Showing posts with label act three. Show all posts
Showing posts with label act three. Show all posts

Thursday, January 22

A Three Act Story Structure: The Final Conflict (Part 5 of 5)

A Three Act Story Structure: The Final Conflict (Part 5 of 5)



This is the final post in my series on the Three Act Structure for genre stories. Yes! (I always get a bit excited when I write the last post in a series, it’s not the same as finishing a short story, but it’s still good.) Here’s an index to the rest of the posts in this series:


Endings Are Important


In many ways the final bit of your story, the Final Conflict, is the most important part. If the ending isn’t satisfying then, chances are, your readers won’t be waiting on pins and needles for your next story. 

I’ve written about story endings elsewhere (see here and here) but what I want to concentrate on today is everything that happens after the protagonist goes through the All Hope Is Lost moment and has her epiphany. (I’m not going to talk about this moment here because I covered it in my last post, see above.)

The Plan


Things are now looking up. Sure, nothing has actually changed. The protagonist is still in the deep dark pit with no way out and his allies are about to be killed in the most brutal of ways, but, still, things aren’t as bleak because the hero has an idea. 

Right now at this moment, the protagonist is everything we wanted her to be. She has struggled, she has failed, she has learned from her mistakes and the scales have just fallen from her eyes. She is aware of the lie she’s told herself. She has (partially at least) healed her deep inner wound. As a result, the protagonist is whole; she has come into her power.

Now the protagonist makes a new plan. Often she is alone at this point, her allies having been sidelined. But, even if she has allies, she often won’t reveal the specifics of her plan. (The writer  may not want her readers to be too informed at this point since not knowing exactly how the protagonist plans to pull things off can help build suspense.) 

Story reasons for the protagonist keeping her plan to herself could include the following:

- The protagonist knows that one of her allies is really a spy.
- The protagonist knows her allies would try to prevent her from doing what she must since she believes doing so will mean her death.

In any case, the protagonist advances, alone, to the place where the final conflict will take place. (Though, her being alone isn’t the crucial bit. She could have one or two allies come with her, the crucial bit is that she faces the Big Bad all by herself without any help.)

The Penultimate Conflict


There is often a confrontation with the antagonist’s minion, a confrontation that the protagonist will win, now, without too much trouble. The minion would have beaten her before her revelation—before the epiphany she had at the end of the All Hope Is Lost moment—but now the tables are turned.

Also, this confrontation with a minion shows how far the protagonist has come. She has overcome her weaknesses, she has healed her wound, and it’s time to let the audience see this. 

One way of accomplishing this is to have the protagonist wipe the floor with a bad guy that gave her a sound beating earlier in the story, around about the time she entered the Special World and was still figuring out how things worked.

Often this bad guy is the Big Bad’s second in command. He sees that the protagonist is in pretty bad shape, she’s beaten up, and he thinks she’ll be easy to obliterate. What ensues now is what I think of as fun, satisfying, violence, the sort of thing you see in the trailer to a James Bond flick. She will win the fight with the minion fairly easily (though the protagonist may fake an injury to build a moment or two of tension) and he’ll die with an incredulous expression on his face.

After this fight things get serious. Often, one way the protagonist can win is by sacrificing her life. This would be noble and a perfectly good ending, but we want her to live, so there’s suspense, tension.

The Final Conflict


Riding high from trouncing the minion the protagonist often walks into a trap. Or she is ambushed. Perhaps our protagonist has gotten a little cocky, perhaps a vestige of her former, scarred, self rears its head. Whatever the case, the protagonist gets into trouble.

This could happen right as the protagonist goes to engage the antagonist, or it could happen after the fight is well on its way and the antagonist is starting to realize he may not win the fight (or confrontation). Whatever the case, there’s a moment when it looks as though we were wrong—really really wrong—about the protagonist now being as good as it gets. She’s in trouble again and this could be the end of her and her quest. 

But it’s not. She faked the injury to get an advantage.

It sometimes happens here that the antagonist ups the stakes one last time by daring to do what no one else would. Perhaps he alters himself in such a way that he is now the walking dead but he’s going to be godly for the next ten minutes, which is more than enough time to destroy the protagonist. This pushes the protagonist to excel in a way we’re truly not sure she’s capable of and, once again, the audience is (hopefully!) on the edge of their seats.

- At this point the antagonist has no secrets.


At this point in the story all of the antagonist’s cards should be on the table. True, you don’t want an information dump where the protagonist, strapped across railway tracks, pleads for her life while the black cloaked villain rubs his gloved hands together, twirls his mustache, and tells her about the brilliance of his scheme.

But, still, no secrets. Perhaps the antagonist will taunt the protagonist by filling in the last little bit of the puzzle that lets the protagonist see how very high and dire the stakes are. Instead of simply the world being destroyed, he’s taking the galaxy out too! 

Yes, I’m exaggerating, but at this point it isn’t just the protagonist that is going to win or lose it’s also every single one of her allies, and perhaps her family and extended community. Also, the protagonist may have allies the antagonist has killed and who need avenging. Not to mention that by this time we’ve become emotionally attached to the protagonist and those she cares about.

- On with the fight.


After the antagonist shows us his last card we’re all on the same page. We now know the antagonist’s true power as well as his true agenda.

We, the audience, quake. Even our new punched up self-aware protagonist can’t possibly beat this guy, he’s just too badass.

Then ... why does the protagonist seem so confident?

Seeing the protagonist’s newfound confidence, the antagonist’s composure is shaken for a moment but then he laughs. “You’re faking,” the antagonist says and calls the protagonist’s bluff. Perhaps he even knocks the protagonist down. The Antagonist is now sure he’s won and sneers at the protagonist, ready to deliver the knock-out punch.

The audience is now worried that perhaps the protagonist was bluffing after all, that perhaps she really is all flash and no substance.

But, then, the protagonist shows the audience she wasn’t bluffing and shows the antagonist what she’s capable of. And wins. Since the antagonist was the thing that prevented the protagonist from achieving her goal, that’s it, we’re done.

The story question has been answered. (The story question is basically: Will the protagonist achieve her story goal? Jim Butcher has written a wonderful article on this.)

- Other kinds of endings.


Of course the story doesn’t have to end with the protagonist winning. 

a. She could fail to defeat the antagonist and die. 
b. Or she could fail to defeat the antagonist and live the rest of her life with the knowledge that she’d failed. 
c. Or she could beat the antagonist but still die. 
d. Or she could partially beat the antagonist and ... Well, there are many, many, possibilities.

Keep in mind, though, that each genre usually has pretty clear conventions about how stories will end. 

In a mystery story, if the sleuth doesn’t discover who committed the murder—or they do discover whodunit, but no one is ever brought to justice for the crime—then chances are that you’ll have plenty of grumpy readers who will make it a point of never ever reading another one of your mystery books.

In a Harlequin-type romance story, if the romantic leads do not live happily ever after (HEA) there will be hell to pay. A senior editor at Harlequin once told a conference I attended that they did break this rule once, and both the writer and publisher received hate mail. I kid you not!

The Wrap Up


The final conflict concluded, we wrap up the story by cashing out the final stakes. We do this by showing how the lives of each significant character have been changed because of the protagonist achieving the story goal.

Then, at the very end, the protagonist goes back to the Ordinary World and we see how the adventure changed her. Now, transformed, she does with ease tasks which were impossible before. For example, the protagonist can now best a bully, make difficult decisions, be a leader in the community, gain the elder’s respect, and so on.

Closing Thoughts: The Importance of Change


Let me stress that, although I do often talk about THE Three Act Structure, there’s really no such thing. There is no one monolithic structure that each and every genre story will exemplify. What I’ve written about is my own personal understanding of, distillation of, a structure I see in the overwhelming majority of popular genre stories.

Further, no single story will touch all these bases, and that’s fine. If I had to boil all the advice I’ve given over the years down to just one thing, it would be this: change is necessary.

Situations change, characters change. The mood of a scene changes. Readers—the audience—go from ignorance (Who is the villain?) to knowledge (It’s—drumroll—the mayor!). Without change, nothing dramatic can happen. And whatever else genre stories are, they should be dramatic.

Though, that said, there are only two actual rules in writing:

1. Write regularly. 
2. Read regularly.

If you’re looking for places to share your writing, or encouragement to write every day, I publish a daily writing prompt here, here and here, and the folks over at Critters.org have helped many writers hone their craft.

That’s it! Thanks for reading. 

Note: While the version of the Three Act Structure I’ve presented here does agree with that put forward by many screenwriters, I’ve noticed some put the break into Act Three after the All Hope Is Lost point. I think the take-away from this is to, as always, do what seems right for you. For me, it seems most natural to have the break into Act Three come just after the Major Setback but before the All Hope Is Lost moment, so I’ve placed the Major Setback at just before the 75% mark. 

I’d also like to note that, often, the Third Act will be quite short compared to the First Act. That way, once the hero breaks into Act Three it feels like one incredibly fast race to the Story Climax.

Photo credit: Original photo: "The Lonely Vacuum Of Space" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, January 19

A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three

A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three



Today I continue my series on the Three Act Structure for genre stories. 


In this post I’m going to examine a special kind of Try-Fail Cycle, what I call the All Hope Is Lost Try-Fail Cycle. It begins with the Major Setback, carries us into Act Three and ends with the Story Climax (or Final Conflict). I had hoped to get through the Final Conflict today, but that didn’t happen. I will do that Wednesday.

Act Three: The Rush to the Finish (75%)


Endings are important. It’s said that the first few pages of a story sell that book while the last few pages sell the next book. I believe that.

The ending plays out in Act Three so, ideally, the third act will build the tension of the first two acts into a crescendo of suspense, rushing into The Story Climax, where the Story Question will be decided.

All Hope Is Lost: An Odd Try-Fail Cycle


What I’m calling the All Hope Is Lost Try-Fail Cycle contains three events.

First Time. Often the first try-fail in this threefold cycle is the Major Setback (I talked about the Major Setback in my last post so I won’t go into it again here). 

Second Time. After that devastating, plot-twisting, defeat, the protagonist comes up with a new plan, but this new plan fails as well. 

Third Time (All Hope Is Lost). Undeterred, the protagonist forms a new plan and, though it seems impossible it will succeed, there’s nothing else to try. The stakes, now, are the highest they have ever been and the chance of success the smallest it has ever been. At the end of this sequence the protagonist seems to fail, totally and completely. 

Sometimes (for example, in “Edge of Tomorrow”), this seeming failure lasts only a few seconds and then, immediately following, we get the resolution, the conclusion, of the tale. Other times it is more drawn out. Both kinds of stories, though, usually have the same general structure:

1. (Major Setback) Try --> Obstacle --> Fail 
- Stakes increase.
- Likelihood of success goes down.

2. New Plan --> Try --> Obstacle --> *Fail*
- Stakes increase.
- Likelihood of success goes down.

3. New Plan --> Try --> !!!!!**FAIL**!!!!!
- Stakes turn out to be much bigger than at first thought.
- All Hope is Lost Point: No chance of success whatsoever.

1. The first try-fail sequence


Often the first try-fail is the Major Setback (I talked about the Major Setback in my last post so I won’t go into it again here). 

2. The second try-fail sequence.


After the devastating, plot-twisting, defeat of the Major Setback, the protagonist comes up with a new plan, but the new plan fails.

The consequences of the failure turn out to be very much worse than anyone imagined. The protagonist is unprepared for this and sometimes loses hope. Often an ally or a mentor figure will come onstage and give the protagonist a pep talk. Or perhaps the antagonist will push the protagonist past endurance and she’ll snap only to find a core of strength to her being she never suspected.

3. The third try-fail sequence


The protagonist comes up with another plan but this plan, too, fails, or appears to fail. 

This final try-fail sequence ends with the All Hope Is Lost beat, also known as the Dark Night of the Soul. 

As bad as things seemed at the end of the second sequence, it will turn out that what the protagonist thought was the true bottom—the worst things could possibly get—was only a way-stop on the way to complete and total ruin. 

Now the protagonist is at rock bottom. This is the lowest point of the movie, both for the protagonist and for the story quest as a whole. There is no possibility the protagonist is going to get out of this. No rabbits in this hat. Her quest is over and it’s all her fault. 

The Third Try-Fail Cycle and the Ray of Hope


The trick here is the protagonist’s mindset, what she thinks of as possibilities. A shift now occurs. I’ve said that there was no possibility the protagonist was going to get out of this, but what that means is the protagonist can see no way out of her predicament.

The last stop of her journey from darkness to enlightenment is for the protagonist to make a radical—and much needed—change to her worldview.

This is where all the messy touchy-feely stuff, all the character building, the talk of internal goals, scars, and so on, comes into play.

Also, though I haven’t mentioned it (I’ve only been concentrating on the A-Story) this is where the B-Story pays off big-time.

The B-Story


The B-Story is all about—is essentially about—the protagonists inner change. There’s something she is blind to about herself (with Shrek, it was that he was lonely and needed to let people in; both literally (into his swamp) and figuratively.)

The B-Story Hooks Into The A-Story


Here, at the final All Hope Is Lost point, at the very end of this cataclysmic try-fail cycle, we need the scales to fall from the protagonist’s eyes and for her to see things in a new way.

This often leads to the protagonist discovering what I think of as the ‘good trick.’ Since she is no longer deceiving herself, she sees what was right under her nose the whole time! (Or, at least, in a bolt of inspiration thinks of the problem in a new way and devises a new plan.)

Or, perhaps, now she sees the truth about herself, and this epiphany, this revelation, heals her inner wound.

Obviously, what happens now will depend on your story. Sometimes the new plan quickly leads to the final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, sometimes not. If not, perhaps the group of adventurers needs to re-assemble—or at least the core group. Perhaps one or two of the protagonist’s allies go off on their own mini-quest. If so, these quests will be very short and the focus will still be on the protagonist and her final approach.

I’ll talk about the Final Conflict—the climax of the story—in the next post.

An Example of the All Hope Is Lost Try-Fail Cycles: Edge of Tomorrow


Spoilers ahead! If you haven’t yet watched “Edge of Tomorrow” I would advise you to stop reading now and watch it. It was, hands down, my favorite action flick of 2014. If you haven’t watched it and don’t plan to, here’s a summary of the movie.

Here are what I see as that story’s “All Hope Is Lost” sequences.

1. (Major Setback) Try --> Obstacle --> Fail 


The Major Setback occurs when Cage goes off on his own to confront the Omega (if you haven’t seen the movie, the Omega is the Big Bad and must be killed). At least, that was Cage’s plan. The obstacle was that ... surprise! ... the Omega wasn’t there. Instead of battling the Omega, Cage was ambushed by a couple of mimics who tried their best to kill him permanently. 

Cage escapes, but his failure to find the Omega knocks him and his allies back to square one. He now has no idea how he’s going to locate the Omega. And if he can’t locate the Omega he can’t kill the Omega. And if he doesn’t kill the Omega that will mean curtains for humanity. 

Things are bad.

2. New Plan --> Try --> Obstacle --> *Fail*


One of Cage’s allies tells him about a device that can be used to locate the position of the Omega. The problem is it’s in General Brigham’s office, and the general isn’t about to give it to Cage. Still, what other choice is there? Cage tries to convince the General of the truth of his story. At first it seems he has succeeded. The General gives cage the artifact, but that turns out to be a ruse and Cage and his ally must flee for their lives. While fleeing, Cage uses the device to locate the Omega. 

Unfortunately, Cage is wounded and taken to a hospital where he is given a blood transfusion. As a result, he can’t reset the day anymore. That was the only edge Cage had, that was his superpower.

Things are very bad.

3. New Plan --> Try --> !!!!!**FAIL**!!!!!


Cage comes up with a new plan, it’s the only option left. He convinces his squad to go with him to attack the Omega. After suffering heavy losses—his entire team has died—Cage swims toward the Omega intending to plant an explosive device on it. 

Unfortunately, before he can do this, a Mimic swims up behind him and thrusts one of it’s tentacles through Cage’s chest. Cage lets go of the explosive which drifts down toward the Omega, getting caught up in the thing’s gills. Still, this means nothing. Cage has failed. He didn’t arm the explosive charge before it drifted away. 

Cage has lost, finally, totally, completely. He is moments from death. The woman he loves is dead. All his allies are dead. His plans have failed. Humanity is about to be driven extinct and the Earth stripped of its resources. 

This is the All Is Lost beat. 

A moment before Cage dies he opens his hand revealing several trigger pins and we realize that he has armed the explosive, after all. Cage smiles in triumph and the next moment we see the Omega explode. Cage has won.

All Hope Is Lost: Summary


“Edge of Tomorrow” is just one example of how the All Hope Is Lost sequences were handled (though I think it’s an especially good example), but each story is different. For instance, there don’t always have to be three beats in this sequence. Also, the first beat doesn’t have to be the Major Setback. 

There is no one way of doing this, just like there’s no one right way of telling a story. (“He slept and then she slept,” is a story, though not a riveting one.) 

That’s it for today! Next time we’ll finish up this series and examine the Story Climax. Till then, happy writing, and thanks for reading.

(This blog post was first published on karenwoodward.org under the title: A Three Act Story Structure: Act Three.)

Photo credit: Original photo: "Get Off My Lawn!" by JD Hancock under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Photo altered by Karen Woodward.

Saturday, April 19

Parts of Story: A General Story Structure



Now that I've talked a bit about genre and how important it is to know what genre, and subgenre, your book falls into, I'd like to step back and look at what all genre stories have in common. What follows is a description of what I think is the most common structure for genre tales. 

A Three Act Structure


The lion's share of stories can be broken into three acts.

Act One—The Ordinary World—First Quarter


Act One is where you introduce your characters and the world they live in. As the story unfurls, readers find out more about the characters as they interact with each other as well as with the world around them, both physical and social. We see their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears, their quirks and idiosyncrasies. The most important character in all this is the hero because the story is going to revolve around his quest. That's what a story is, after all: a description of a character's pursuit of a goal.[1]

The Inciting Incident And The Call To Adventure


I'll talk more about this in the next section, but The Ordinary World of the hero is relatively static, at least in the beginning. Often, there is something deeply wrong with the hero's normal existence. The hero exists in a state of imperfection. He has reached a false local optimum. He isn't happy, and he knows he's not happy, but fear prevents him from changing; the fear that if he tries to change things will get worse. 

During the Inciting Incident something happens that changes the hero's world, a change that will, eventually, shatter his status quo. The Inciting Incident creates an imbalance, an inequality, that must be addressed. This is the problem the hero seeks to solve, the wrong he seeks to right, when he answers the Call to Adventure.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the namesake character is an ogre who wants to be left alone in his swamp. Of course, what he really wants is for people not to make up their minds about him before they meet him. He wants to forge some sort of connection with others, but he's (understandably) afraid of being rejected because it happens so often.

When Lord Farquaad exiles legions of fairytale creatures to Shrek's swamp (this is the Inciting Incident), Shrek's solitude is stripped away. This sends Shrek and Donkey off on a mission to confront Lord Farquaad and convince him to send the fairy tale creatures somewhere--anywhere--else. But Lord Farquaad has another idea. 

Lord Farquaad proposes (this is Shrek's Call to Adventure) that if Shrek conquers the fire-breathing dragon and frees Princess Fiona from her imprisonment in the castle, that he will grant Shrek's wish and clear his swamp of fairytale creatures. Shrek accepts and, in the process, falls in love with the princess. Now Shrek has another goal, to tell the princess he loves her. What prevents him from doing so is his fear of rejection. This fear is what Shrek has to overcome if he is to achieve his goal and win Fiona's hand in marriage.

The Lock In


At the end of the first act it often happens that the hero is locked into his quest. He has a moment of realization and understands that if he takes up the quest he must leave his ordinary world behind. It is important that the hero understand the stakes involved and, despite the dismal odds of success, choose to take up the quest knowing that, if he does, there is no going back.

I've just talked about the movie Shrek. When Lord Farquaad gives Shrek his Call to Adventure, Shrek has a choice: accept or not. But archers perch atop the walls ready to shoot him dead if he refuses. After that, Shrek is locked in to the quest. 

In Star Wars when Luke finds his aunt and uncle dead, massacred by storm troopers, he understands there is no going back. His ordinary world is gone. 

I think the most obvious case of the lock in is The Matrix. At the end of Act One Morpheus gives Neo a choice: take the red pill or the blue bill. The red pill will change Neo's entire world and will show him the truth he has always searched for. The blue pill will restore the status quo of the Ordinary World. His choice is irreversible.

Act Two—The Special World—The Middle Half


At the end of Act One the hero answers the Call to Adventure and crosses the threshold into the Special World. Here everything is different, strange, reversed. The hero's strength (usually characters have at least one strength) isn't going to serve him as well here, perhaps it even puts him at a disadvantage. 

In the first part of Act Two the hero goes through a series of Tests And Trials, most of which he fails, and he makes new acquaintances, both Allies And Enemies. It is also here at around the beginning of Act Two that the B-story starts. Some of those the hero meets will become his staunch allies and will join his quest while others will become his enemies. This time of testing is also a time of Fun And Games. In a movie this is where you often have a feel-good montage.  

The first half of Act Two often contains a moment of bonding. If there is a romance, the hero and his love interest may deepen their relationship. After all, the hero is about to confront the antagonist and, perhaps, pay with his life. If there is no romance, the story will likely still contain a moment of bonding, a pause, a girding of the loins, as well as a review of the stakes. What will happen if the hero loses? If he wins? Who will it effect? What will be the cost? What will be the reward? 

The Midpoint


Finally, the moment of confrontation has arrived. The Ordeal has begun. Since we know the stakes of the battle, we watch anxiously as the hero risks everything to defeat his foe. The confrontation between the hero and his nemesis can be a physical one but it needn't be. Sometimes they are each going after the same item, the same treasure. In the movie Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy loses the ark to Dr. René Belloq, his nemesis. In Star Wars Luke discovers the Death Star.

Regardless of whether a physical confrontation occurs, the midpoint represents a sea change in the story. Where before the hero was passive, now he is active. This doesn't occur all at once, but it marks the change. Often this change occurs because the hero receives information. This information could be about the antagonist. It could also be about the nature of the Special World and the Antagonist's--as well as the hero's--place in it. 

After the confrontation at the midpoint the stakes of the battle get cashed out. If the hero is successful, he will get a reward. If the hero isn't successful then usually this is just the beginning of the grief that rains down upon him and those he cares about. Often, if the hero fails at the midpoint he will also fail at the climax of the story. Similarly, if the hero wins at the midpoint he will often win at the climax.

Regardless of whether the hero wins at the midpoint, the stakes go up. Way up. The hero hasn't resolved the conflict, he has increased it. I can't stress this enough. Where before it was only the hero's life at stake now it is also the lives of the hero's allies. Perhaps, by the time we reach the climax, even the lives of his loved ones back home (as well as, perhaps, the world or even the entire galaxy) will lie in the balance. 

Another important change that occurs around the midpoint is that now it's not just the villain who is pushing the events, driving them, it is also the hero. You even see this in stories that have a non-traditional structure, stories such as The Usual Suspects.

Toward the end of Act Two matters have radically changed, and for the worse. There is often a Major Setback, quickly followed by an All Hope Is Lost moment. As the name implies, something occurs that transforms the hero's world, or his view of it, and brings him to his lowest point.

For instance, in the movie Shrek the Major Setback comes when he overhears Princess Fiona talking with Donkey. Shrek misunderstands who Fiona was talking about and jumps to the mistaken conclusion that Fiona thinks he is ugly and unlovable. Since he was working up the courage to tell Fiona he loved her, this revelation comes as quite a blow.

The All Hope Is Lost moment comes shortly after when Shrek is cruel to Donkey. Of course we, the audience, know Shrek is acting as he is because he mistakenly believes Donkey was talking against him. Shrek tells Donkey to go away, that he isn't welcome in his swamp again, ever! This is Shrek's lowest point. As a result of his own actions, Shrek has become estranged from the two people who care about him most.

Act Three—The Return Home—Last Quarter


After the All Is Lost moment the B-story is usually resolved. As a result, an important change occurs in the hero and he is able to resolve his inner conflict. As a result, the hero is able to figure out how to turn matters around and make one last desperate try to achieve his goal. 

 I don't mean a superhuman ability--though, depending on the kind of story this is, it could be. But whatever it is, the ground must have been laid for it, otherwise it would be a cheat. Perhaps the hero is now, finally, able to think clearly. Perhaps the hero understands how other people feel (he lacked empathy), or perhaps he had to release a certain way of thinking that was holding him back.

Whatever the case, something fundamental within the hero changes and, as a result, he is able to defeat the villain and achieve his goal. (I should mention, though, that not all heroes have an internal conflict. If this is the case, the hero can draw upon some characteristic that defines him such as his strength or his knowledge. Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good example of a hero without any real internal conflict.)

One way of describing this point in a story, this beat, is that the scales drop from the hero's eyes. He thought he knew how things were, but he didn't. To use Shrek as an example again, the ogre thought he knew how the Princess and Donkey felt about him, but he didn't. He was dead wrong. After the All Hope Is Lost point Donkey comes to Shrek and tells him Fiona wasn't calling him ugly and unlovable. Donkey doesn't tell Shrek she was describing herself because that's not his secret to tell. This is when the proverbial scales fall from Shrek's eyes and he realizes he acted like an idiot. Shrek decides to do what he should have done long before, he decides to risk rejection and ridicule and tell Princess Fiona he loves her.

Here's another example. At the end of The Matrix Neo realizes he's The One, and that he loves Trinity. At that moment the scales drop from his eyes; he sees what he had been blind to. He finally understands and this realization transforms him. It allows him to do something he wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. Neo triumphs over The Matrix and becomes The One. 
I'm not suggesting that this life-transforming moment of self-realization occurs at the end of every story. It doesn't. But it happens often enough that I wanted to mention it. 

But, of course, the hero doesn't have to win. Sometimes the revelation comes, but too late. Sometimes the revelation doesn't come at all.

Aftermath


In the Aftermath, or Wrap Up, the audience sees the effects of the hero's efforts. How did the hero's Ordinary World change as a result of his adventure? What was his reward? Or, if he failed, what was the cost of his failure? Tie up loose ends.

Caveat


I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that there's only one story structure. As Chuck Wendig says, every story has a structure and there are as many story structures as there are stories. No one can look at the structure of a story and say, "That's wrong!" just because it's different.

The structure I've talked about, above, is one I've been thinking about and working on for a while now. I think that it describes over 90% of the stories I've read, listened to, or watched; or at least parts of it do. That's because it looks at a story abstractly. It is a web of generalizations and so is almost guaranteed to get something right! 

I like using story structures. Often, if I feel that something is wrong with a story but I just can't put my finger on it, I go back to basics and study various story structures in an attempt to puzzle out what the problem is. I think that's the bottom line. If something helps you, use it, if it doesn't, ignore it. Let your own sense of what is right for you be the bottom line.

Links/References


1. Often stories have more than one main character. In these cases there is, still, often, one character whose arc is predominant. Where this isn't the case then I look at the story as really a combination of many stories that are held together by a common thread such as a person or theme.

Also, while I usually use the term "protagonist" to describe the main character of a story here the word "hero" seems more appropriate.

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.