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Two-Act Structure

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The story is neatly divided into two parts. The first part will be lighthearted and straightforward compared to the second, which will wrap things up in a realistic mixed-bag sort of way. This structure is most common in musicals. It comes in two flavors: the rise-and-fall variety, which has everything on the up-and-up in the first act and, in the second act, shoots it all to hell ("Rise and Fall" Gangster Arc is a specific variant with a gangster protagonist); and the parallel variety, where the darker, more intricate and realistic second act makes some sort of point about the first act.

Often, the dark turn will be heralded by the last moments of the first act. A sizable period of time between the two acts is also commonplace.

There must be a change in tone for this trope to apply. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, for instance, divides its two acts at a good stopping place in a continuous progression, nothing more, and so this trope doesn't apply to it.

Compare Halfway Plot Switch for when the first and second parts are narratively disjointed.


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Rise and Fall:

    Anime and Manga 
  • Berserk's Golden Age Arc can be easily divided into two major parts. The first part is Guts's joining of the Band of the Hawk and working with Griffith and his Number Two Casca to crush Griffith's enemies and realize his ambitions, culminating in the ending of a long war for Midland which gets them and the rest of the Hawks knighted by the King of Midland himself. The midpoint comes when Guts leaves the Hawks and defeats Griffith, and Griffith tries to come back from this by boinking the Princess, which royally pisses off the King, and not only gets him thrown into the Tower of Rebirth and put to the torture, but gets everyone else in the Hawks declared outlaw. The second part, a year after the fateful event, has Guts returning and joining Casca (who he officially becomes a couple with) and the Hawks on a daring rescue mission, only to find that Griffith is in no shape to lead them anymore, and as they escape with him, they are beset by hired scum and horrors bent on killing them all, up to and including the Apostle Wyald, the second major demon that Guts has to face. It all culminates in Griffith falling to despair and activating his Crimson Behelit, throwing Guts, Casca and everyone else into a demonic nightmare as the Eclipse goes down and Griffith sacrifices everyone to become Femto, one of the five lords of all demons in the Berserk universe.

    Audio Play 
  • Though 36 Questions is made of three acts, it clearly follows the "rise and fall" pattern. In the first half, Judith's plan to stop her husband leaving seems to go well, with Jase agreeing to answer the 36 Questions, learning more about Judith's past, getting Distracted by the Sexy, sharing a Beach Kiss, before finally ending up at a motel...where the fall happens, as Jase still doesn't forgive Judith for lying to him. The second half of the musical proceeds to depict Judith and Jase learning to handle their split.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Titanic is neatly divided in half by the ship hitting the iceberg. The first part is Jack and Rose's Star-Crossed Lovers romance and the efforts of both Cal and Rose's mom to put a stop to it. Then at the midpoint the Titanic strikes the berg, and it's all about the ship sinking, with Jack and Rose trying their best to survive the unfolding disaster.
  • Scarface: Act One of the 1983 version is about Tony Montana's rise to the top of the Miami underworld, while Act Two is how everything goes straight to hell.
  • Man on Fire begins with Shell-Shocked Veteran John Creasy learning to live again thanks to his relationship with the girl he's bodyguarding, little Pita Ramos. Initially grouchy towards her, he reacts well to her peppy attitude, eventually becomes a second father figure for her, and helps her train to win a swim meet. At the middle of the movie, Pita gets kidnapped, her ransom exchange is botched by a group of dirty cops, and she's supposedly killed in retaliation. The rest of the movie is Creasy's Roaring Rampage of Revenge against the kidnappers and corrupt cops.
  • The Dawns Here Are Quiet: Part I, which mostly deals with the Amazon Brigade at the supply depot and their gruff male sergeant, is called "In the Second Echelon." Part II, "A Minor Local Fight", features the sergeant and his squad engaging German paratroopers in combat. The first act is mostly light comedy while the second act gets very dark and tragic.
  • Australia: Act One ends on a triumphant note, with a successful cattle drive and Sarah hooking up with the Drover. After a two-year Time Skip narrated by Nullah, Act Two begins on an ominous note, with Fletcher having taken over from King Carney and the threat of war looking in the background.

  • In Animorphs, there's a pretty obvious dividing line between the secretive guerrilla war and the final story arc where the Masquerade breaks. While the first part had plenty of dark moments, there was enough comedy and optimism to balance it out. By the end of the second part, the unrelenting pressure and repeated moral compromises have wrecked the team dynamic to the point where they're barely even friends, and the war ends with Rachel dying and Jake committing a war crime.
  • This accurately describes the entire Harry Potter series, with the turning point being Goblet of Fire where Voldemort is reborn and suddenly Any One Can Die. Fittingly, A Very Potter Musical has the act break right in that very spot, and while it remains a light-hearted parody, the characters still feel like they're going through hell.
  • This very much describes Gulliver's Travels wherein the first act ends after leaving the land of the giants and the second act starts with a land that has nothing to do with giants or dwarves.
  • Room: The first half deals with a woman and her young son, both of whom have been prisoners for years. Then, halfway through the novel, they escape, and the story becomes about the two of them trying to adjust to normal lives.
  • The Neverending Story: The first half of the book is a fairly conventional fantasy adventure where Bastian becomes the hero of Fantastica. The second half is considerably heavier and more philosophical: Bastian travels to Fantastica, and his newfound ego runs amok, doing tremendous harm to feed his power fantasies until he finally loses everything.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The television show Skins keeps the same cast for two seasons before starting over with a completely new cast and story; each "generation," as they are called, tends to roughly follow the Rise and Fall pattern, with a somewhat simpler, sunnier first season followed by a Darker and Edgier second season where things start falling apart.
  • Stargate shows split their seasons into two parts, often having some kind of cliffhanger or game-changer before the intermission.
  • Many a U.S. Sitcom up until the 1990s used a two act structure, with a plot twist at the commercial break and a second act where the Zany Scheme fell apart, restoring the status quo.
  • The Series 9 finale of Doctor Who plays out this way: Act One is "Face the Raven": A quiet, small-scale mystery leavened with humor as the Doctor and Clara try to clear the name of a friend in a mysterious alien refugee "trap street"; the events unfold over the course of a day or so — almost in real time once they reach the street. But then Clara makes a well-meant but foolish mistake that leads her to be Killed Off For Real and the Doctor, about to be delivered into the hands of his enemies, has a Freak Out of anguish, guilt, and rage. "To Be Continued..." Act Two unfolds in "Heaven Sent" and "Hell Bent" as the Doctor — now alone — is Driven to Madness in a torture chamber ordeal that ends up lasting four-and-a-half billion years, and emerges from it The Unfettered Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds obsessed with a Tragic Dream that defies his people, the Time Lords, and risks the existence of the universe: saving Clara from the grave. He is brought back to his best self in the end, but he suffers greatly in the process, and the ending is extremely bittersweet. While this is truly a three-part story, "Face the Raven" (rise) is often listed as a standalone episode and "Heaven Sent" and "Hell Bent" (fall) a two-parter, which makes this structure more apparent.
  • The documentary De Nuremberg à Nuremberg is divided in two parts. The first part called "Celebration and Triumph" is about the rise of Nazi Germany from 1933 (Hitler's nomination as chancellor) to mid-1942 (Erwin Rommel's victories in North Africa). The second part called "Defeat and Judgement" is about Germany's defeats from Stalingrad (late 1942 / early 1943) to the fall of Berlin in May 1945, with the Trials of Nuremberg in 1945-1946 taking more or less the last hour.

  • Blood Brothers: Act 1 shows the innocent childhood of the titular characters. Act 2 shows the complications of their adult lives which ultimately bring about their mutual doom.
  • The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has its first act centering around three fugitives coming across the title city, a place where people can have fun. As more people come to the city, they quickly find that life in this city is too dull to stand, and in the second act, Jim, one of the people coming to the city, kills a guy and is sentenced to death for having no money, the cracks begin to show in the city, and Mahoganny eventually falls to violence. The play was meant as a critique of the Nazis and the "state of freedom" (Heilstaadt) that they were trying to create when the play was written, and the violent second act was a commentary on what the Nazi regime would eventually become. Unsurprisingly, the Nazis banned the play soon after they took power in 1933, and Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill were forced to leave Germany.
  • Camelot; for that matter, the Arthurian mythos and all works based on its whole.
  • Fiddler on the Roof, with the Cossacks' invasion of the wedding as the turning point.
  • Hamilton. Act 1 chronicles Alexander Hamilton's rise in political power, ending just after he's appointed Secretary of the U.S. Treasury. Act 2 shows the gradual downfall of his career and personal life, ending with his death in the duel with Aaron Burr.
  • Jasper in Deadland: Jasper spends Act One searching for his lost friend Agnes, while struggling to stave off the Ghost Amnesia that affects everyone in Deadland. Eventually, with the help of an Afterlife Tourguide named Gretchen, they reach the bridge to Elysium, where Jasper unintentionally cures Gretchen's amnesia, causing her to realize that she is Agnes... only for Jasper to finally lose the rest of his memory. Then Act Two begins, and Mr Lethe's minions capture them, trapping Agnes in Mr Lethe's factory while Lethe tries to convince Jasper into returning to the surface alone.
  • Wicked. Act One details the college years of Elphaba and Galinda at Shiz University and shows the growth of the girls' friendship. The second act, opening several months after the close of the first is comparatively darker, as the darker side of Ozian politics becomes apparent, as several characters experience the sometimes horrific consequences of permanent magic, and as each of the two leads deals with the repercussions of the decisions that she made during "Defying Gravity": Elphaba is defamed throughout Oz as a wicked witch and watches all of her good intentions backfire until her Heroic BSoD in "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished", and Glinda, obliged to go along with the Wizard and Madam Morrible's propaganda against her best friend, finds, deconstructing her celebrated position, that her happy ending is not at all what she expected it to be.
  • Avenue Q: Both halves are funny, but by the end of Act 1 most of the characters have fundamentally screwed up somehow; Act 2 focuses on them realising what they've done wrong and making amends.
  • Paint Your Wagon starts with Ben Rumson striking gold while digging a grave for a fallen friend and the establishment of a Boom Town, and the first act ends with Ben's daughter Jennifer being sent to school Back East so that she can get the education that her late mother had. When Jennifer arrives back in town for the second act a year later, the gold has started to run out, the town is dying, and most of the population have started to leave for another town due to another gold strike. Ben and Jennifer are the only ones who choose to stay, and Jennifer wants to see Julio, who she's fallen in love with.
  • Shakespeare's tragedies tend to go this route, particularly Romeo and Juliet. The first part, taking up Acts 1 and 2 and the first half of Act 3, is your basic tragicomic affair, but the second part, after Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt in vengeance, is where it all really goes to hell.
    • West Side Story, a modern Broadway take on the famous Shakespearean story, also does this, with the Rumble that results in Riff and Bernardo's deaths occurring right before intermission.
  • Ragtime: Where Act 1 is an endearing tribute to the pratfalls and triumphs of the oughts (with an against-all-odds love story to boot), Act 2 begins with the prescient child-narrator dreaming about (soon to occur) explosions and with Coalhouse firing a rifle indiscriminately from a clocktower.
  • Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds; Act I describes the conquest of Earth by the Martians, and Act II its aftermath.
  • Jesus Christ Superstar: The break comes between Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the Last Supper. It's all dark, but the second act is darker than the first.
  • In Little Shop of Horrors, the first act ends after Orin's death-the first point at which Seymour really kills.
  • Merrily We Roll Along purposely inverts this trope; since the plot runs backwards, Act I is where Frank's life has already gone to hell, whilst Act II is sees him becoming younger and thus more promising and optimistic.
  • Into the Woods wraps up its massive Fairy Tale Crossover as neat and tidy as a military-school bunkroom in the first act, and then goes into the repercussions of everyone's means of getting their happy endings with a far-less-defined sense of what to do, brought home by killing the Narrator.
  • In the opera adaptation of The Fly (1986), Act One covers Seth falling in love with Veronica and from there figuring out how to perfect the telepods, but ends on the dark note of his fateful self-teleportation. Act Two chronicles his resultant Slow Transformation into a Half-Human Hybrid monster.


    Anime & Manga 
  • Much like Into the Woods, the anime Princess Tutu, the first season has dark moments, but is overall a happy Magical Girl romp through fairy tale tropes with a ballet twist. The season even ends in a way that makes it seem like the ending of a typical fairytale, with Mytho and Princess Tutu dancing happily together after their victory against Princess Kraehe. The second season, however, seems more like a deconstruction of a fairytale, with Mytho being poisoned by Raven's blood and becoming a villain, character's motivations being questioned and dark backstories revealed. Edel's Catchphrase—"May those who follow their fate find happiness, may those who defy it be granted glory"—takes on a whole new meaning when looking at the two seasons of the show.

    Fan Works 
  • All Assorted Animorphs AUs: "What if Tom was infested by a member of the Yeerk Peace Movement?" starts off as a series of vignettes about Tom and Aftran helping the Animorphs. Halfway through, they find a way to overthrow the Vissers and get promoted to Visser One as a result, and the rest of the chapter is about their efforts to end the empire's slavery.

    Films — Animation 
  • The first half of Bambi involves Bambi growing up and meeting the inhabitants of the forest, until his mother is killed by hunters and he is taken off to be raised by his father. The second half involves an adult Bambi protecting the animals from a wildfire set off by the hunters, ultimately becoming Prince of the Forest. The 2006 midquel takes place between the two acts.
  • The Lion King (1994) has been called "Bambi in Africa" due to its similar structure (the first half being the protagonist's childhood and how he loses a parent, the second being about his adulthood).
  • The Land Before Time V: The Mysterious Island: The story is split between pre- and post-Chomper halves. The first act is mostly a survival story as the children search for food after after a swarm of locusts devour all the plants in the Great Valley, while the second act deals with Chomper's incompatibility with the rest of the group due to being a Sharptooth.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Princess Bride, with the turning point being Westley's capture.
  • Life Is Beautiful. First half, light-hearted romantic-comedy. Second half, heartbreaking tragi-comedy set in a concentration camp.
  • Akira Kurosawa was quite fond of this trope:
    • Ikiru. The first half focuses on the protagonist, Watanabe, grappling with his terminal cancer diagnosis. The second half takes place at Watanabe's wake, where we learn of the good he did during his final months.
    • High and Low. The first act is about ransoming with a kidnapper. The second act is about finding the kidnapper and bringing him to justice.
  • Melancholia is divided into two chapters, of which the second one is more gloomy.
  • The narrative of Mulholland Dr. breaks down into two distinct parts.
  • He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not starts off light-hearted, but turns scary after the Plot Twist.
  • Full Metal Jacket. The first half takes place at boot camp, which ends with a murder and suicide after graduation. The second half takes place on the actual battlefield of The Vietnam War.
  • Predators is referred as a two-act film by the film's director Nimród Antal. The first act consists of the protagonists exploring the strange planet that they find themselves on while surviving the alien world's unknown elements and weathering ambushes from the Predators,which ultimately ends up in them losing two of their own. The second act begins with the group meeting Noland, which results in a chain of events leading to the Predators chasing the humans acrsos the hunting grounds. During the chase, the predators are picked off one by one (usually at the cost of one of the human's lives) until only one is left to face the protagonist in a final battle.
  • Gates of Heaven: The first part being the construction and collapse of Floyd McClure's pet cemetery, and the second part being Bubbling Well pet cemetery, where the 450 disinterred pets from McClure's went, and which was still in operation.
  • Distant Voices, Still Lives is divided into two parts: "Distant Voices", which revolves around the father's role in the family, and "Still Lives", which revolves around his children starting families of their own.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Series 9 of Doctor Who featured several two-part stories that followed this structure, while its three-part finale went with Rise and Fall instead (see above).
    • "The Magician's Apprentice"/"The Witch's Familiar": Part One chronicles various parties searching for the Doctor across time and space; he turns out to be throwing a lighthearted The Last Dance celebration for himself related to a mistake he made in the cold opening. The episode ends with him a captive of the Daleks and his allies seemingly murdered. Part Two, which unfolds over a few hours at most and is limited to the interiors of a Dalek city and its surrounding wasteland, revolves around the Doctor coming to a new understanding of a familiar villain even as he struggles to outwit them, revealing the better aspects of his own nature in the process and ultimately atoning for his mistake.
    • "The Girl Who Died"/"The Woman Who Lived": Part One is a comic story of the Doctor figuring out how he can lead helpless Viking villagers to victory against an alien threat that's already wiped out the local warriors. But in the denouement a heartbroken Doctor rashly chooses to live up to his chosen name and revives the titular girl, who died helping to save the day, in a way that makes her an ageless, functional immortal — realizing too late (as a functional immortal himself) that he may have made a grave mistake. Part Two, set centuries later in 1651 England, is a mostly-quiet drama of he and this "girl" crossing paths again. She is now a noblewoman with no memories of her original life except what she's written down in journals, embittered by her lonely existence, resentful of the man she once saw as her hero, and willing to make a Deal with the Devil to escape the planet. But his empathy for her plight helps her realize her own long-buried empathy once again.
    • "The Zygon Invasion"/"The Zygon Inversion": Part One is a globetrotting, action-heavy story of the Doctor and UNIT trying to stop an uprising of Aliens Among Us, culminating in a Cliffhanger that teases the deaths of him and his three main allies. Part Two is quieter: Imperiled characters manage to get the upper hand in various ways, and the Doctor forces the leaders of both sides to examine their motivations, goals, methods, and ultimately the consequences of war in a 10-minute sequence dominated by a heartbreaking monologue.

  • The Fantasticks has its two acts explore the difference between forbidden love and real love.
  • RENT, complete with a shift in storytelling pace (the first act takes place in a single night, and the second act takes an entire year).
  • A Madhouse in Goa by Martin Sherman.
  • Dreamgirls. The first act is about the girls' rise to stardom and subsequent challenges, and ends with Effie being kicked out of the group as her replacement is brought in. The second act opens 8 years later. Deena and Curtis are married, and Effie is a single mom on welfare with Curtis' child, and decides to give a shot at a solo career.
  • Waiting for Godot subverts this by having the second act be more or less the same as the first, without much difference in tone. Hence the reviewer who said that it is "a play in which nothing happens, twice."
  • Spring Awakening is a curious case since although most of the tragedy happens in Act II, the real shift in storytelling is actually in the middle of Act I, right around where Moritz flunks and Melchior and Wendla's romance takes a serious turn. However the two acts do complement each other nicely as Act I is about sex (i.e. life) and Act II is about death.
  • Sunday in the Park with George. Act I ends with the completion of Georges Seurat's most famous painting; Act II picks up after a Time Skip of nearly a century and explores the 20th-century artistic struggles of Georges's Identical Grandson.
  • Heathen Valley has a very optimistic ending to act one, where everything seems to be going right. Then act two starts up with tenser undercurrents, leading to the end.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory strikes this structure and reverses it in one aspect: Act Two is darker than the first, but it's also far more fanciful. The first act is set in the ordinary world and follows the Golden Ticket search and the five children who find said tickets to the titular factory. Charlie — the only nice kid of the bunch, poor though he is — seems to have the least chance of winning the mysterious secret super-prize come tour's end, as the other four are Spoiled Brats who each have it made. That's when they and the audience are introduced to Willy Wonka, the reclusive owner/creator of the factory, who is dazzling, hammy, eccentric, and...well, a touch the Act One finale. The Black Comedy bubbling its way through Act One explodes in Act Two as the tour group travels through a wonderland that dishes out the Laser-Guided Karma the "real" world didn't — the brats meet dreadful fates for their misbehavior and Charlie winds up getting a joyous Happily Ever After. (Also has a shift in storytelling pace in that Act One unfolds over a few months and Act Two takes place over a single day.)
  • The Lion King: The first half of the movie is about Simba's childhood and Scar's plot to become King. Act 1 with Hakuna Matata and the reveal of Adult Simba. The second half is adult Simba coming to terms with his guilt and grief and deciding to reclaim his throne from Scar.

    Web Original 
  • Solar Wind's first act isn't all sunshine and roses - for the most part, though, it explores protagonist Tav developing their relationships with the humans they meet, which is pretty surface-level. The second act, though...

    Western Animation 
  • Even a seven-minute cartoon can manage two acts. The first part of Looney Tunes cartoon "Greetings Bait" has a wacky worm trying to lure fish onto a fisherman's hook. Halfway through, he has to run from a crab who very much wants to eat him.