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In most plays I've studied, e.g. Erin Brockovich, the end of the second Act II is the "darkest moment" for the protagonist. It's the time when one (at least yours truly) asks, "Why did the hero come in for this? Wouldn't life have been better off without the situation?"

In my favorite plays from childhood, the hero has a "bird in hand" at the end of Act II, and the question is whether or not s/he will get the "big prize." In "My Fair Lady," Eliza Doolittle has learned to be a lady at the end of Act II, and the remaining question is whether she will find happiness with Professor Higgins, or Freddy Eynsford-Hill. In "the Sound of Music," the von Trapp family has gotten Maria as a (step) "mother" by the end of Act II, and the question is whether they can escape the Nazis.

Is there a special name for this kind of plot structure (or the kinds of plays that use it), and is it viewed differently than the other kind of plot structure outlined in the first paragraph? For instance, is romantic comedy more likely to have the second, rather than the first Second Act Structure?

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I think there are plenty story theorists who would want you to see that you are looking at two sides of the same structure. Whether you are thinking of Eliza Doolittle or Top Gun, the structure is the same: the hero's second act is about mentorship, and in the third act they face their challenges alone.

Whether that character at the end of Act 2 faces their deepest darkest moment, or whether they are filled with chipper optimism is really more about the lightness of touch in your story. Both characters are ready to face their challenges (with new knowledge or skills), but both have also had their crutches taken away. There is always determination and doubt, but your story's tone will determine which of those you need to emphasise.

If your hero is tough in a gritty thriller, you'll need to take them to dark depths to evoke any kind of anxiety about the third act, but if your hero is extremely delicate in a gentle social satire, their darkest depths may merely be discovering that their hat doesn't fit properly and threatens to cause embarrassment at the garden party.

I have seen comedy movies where the writers have taken the deepest-depths thing too literally, and put slapstick characters into jarringly serious scenes with comic actors who couldn't pull it off. The character doesn't need to go to the darkest place you can imagine, they just need to face a bigger test than anything so far. They can be perfectly thrilled about facing the challenge if that is what suits the story.

  • While I agree with your basic sentiment, I am a bitter enemy of statements such as "Act II is about mentorship". True: Mentorship is a very common theme in Act II, because it makes sense to have a mentor when facing an impending change. However, interepreting Act II like that reduces the Hero's Journey to a collection of plot elements that show up at some time. In my opinion, this is not wise. Let the story decide which elements appear in Act II. Act II is about changing the protagonist. Whether he needs a mentor to achieve this change depends on the story and the protagonist. – Filip Jun 1 '15 at 7:57
  • Fair enough, I've made a slight change which I hope ties the word 'mentorship' more closely to the specific examples. – mwo Jun 1 '15 at 8:52
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The kind of plot structure that you are talking about was more common during and before the 1960s. The Broadway shows of the 1950s and 1960s came from a more halcyon, post World War II time, when life was sweeter than it is today. That is to say that stories of the time tended to have a happy ending, and even when they didn't, offered a consolation prize at the end of Act II. (It's debatable whether or not Eliza will be happy going back to Professor Higgins, but come what may, she has made great progress learning to be a lady.

This era gave way, in the late 1960s (to the present) to stories where there were greater angst. These stories were sometimes melodramatic, such as "Portnoy's Complaint," and sometimes high stakes "Agent Orange" or "Erin Brockovich. But in any event, the post Vietnam War culture largely brought an end to the "sunny" story lines of the 1950s and 1960s, which is why the end of the second Act tended to be from the depths of despair (post late sixties), rather than "halfway up the hill.

  • I think you have misidentified the person who is behind the 8-ball – due to their own actions – at the end of Act 2 in My Fair Lady. Eliza is leveling up (bird in hand, I like that), but she's also just met a smitten young man who will be Henry Higgins' rival. It's Higgins who made the bet to create a "lady", Higgins has the stakes for pulling a hoax. The story does address that Eliza is a real person (with no agency) which Higgins ignored, but the fact she falls in love with her tormentor suggests she's not the MC but the prize. She'd be much happier with the cute guy closer to her age. – wetcircuit Jul 4 at 10:43

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