Showing posts with label four act structure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label four act structure. Show all posts

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.

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:

REALM 1


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.

REALM 2


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.

REALM 4


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.

NOTES ON THE ACTS.


- 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).

Cheers!

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