Act 2: Uncovering the Secrets

Don’t you love uncovering a secret?  Unlocking the truth, and seeing the light?  So does your reader! And that’s the final key to a powerful Act 2.




A powerful ACT 2 includes the growing relationship between the Hero and Heroine, the Unexpected Twists and Turns, dropping of Truth Tidbits and finally the uncovering Secrets. The secrets of the suspense plot are uncovered through the Act 2 scenes. You want each decision, each action to reveal more of the plot and cause the villain or element to up the stakes, to make it harder, to increase the pressure, to add more tension. 


Here’s a trick:  Often when I plot, I start with the Antagonist, and his goals. I ask:  What does the villain want?  What choices does he have?  I don’t have to worry about his romantic thread, or his lies. I can make his goals pure and evil.  Then I move the hero through the story, foiling the villain’s plan. I constantly go back to the Antagonist and say – what do you want to do now?  Whether you give the Antagonist a pov or not, a pro-active Antagonist or villain is a scary Antagonist.  A great suspense reveals the secrets of the story one scene at a time.


Act 2, or the GUTS of the story is designed to move your terrified reader from scene to scene, exhilarated that they faced and conquered, keeping them motivated to stay the course, learning something about themselves that they didn’t know before and giving them the courage to face their deepest fears. 


If you’ve like to go back over the last four months of suspense blogs, check out the suspense archives


Next week we’ll dive into Act 3:  The Glow!

Susie May  


Act 2: The Road to Truth

Last week, we covered the first two main elements of the GUTS section. The GUTS, or Act 2 of the book is the section where more stories get flabby and boring…or, it can be the part where the story really takes and starts rockin’. 


We touched on the first two elements –

1.      The Growing relationship of the hero and heroine.

2.      The Unexpected twists and turns.


Both of these elements, however, are tools of the next element…


3.      The Truth.  Or, the  Spiritual, Romantic & Plot truths that lead to the eventual epiphany.  In Act 2, as the hero and heroine progress through challenges, triumphs and failure, they will learn tiny life lessons, or truths tbb_expectsunrisehat contribute to the epiphany they will encounter after the black moment.  A great suspense isn’t just about defeating the bad guys, it’s about learning some truth, discovering some untapped element that makes the hero/heroine larger than life and gives us hope that we too, under the circumstances, could do the same.  In an inspirational novel, the life changing truth can come from above as God reaches down into the hero or heroine’s life and changes them. 


During the GUTS of the story, your character should encounter “Truth Tellers”  or people who drop tidbits of truth they will gather up later. 


How do you find the epiphany you are leading your character toward?  You start with asking – what is the lie they believe?  Each character has something they believe about themselves or the plot, about love, and about God that are lies they have to confront as they journey further into the story.  A good suspense takes a look at each of these lies and puts pressure on them.  It’s only when they see their epiphany truth that they can uncover the lies, find the courage to face their deepest fears, declare their true love, or get right with God. 


For example in my book Expect the Sunrise, my heroine Andee is petrified of making the wrong choice like her mother and therefore ending up unhappy. Therefore she doesn’t like Scotts or FBI agents.  Also, she believes that one wrong move will destroy her entire life.  She realizes that she can’t always look at life through the rear view mirror, but must accept life as it comes, and that she doesn’t have to have the same outcome as her parents even if she makes the same choice to marry an FBI agent.  And, even a failure can be used by God for good.


Ask:  What lesson will your character learn during the course of the story? What truth does he/she learn at the end that changes them and makes them into better people?  How will the challenges of Act Two eventually lead them to their epiphany?   


Tomorrow I’ll reveal the last element of Act 2…Secrets!

Susie May

Act 2: Adding in Unexpected Twists, Turns and Tests


Last week, we talked about the GUTS, or Act 2 of your novel, the first element being the Growing romance of the hero and heroine. 


However, this romance only happens through the next element:


U- Unexpected Twists, Turns and Tests:

During the GUTS portion of the story, the hero and heroine’s mettle will be tested – especially as it relates to their competence, that thing they do well.  The point of the middle to cause them to grow as human beings through lessons, revelations, challenges and epiphanies.  However, the middle is often where the tension sags – and that’s usually because we run out of the unexpected, and our motivation to keep going sags.  The key to a powerful middle is using the  peripheral plotting, and stakes and motivation techniques.


For example, your hero might handle climbing down a mountain just fine, but put a wounded child on his back, and it ups the challenge.  Now, add in a bad guy holding the mother hostage and give him a choice between saving the boy and saving the mother.  And then make the hero fall and break his ankle.  Move in a storm.  Have him wake a sleeping bear.  Finally, make his rope break.


Look at what the hero has around him you can cause trouble with – does he have a child who is bleeding? What if his car goes off the road? What if the kidnapper suddenly calls and he has ten minutes to get to the drop off point? Think outside the box, and make it worse, always testing their competence, or what they think they are good at. 


For example, In my book Expect the Sunrise, Andee is a survival expert, but she’s got a bunch of city slickers with her who panic.  Not to mention the wilderness, weather and a crazy FBI agent who thinks people are out to get him.  I have a lot to work with in the periphery.  And, every time she encounters something, it chips away at her abilities until she is finally kidnapped and ends up nearly dying.  She realizes that despite her best efforts, she has failed. 


All the while, make sure you have enough motivation to push him forward, over these obstacles.  (to get a refresher on this technique, click here).  Here’s some questions you can ask to keep the tension high for every scene: What is the worst thing that could happen to your character right now?  What’s the most unexpected?  How can you combine these? 


Thanks for reading!  Next week we’ll talk about the next two elements of the GUTS section. Have a great writing week!

Susie May 

Act 2: Getting to the Good Stuff

Getting to the good stuff: Act 2 


Writing a suspense is all about the adventure, romance, suspense and disasters that happen in the middle of the novel.  A great suspense should pick up speed as the hero/heroine launches into the second act.


All the great stuff happens during the Guts phase – confronting fears, reaching out in the darkness for the girl’s hand, stealing a kiss, failing big, learning something new about yourself and summoning your courage. 


The overall concept is Make it Worse.  At the start of every chapter, the character will have choices.  He’ll contemplate these choices, weigh them against possible outcomes, consider his motivations and then move forward into the danger, during which something bad will happen he didn’t expect, and will cause him to contemplate his next choice.


What’s in Act 2….which I like to call: The Guts


In the Guts of the Book, there are 4 things that have to happen. We’ll talk about them over the next two weeks here at MBT.


First: G = Growing Relationship of the Hero/Heroine 


If a suspense has any romance at all, it will be developed during the second act of the novel.  For a true genre romantic suspense, the romance thread is half of the story thread, and must be woven like a braid into the story in rhythm.  Often genre suspense novels also have elements of romance, even if is a straight genre suspense.

Developing the romance thread.


Usually the hero/heroine are thrown together as a result of the compelling nature of the event that will happen.


However, at the beginning they are far from perfect for each other. 


~ External Obstacles – each wants something different – whether it’s to tell the police, or to run instead of fight, or even they have different ideals.  Sometimes they’ll start the story with external obstacles – ie, in Dante’s Peak, the Mayor doesn’t want to alert the town to the volcano because she doesn’t want to start an unnecessary panic.  The hero, having lived through it before, doesn’t want lives lost, even if it costs the town their tourist status.  The obstacles will be obliterated as the story goes on, but like all romances, they should keep the hero/heroine apart. 


~ Internal Obstacles – usually things from their past, or futures goals that conspire to keep them apart – fears, prejudices, career goals, etc.  Ie, in Dante’s Peak, he’s lost someone to tragedy, and she has two small children she wants to protect.  Also, he is a volcano guy…he travels all the time.  She is the mayor.  Of course, these obstacles are gone when the town is covered in ash.  bb_expectsunrise


In Expect the Sunrise, the external obstacles are differing goals – Andee wants to hike down the mountain by herself, Mac doesn’t want her to go alone because he thinks she might be the terrorist and he’s not letting anyone go outside his eyesight.  Internal goals – Andee is a bush pilot, and she’s never met anyone who wants to live her rustic lifestyle.  Also, her parents were separated because her father was an FBI agent.  Mac is a FBI agent and doesn’t want a wife getting in the way of his career.


During the course of the story, they’re going to discover that the other person has some trait that they desperately need – patience, trust, wisdom, something they admire, and something they lack. 


Try this – to get to the Obstacles, as well as the things they admire, ask your characters:  Why and Why Not?


Why is this person perfect for them?  We explored this more fully in our Romance series last year.  But simplified, we fall in love because we share values, because our significant other completes us and makes us better people. 


But they also need obstacles. Ask Why Not.  Why can’t they be together right now?  What external and internal elements keep them apart?


At some point in the story, they will discover

1.  They love this person.

2.  In order to be with this person, they have to surrender something. 

3.  They will decide they can’t surrender it.  (Black Moment). 

4. Something will happen to make them realize how stupid they are (or how much they need the other person) or how miserable they are without them. 

5.  They will make the sacrifice and find their happy ending.


As your plotting your story, you want to weave in these romantic plot points – usually the black moment in the relationship is right before or right after the climatic moment.


In Expect the Sunrise, Mac finds out that Andee is the pilot who didn’t come to his aid when his brother was dying.  He has vowed to never forgive her – but he’s already come to respect…even fall for her.  So, now he has to decide what he will do with their romance.  Andee’s black moment comes when she discovers that Mac is FBI – and she doesn’t’ want to be involved with an FBI agent.  She rejects Mac and they walk away from their future together until that climatic moment when Andee’s life is threatened, and Mac decides he’s going to fight to win her heart, and Andee realizes what a fool she is. 


Sometimes the black moment takes place right after the climatic moment, when they go back to their lives, and discover there is no room for them in it. 


Because it’s a suspense romance, ending with the romance, and the knowledge that the two will be together forever is important.  To keep the romance sizzling to the end, don’t tie up the romantic thread until AFTER the climatic moment, when they’ve face their darkest fears, realized the truth and can now come to each other a new person.


But how do you get them to that climatic moment?  


We’ll talk about that…tomorrow!  

Susie May