Every story consists of two halves. In the first half, the hero’s life starts out in a dead end and gradually gets better. The peak of the hero’s life occurs at the midpoint of the story.
Immediately after the midpoint, life starts getting worse for the hero while getting better for the villain. However, this forces the hero to start fully demonstrating who they’ll eventually become. To do this, the hero must achieve a minor victory over the villain.
This minor battle involves several elements:
- The villain already has a plan in action that gets partially revealed
- The hero takes action to thwart the villain
- The hero protects the Symbol of Hope from the villain
This is how the hero’s minor victory works in the following movies:
- Villain’s plan: Execute Princess Leia.
- Hero’s action: Convince Han Solo to help him rescue Princess Leia.
- Protecting Symbol of Hope: Princess Leia.
- Villain’s plan: Already prepared to attack the police using shoulder-fired rockets.
- Hero’s action: Use the detonators he stole from the terrorists to blow up the terrorists attacking the police.
- Protecting Symbol of Hope: During this battle, the villain almost identifies the hero’s wife as one of the hostages.
“Top Gun: Maverick”
- Villain’s plan: The villain has made the attack run difficult.
- Hero’s action: Keep training for the attack run while barely surviving accidents based on the dangers of the mission.
- Protecting Symbol of Hope: The ability to keep flying.
This part of the story (the beginning of Act IIb) often mirrors the actions that started the beginning of Act IIa. While the beginning of Act IIa shows the hero learning the rules of a new, unfamiliar world, the beginning of Act IIb shows the dangers of that same unfamiliar world.
In “Top Gun: Maverick,” the beginning of Act IIa is where the hero first meets the Top Gun pilots he’s supposed to train and they engage in dogfights so he can teach them what they don’t know.
Then in the beginning of Act IIb, the hero starts training these pilots for a dangerous mission and accidents occur. One pilot nearly blacks out but barely recovers in time. Another pilot suffers a bird strike that blows out her engines, forcing her and her navigator to eject at the last minute. Even though nobody gets hurt, this part of the story highlights the growing threat and risk to the hero.
In “Die Hard,” the hero has just contacted the police and he thinks they’ll take care of the problem for him. However when the police SWAT team arrives, the villain shows he’s prepared because he’s brought along shoulder-fired rockets specifically to attack armored vehicles like the one the SWAT team is using.
In the beginning of Act IIa when the hero had first escaped the terrorists, he was able to kill them fairly easily without getting hurt. Now in the beginning of Act IIb, the villain seriously wounds the entire police SWAT team and plans to kill them until the hero uses the detonators he stole from the terrorists to blow the terrorists up.
In “Star Wars,” the hero has convinced Han Solo to help him rescue Princess Leia. They arrive at the prison easily, but when a prison commander gets suspicious of them, they have to kill them all, which alerts everyone on the Death Star of their presence.
In the beginning of Act IIa, the hero had just left his planet to deliver R2D2 to Princess Leia’s planet. In the beginning of Act IIb, the hero must rescue Princess Leia herself, but now all the storm troopers have been alerted to their rescue mission.
The beginning of Act IIa is often referred to as the “fun and games” part of a story where the hero experiences new, but non-threatening events. Then the beginning of Act IIb takes those same events but exposes the darker, more dangerous side of those actions as the villain starts directly threatening the hero.
Exercise: Pick a favorite movie and identify the beginning of Act IIa (typically the 30-45 minute mark of a two hour movie). Then identify the beginning of Act IIb (typically the 60-75 minute mark of a two hour movie).
How does the beginning of Act IIa represent a “fun and games”, experience of the hero that minimizes any danger?
How does the beginning of Act IIb represent a dangerous, darker experience that’s similar to the beginning of Act IIa?