Wednesday, March 19

A Four Act Structure

The Four Act Structure


When I write a story I use a three act structure--Act One (Ordinary World), Act Two (The Special World of the adventure), Act Three (The Return Home)--or I used to. I'm thinking of dividing my next story into four acts.

Today I'm going to talk about what the four act structure is. In a later post, after I've used the structure for a while, I hope to go over the pros and cons of using it.

I've written about the three act structure here (Story Structure) but here's a (brief!) summary:

Three Act Structure


Act One (Ordinary World) -- first 25% of the story

- Flesh out the setting and introduce the characters.
- Hero accepts his call to adventure.
- Stakes increase and the hero is locked into the adventure just before we break into Act Two.

Act Two (The Special World of the adventure) -- middle 50% of the story

- Explore the new world, it's differences, it's rules.
- B-story begins: Subplot that exposes the hero's inner strengths and weaknesses.
- Make friends and enemies.
- First pinch point: get a peek at the Big Bad.
- Prepare for confrontation. (Perhaps there is a romantic interlude.)
- Midpoint. Hero confronts the antagonistic force. The hero learns more about the special world of his adventure; he now has a different perspective. He has confronted death and (probably) survived.
- Hero either celebrates and has bonding time with friends or licks his wounds and rallies from his defeat. (Perhaps there is a romantic interlude.)
- Second pinch point. Another reminder of who the Big Bad is and why the hero has to win.
- At the end of Act Two the hero will (usually) be at his lowest point. It seemed that everything was going the hero's way, then BAM! Everything fell apart. The worst doesn't happen, the worst raised to the fourth power happens!

Act Three (Return Home) -- last 25% of the story

- Third act twist. The hero figures out how to get himself out of the fix he's in, or at least he comes up with a plan that just might work, but probably won't. Chances are very much against it but he has no choice. He has to make it work. Sometimes the hero figures out the 'good trick' by resolving the B-story.
- The climax. The hero confronts the villain or, if the opposing force isn't a person, the antagonistic force.
- The aftermath. Cash out the stakes. If the hero wins, what happens? If the hero loses, what happens? The hero goes back to the Ordinary World. Show how his actions have changed the hero and what this means for him in the Ordinary World.

Please keep in mind that this is how I see the three act structure. I don't think anyone thinks of it in exactly the same way. 

The essential points are:


- There are three acts; the third act is as long as the first and third acts combined.
- In Act One the ordinary world and the characters are introduced and the hero takes up his quest. 
- In Act Two the hero enters the world of the adventure (which often isn't a separate world; it could simply be a different social environment). The hero will confront the villain and attempt to overcome obstacles.
- In Act Three the hero has his final confrontation with the villain and either wins or loses.

The Four Act Structure


The four act structure is a lot like the three act structure with the exception that each act is the same length. Basically, this is the three act structure cut down the middle. 

Here's a fun fact: Christopher Vogler uses a four act structure and so does Lee Goldberg. In fact, Lee Goldberg was the inspiration for this post. As I listened to the Google Chat he did with Libby Hellmann and Paul Levine (you can listen to it here: Secrets to Writing Top Suspense) he rattled this off the top of his head. Great stuff!  

Lee Goldberg's description of a story in four acts:


"For me, the four act structure goes something like this:

"There's the tease, there's the hook, there's ... the Star Ship Enterprise flies through outer space. There's a giant octopus! You stick around to see how the Enterprise deals with this giant octopus.

"Act One sets up who all the characters are, what the stakes are, if they succeed or fail. It basically sets up everything they are trying to achieve and all the obstacles to them achieving it. And then something really bad happens that ups the stakes at the end of Act One.

"Act Two, whether it's a mystery, a doctor show, a science fiction show, Act Two is the hero's ... come up with a plan, an approach to solve their problem, to save the world, to rescue the people, to discover the murderer, and they put that plan into action, and its going great, and then everything goes to crap. At the end of Act Two everything they thought they knew was wrong, the guy they thought was the killer isn't, the thing they thought would cure the patient doesn't cure the patient. There's no way they can win, everything they thought they knew was wrong. They're screwed.

"Act three is essentially the hero's recovering from the calamitous events at the end of Act Two, trying to come up with a new approach, a new way of dealing with things but in the midst of this everything keeps getting worse. The stakes are raised, the pressures increase. By the end of Act Three there is no way in hell they'll win a conviction, they'll save the girl's life, they'll find the murderer, they'll stop the giant planet-eating octopus. They're screwed.

"Act Four. They put a new plan into action and solve the problem. They catch the murderer, they stop the giant planet eating octopus, they save the girl's life, and by the end of Act Four equilibrium is restored and everything is back to, essentially, the way it was at the beginning of Act One and they're ready to face a new conflict.

"And I find that's essentially the pattern of any great drama that is on the TV or even every great book that I've read, every crime novel, anyway."

Once again, that's from a Google Chat Lee Goldberg was part of. You can view it here: Secrets to Writing Top Suspense.

Let's put this in point form.

Four Acts In Point Form


Act One (first 25%)
- The inciting incident occurs (/the hook).
- Establish the (initial) stakes.
- The lock in: something happens to up the stakes just before we break into Act Two.

Act Two (25% to 49%)
- The hero comes up with a plan, a way to solve the problem or a way to approach the problem. If this is a murder mystery, it is a way to find out who is the murderer.
- Put the plan into action.
- The plan fails. Everything the hero and his companions thought they knew was wrong. Back to square one.

Act Three (50% to 74%)
- The hero and his/her companions tries to recover from the calamitous events of Act Two. They try to come up with a new approach.
- Everything keeps getting worse for the hero and his companions. The opposing force increases.
- The stakes are raised.
- By the end of Act Three it seems as though the hero has lost. 

Act Four (75% on)
- New plan
- Solve the problem.
- Attain the goal.
- By the end of Act Four equilibrium is restored and we're back to the Ordinary World of Act One, ready for another adventure.

The biggest difference between the three act structure and the four is that the third act has been split in two. Now we have one major crisis at the end of Act Two and the "all hope is lost" point comes at the end of Act Three. 

Food for thought!

Question: What sort of structure do you use, if any? Three acts? Four acts? Six acts? Another sort of structure completely? Please share! 

Photo credit: "Nokia Lumia 1020 - 02" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

4 comments:

  1. I also like this 4-act structure (first found by me in Vogel's excellent book). I think in Vogel's treatment, the 2nd and 3rd acts aren't just two ordeals with the second worse than the first, but the Quest ordeal, which has the protagonist becoming worthy of acquiring the boon, and the Return ordeal, which has the protagonist overcoming the barriers to return.

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    Replies
    1. Quest ordeal and Return ordeal; I like it!

      One reason I'm experimenting with the four act structure is that I'm writing a murder mystery (so far so good; it'll be my first) and it seems that the four act structure is a closer fit for that kind of a story than the three act.

      But I could be wrong. It could be just that Lee Goldberg wrote many of the TV mysteries I've been addicted to over the years so, naturally, whatever structure he uses is going to feel natural to me!

      Delete
  2. what are the advantages of the three act structure

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  3. The three act structure and the four act structure are two ways of looking at the same thing: the backbone of a story. I don't think it matters whether one thinks in terms of three acts or four; use whichever feels the most natural.

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