Three Acts or Four?

Three acts or four?Most movies, TV shows and plays break down into the classic three-act structure. There’s a debate about books, however; should you plot using three acts or four?

Before we jump to a conclusion, lets look at a four-act structure. Borrowed from Rachelle Ramirez at pages and platforms, this is adapted from a crime/thriller framework.

The Four-act Structure

The four-act structure goes like this:

Beginning Hook (Act 1):

  • Introduce the protagonist’s ordinary world.
  • Demonstrate their fear or flaw.
  • Kick-start the inciting incident that propels them out of the ordinary world
  • Introduce interesting supporting characters.
  • Demonstrate what the protagonist wants and needs.
  • Make the stakes clear.

Middle Build A (Act 2):

  • Put clues, red herrings, and obstacles between the protagonist and their goal.
  • Make sure the obstacles escalate.
  • Create a midpoint shift: the protagonist goes from reactive to proactive, changes tactics.

Middle Build B (Act 3):

  • Continue to escalate the complications and raise the stakes.
  • Remove the protagonist’s hope of restoring balance in an all-is-lost moment.

Ending Payoff (Act 4):

  • Write a climax: protagonist confronts antagonist.
  • Show the protagonist facing their fear or flaw.
  • Show the protagonist outwitting the antagonist (+)
    OR the antagonist outwitting the protagonist (-).
  • Create a resolution showing balance restored, or continued injustice or chaos.

The Big Middle Build

Dramatically this allows you to have a story arc for each act that ends on a satisfying dramatic moment. What’s the difference between a three- and a four-act structure? Aside from selling drinks and ice creams in the intermission between acts two and three, possibly not  much. A lot of writing advice gives the breakdown of a three-act structure as 25% / 50% / 25%. The middle build is the longest section containing all those tasks, obstacles and set-backs. Not forgetting your training montage. Doesn’t that look like acts two and three are taken together?

Ultimately, your chapters and scenes require the structure and arcs to provide the payoff to each stage of the story. This is the more important focus for structure in fiction.  If you’re following the Hero’s Journey framework, that might mean five, seven, seventeen or some other derived number of plot points. Unless you intend to label your acts with a title page, the reader won’t necessarily know which structure you’re using.

This is why I’ve adopted the twenty-four chapter, three-act structure from Derek Murphy’s Plot Dot paper. The actual number  of chapters may change after editing the first draft, but three acts is the natural structure for all three books in the series. RC