It's Not Really Three Acts

Ben Wilson describes why it's a four-act structure.

Category: writing

label_outline tag Plot Analysis

Authors are told in countless novel writing books that there are three acts. They are told to add the midpoint to avoid the sagging middle of Act 2, because the act is twice as big as others. In reality, it’s not really three acts in the first place. It’s Four.

The three-act structure harkens back to Aristotle and reflects Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis. The second act is always twice as large as the first and last acts. This leads to various contortions to make the second act look like a second act, though in fact it is sub-divided by the midpoint. When you make that division, you end up with four acts. In his seminal book Save the Cat, the late Blake Snyder resorts to labeling the acts: Act I, Act IIa, Act IIb, Act III. Why not just label them: Act I, Act II, Act III, Act IV? Does it make a difference to the structure? No. Does it add value? It gives the author the chance to view each act in light of its distinct goals: Setup, Fun & Games, Enemies Close In and Finale; to use Mr. Snyder’s headings.

Act 1 (Setup) gives us a glimpse at the hero’s native element with his original thought process. It also gives us the theme, the question that challenges his default attitude. The catalyst that forces him to change is introduced as well. The rest of the act debates whether he should accept the challenge…commit to the story goal.

Act 2 (Fun & Games) the hero’s initial successes applying his standard solution. The hero gets what he wants, but not what he needs. This leads to a false victory at the end of Act 2 (midpoint for you Three Act-ers)

Act 3 (Enemies Close) forces the hero to realize his real failure. A series of setbacks beat him down to the point where he will want to change. At the end of this act, he has committed to the final confrontation…challenging the nemesis problem with his new perspective. He may not have completely bought into the theme’s consequence, but he sees failure as no longer an option.

Act 4 (Finale) is all about the hero marshaling the resources, external and internal, to succeed in the final confrontation. He meets a devastating setback. Rather than accept defeat, he accepts the theme’s consequence and digs down deep. With his renewed understanding and new source of strength, he defeats the nemesis. This results in a new status quo that’s ripe for attack in the sequel.

Readers only care about a well-told story. The number of acts are relevant only to the artist. I submit that four acts makes more sense than three. What do you think?

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Photo Credit: Three Mongeese (Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr under BY-ND.)