, a particular type of love finally vanquishes fear.

Themes give you direction.

Movies often start with the ideas above. But some don’t have direction. Studios hire a story consultant. They bring in big name film editors. What do those story consultants do? They look for the point of the film. Then they delete everything else and rework as necessary. Terminator 2 once had a very different ending, with John (Sarah’s son) “fighting” in the future as a US Senator. That epilogue was quickly cut when someone understood that it didn’t fit with the tone of the movie. The focus wasn’t on hope or life moving on, it was the line, “If a machine can learn the value of a human life, maybe we can, too.” The new ending had greater clarity and focus.

Do you have all these building blocks for a story? 

They’re just blocks—it’s up to you to combine them and build them up. Are you ready for NaNoWriMo? Follow me on Twitter (@LaraEdits) and subscribe to this blog for more guidance and coaching, and don’t hesitate to ask questions!

See all my posts about NaNoWriMo here.