Act Two officially starts after Jareth disappears and Sarah faces the consequences of her latest decision, saying, "The labyrinth. Doesn't look that hard. Well, come on, feet." And then she trots off toward her fate.
That line of dialogue is a perfect example of how your protagonist should feel as the story breaks into the second act. She should think she's doing the right thing, and she has convinced herself that it won't be "that hard."
If she thought it was too hard, she wouldn't do it at this early point (the decision to do the hard stuff no matter what comes later). She would, instead, seek out an easier way. So after the debate period in Act One, the protagonist should have some cockiness to her. She thinks she has a plan--the best plan--and she is certain she will succeed.
Without that attitude, her actions to move forward will come across as unrealistic.
The first half of Act Two is prime real estate to introduce what makes your story world unique (or continue to emphasize what you already introduced in Act One). This applies to both real-world and other-world settings. Blake Snyder calls this section "the promise of your premise." Meaning, this is the place to make your premise shine.
In order to do that, however, you must know what your premise is. That sounds almost insulting, it's so basic. But the main reason I see that writers have so much trouble later when they try to write a query or jacket copy, is that they didn't figure out their premise before they sat down to write the story.
So what is the premise of Labyrinth? Easy. It's about a girl who must travel through a magical labyrinth to save her baby brother from the Goblin King. If your premise can be summed up in a single sentence, you're on the right track.
Keeping that one-liner in mind, then, how do we make the premise shine in the first half of Act Two? We introduce Sarah (and thus the viewer) to this magical labyrinth and emphasize the dangers she must face in order to reach her goal. That's the first half of Labyrinth's Act Two in a nutshell.
I could leave it at that, but I'll go on with some details.
The first thing Sarah finds is a new character. Hoggle. It's a simple way to clearly show she's entered new, strange territory. And since this is a kid's movie, his introduction is somewhat humorous--she catches him peeing into a fountain. But even with this little chuckle, we are uncertain about this character. He seems to be helpful... but in a very unhelpful way.
After some back-and-forth and frustrating wordplay, Hoggle finally shows Sarah how to enter the labyrinth, and we're on the edge of our seats now with anticipation. What's IN there?
But we have also subconsciously banked that little kerfuffle with Hoggle. It wouldn't have been part of the story if it wasn't important. So, in that way, even though we are officially inside the meat of our premise now, we are still finding clues, hints, and foreshadow that are meant to setup later situations and conflict.
This is also where our B Story starts. I believe the B Story in this movie is about how to navigate the ups and downs of friendship, which is a nice parallel to the A Story of effectively navigating a physical maze. It starts with Hoggle, and just before he abandons Sarah to face the labyrinth alone (even though he could help her--he obviously knows more about it than she does), we also see the start of,
an emphasized theme -- "You know what your problem is, you take too many things for granted."
and a running gag -- "Thanks for nothing, Hogwart." / Groan. "It's Hoggle!"
Phew! All of that and we haven't actually gotten into the labyrinth yet.
The first half of any story, which includes this section and the section we discussed last week, are vitally important in setting up the second half. Without proper setup here, the second half will fail. That's a lot of pressure.
No sooner does Sarah step inside the labyrinth and she's already facing her first big hurdle. It doesn't seem like a labyrinth at all. Where are the twists and turns?
Her answer comes from a cute little worm, who points out that things aren't always what they seem in this place, so you can't take anything for granted. Another emphasis on the theme.
In the above clip, pay special attention to the worm's final line. "If she'd a'kept on goin' down that way, she'd a'gone straight to that castle."
She went the exact opposite way she needed to go to achieve her goal. Knowing she's going the wrong way instantly creates tension, and since it's done in a kind of cute way (it's a talking worm!), we do this headshaking smile thing and say, "tsk tsk. Silly, girl."
And we continue following her story. That's the important thing. The purpose of each scene is to hook us into watching/reading the next one, all the way to the end.
Now that we know Sarah is in real danger, and inadvertently moving away from her goal, the story cuts back to Jareth, the antagonist. It's always a good idea in a story like this to keep the reader informed of what the antagonist is doing, even when they aren't physically with the protagonist. As the protagonist has a plan to keep moving forward, so does the antagonist. Both want to succeed. Show it.
Set to a lovely musical number, we see Jareth in all his glory as Goblin King. This scene, on the surface, seems to just be a nice filler for the kids. A break from the tension for some fun song and dance. But really, it's still keeping the tension taut. It shows us what Jareth has to lose if Sarah succeeds. He enjoys being king, being in control, and apparently, he enjoys singing and dancing and tossing babies around.
The important thing to remember here is that while the protagonist thinks she has a good plan in place to succeed, so does the antagonist. They both think they are headed for sure success at this point, and obviously, one of them is wrong. This creates more tension. Who will win?
Then we're back to Sarah in the labyrinth. She faces a few more obstacles that, at first, make her feel like she's getting smarter, but they only plunge her into a deeper mess. The last one, literally, when she falls down a hole and lands herself in an oubliette.
oubliette - a secret dungeon (of a castle or similar structure) with an opening only in the ceiling, aka a place where prisoners are sent to die.
Although she has been placed in a situation with seemingly no way out, the plot continues to move forward. Now is the perfect time to introduce a new story element--Jareth is using Hoggle to trick Sarah into failing.
This throws the audience off-balance, just enough to keep them hooked. New story elements should be unexpected, but then when you look back you can see how it all connects to the main story goal. Throw the audience into left field, not completely out of the ball park.
Hoggle plays his part of double-agent beautifully. He tries to get Sarah to leave the labyrinth while at the same time agreeing to help her. We also start to see his weak spots, which will come in handy for Sarah later, and set him up for his very own character arc.
As we near the midpoint, the stakes continue to be raised:
Sarah can't trust Hoggle, but has no other choice.
Jareth threatens Hoggle with the Bog of Eternal Stench.
The labyrinth gets progressively harder to solve. Dangers increase. Puzzles are more... puzzling. Etc.
The actual midpoint happens with a short bit of reflection of what has happened thus far. The midpoint should feel like the story has shifted somehow, and this is usually through a clear shift in the protagonist's viewpoint of her situation.
After another frustrating back-and-forth reminiscent of their first meeting (except this time their roles are reversed), Hoggle declares, "It's not fair!" And Sarah replies, "No, it isn't. But that's the way it is."
She is starting to see things differently. The story is changing her.
Then Sarah and Hoggle encounter a "wise man" who tells them, "The way forward is sometimes the way back. Quite often, young lady, it seems like we aren't getting anywhere, when in fact, we are."
Sarah ruminates on this for a moment, and now she's ready to face the hurdles of the second half of Act Two. Everything she has experienced so far has merely prepared her for what's to come. But without it, she couldn't have moved forward, and neither could the story.
So the first half of Act Two--"the promise of the premise"--includes the following key points:
- protagonist begins the journey that defines the premise
- protagonist is confident they will succeed, although unsure of what lies ahead
- antagonist is also confident they will succeed
- introduction to and/or continued emphasis of specific elements of the story world that make it unique--setting, characters, situations, etc.
- introduction of the B Story
- repeated emphasis of theme (makes the story feel important), and running gags (good for comic relief)
- every successful step the protagonist takes is followed by a bigger push from the antagonist
- at the midpoint the protagonist experiences a clear shift in viewpoint, based on reflection of the events of Act Two thus far
Any questions? Fire away in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.
Next week we'll discuss Labyrinth's second half of Act Two, or what I like to call The Big Squeeze. In the meantime, let's all take a break from the stresses of adulthood for a few minutes and do the Magic Dance.