Wednesday, June 19

The Four Act Structure For Story Writing

The Four Act Structure For Story Writing

I've been both reading horror and reading about horror, about how to write it.

As I said yesterday, the structure of a horror story feels different, though perhaps not substantially different, from that given in the monomyth.

(For more on normal story structure, see Writing And The Monomyth, Writing And The Monomyth, Part Two, Writing And The Monomyth, Part Three and Story Structure.)

+Steve Devonport was kind enough to point me to this article, The 4-Act Story Diamond, by Belzecue. In it the author makes an excellent case that it is much easier to write stories with four acts rather than three. (If you have no idea what I'm talking about, take a peek at my blog on story structure.)

Whatever your opinion about the appropriate number of acts, I do think the four act structure could be useful when writing a horror story, a point made especially well by Belzecue's story diagram.

The Four Act Structure

Here's how Belzecue describes the four act structure:


The hero's Ordinary World.

This is the realm that the hero knows -- he knows the terrain and how to live in it. But here is just your average Joe Public, although he displays hero potential.


The Netherworld.

This is the realm the novice hero must pass through to reach the Kingdom of Evil. This territory is unknown, frightening and wonderful. Here, the hero is swept along on an inexorable tide that leads to ...

REALM 3 The Kingdom of Evil.

Here the forces of evil are the masters. This is their home turf, where they are strongest. The hero is gonna have to be very clever to avoid capture.


Back to the Netherworld.

Only now the hero knows the rules and expectations of this realm. He'll need this knowledge to help him evade the pursuit by the Bad Guys.


- Each act is the reflection of it's opposite. Realm 1 is the opposite of Realm 3, just as Realm 2 is the flipside of Realm 4. Where in Act One the hero feels relatively safe, secure, and in control, in Act Three he faces mortal danger, uncertainty, discomfort, etc.

- In Act Four, the flight, the helpers of Act Two reverse to become hinderers (revealed to be agents of evil all along), the hinderers of Act Two reverse to become helpers (swapping sides to join the forces of good).

- The development of the hero shows a similar opposition between Act 1 & 3 and Act 2 & 4. In Act One the hero is a powerless orphan; in Act Three he has become a powerful warrior. In Act Two he is a wanderer in the Netherworld, acting on his own behalf and being pulled or lead toward the domain of evil; by Act Four the hero has become a Martyr working for society, leading the way instead of following. (The 4-Act Paradigm)

Three Acts: Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, then get him down

Instead of getting your hero up a tree (first act), throwing rocks at him (creating conflict in the second act) and getting him down (third act) Belzecue suggests that it would be more interesting to whip out a chainsaw in the third act and start cutting the tree down!

And he's probably right. We want to ramp up the conflict, the tension. Belzecue writes:
I swear, if I hear once more that line about "Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, then get him down"... It's a god-awful illustration of the three-act structure and an even worse representation of storytelling. ....

So what on earth does that pithy gem describe, really? I get that the 'up a tree' part stands for Act One: the inciting incident, the trigger, the destabilisation of the hero's world, jeopardy. And I get that the 'rocks' represent Act Two and conflict. It's not mentioned but it's a given that the rocks get larger and meaner with each throw, to create rising conflict.

... then get him down... ?? Is it just me or is that just a teensy bit anti-climactic? As a third act that simply will not do. Not around here.

Having exhausted our supply of rocks, it's time to get serious about making tree-guy suffer. Remember that chainsaw you stole from the set of Evil Dead: Army of Darkness? (Yes, I know about that; No, I never told The Chin, but I think he suspects.) Go get it. Because the writer's job is not to get the hero out of the tree. Your job is to make your protagonists suffer to the point where they have only one way out, where only one thing can transform the suffering into a solution: change.

I'm talking earthquake-fault-line-sized change. I'm talking about straddling the abyss with one foot on either side as it groans and cracks and widens beneath your hero, forcing a decision to go left or right, zig or zag, one way or the other, or do nothing and perish. At that moment, for the hero, standing still is no longer an option.

Change. (The 4-Act Story Diamond, Emphasis mine)
Great articles, and if you haven't already, take a look at his story diagrams here (old one) and here (new one).


Photo credit: "a mongrel rougue" by Robert Couse-Baker under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. Thanks for this post! I am having trouble getting my main character down from the tree and think I will try the chain saw method.

    1. lol You go! Remember what Kurt Vonnegut said:

      "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they’re made of."

  2. I'm not into horror stories, but I still think this is applicable. We really do want to ramp up the tension for our characters, right before we help them out of the tree. Hopefully, to the point where the reader is beginning to wonder how (or if) they're every going to make it out!

    I love reading your blog Karen, and I've nominated you for The Very Inspiring Blogger award, so if you get a chance, come and check it out.

    Rinelle Grey

    1. "We really do want to ramp up the tension for our characters, right before we help them out of the tree."


      I think that whether a writer chooses to think in terms of three of four acts entirely depends on what he or she finds most natural.

      "I've nominated you for The Very Inspiring Blogger award, so if you get a chance, come and check it out."

      (Blush) Thank you! And, as I said in the comment I left on your post, congrats for finishing your book. That's one of the best feelings in the world. (grin)


Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies. I do appreciate each and every comment.