Four Act Structure Or Three?

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, thanks to a very long research trip to Israel this summer, where I worked on a couple of archaeological digs and generally ignored all my responsibilities. After getting home, I’ve been catching up for what seems like months. In fact, it HAS been months.

Kaitlyn posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,
I’ve been struggling with a particular plot line for quite some time and I had a crazy idea about adding a fourth act to the structure to make things flow more smoothly. I have always been committed to the three act structure prior to this particular dilemma and I was interested to find a fairly significant number of writers who have shared articles about a four act structure and the idea of splitting the second act in two parts.
Naturally I wondered, what would Randy think about this?
Can you share some thoughts?
Thanks!
Kaitlyn

Randy sez: The second act of the Three Act Structure naturally splits into two halves. The dividing line between them comes at just about the exact midpoint of the story.

James Scott Bell calls this “the midpoint moment” in his recent book Write Your Novel From the Middle. It’s a good book, highly recommended.

Stan Williams has a book called The Moral Premise, in which the midpoint of the story is the point where the protagonist stops working from a false moral premise and starts working from a true moral premise. This is also a good book, well worth reading.

In my book How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method I spend a whole chapter talking about this midpoint of the story. (Chapter 9, “Your Second Disaster and Your Moral Premise.”) And of course this chapter comes at the midpoint of the story of Goldilocks, who is trying to write a novel. And of course Goldilocks has a crisis that forces her to stop working from a false moral premise and start working from a true one. Very meta.

In my mind, it’s just a matter of convention whether you say your story has three acts or four. So far as I can tell, in the Three Act Structure, the second act is just Acts 2 and 3 of the Four Act Structure.

So to my way of thinking, it’s not all that important what you call these large pieces of your story. What matters is how well you execute them. Which means how well you give your reader a Powerful Emotional Experience.

Do that, and your reader won’t care what you called your story structure.

Have fun!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

6 Comments

  1. Patricia Bradley October 29, 2015 at 9:00 am #

    Great post! And I just wanted you to know that I use How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method all the time and even reference it in my workshops. It’s a great way to show how to write a novel.
    Thank you!

  2. Karen October 29, 2015 at 9:51 am #

    I went onto Amazon and read the sample text of Bell’s book. It reads like Randy wrote what I was reading, not Jim. Was it a collaboration? Just wondering.

    • Randy Ingermanson October 29, 2015 at 10:08 am #

      Randy sez: No, Jim’s book is not a collaboration with me. However, Jim is a long-time friend of mine and we do tend to think a bit alike.

  3. Sakura October 29, 2015 at 10:48 am #

    Thanks for the post. A very good read! 🙂

  4. Larry Brooks October 29, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    In all three of my bestselling writing books, and on my website, I describe and work with a four-part structure, which align exactly with what Randy describes here. To my knowledge I was the first to label these as four discrete parts, since the so-called Act 2 actually not only splits into two parts, but splits into two narrative contexts as well.

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