A story is not like real life. Very often, real life feels like it has no direction. Lots of random stuff happens, and we get through it, or we don’t. We may have plans, but they usually don’t work out. Or they do work out, but then we discover we didn’t want what we thought we did. That’s real life.
A story is different. In a story, your lead character has direction. They don’t know it right away, but they soon figure it out. Then the story is about whether they get where they’re trying to go. They run into roadblocks, and at first, they have no idea how to tackle them. But they learn, and pretty soon they have new skills that allow them to get over, under, around, or through the roadblocks. After working the problem for a while, they reach a do-or-die situation where they have to apply all their new skills to get where they wanted to go. In the end, they either get there, or they fail trying, or they get somewhere else that turns out to be where they really wanted to go but didn’t realize it.
Four Act Structure
All of the above has a name: the famous “Four-Act Structure.” It also has another name: the equally famous “Three-Act Structure.” These are secretly the same thing, but they have two names because writers are not great at math. In the Three-Act Structure, the middle Act is nothing more nor less than the middle two Acts in the Four-Act Structure. So they’re the same.
Here are the four components of the Four-Act Structure:
- The lead character figures out where they want to go in the story. At the very end of Act 1, the lead character commits to getting there, whatever the cost.
- The lead character hits roadblocks and fails repeatedly to get past them using the wrong methods. At the very end of Act 2, the lead character realizes that they’ve been doing it wrong up till now, and sees there’s a better way, and commits to doing it right from now on.
- The lead character hits more roadblocks and now begins to have some success getting past them. The lead character realizes that none of these roadblocks are the root problem to be solved. At the very end of Act 3, the lead character commits to attacking the root problem.
- The lead character attacks the root problem using their newly acquired skills and either succeeds or fails. If they succeed, it’s because they deserved it. If they fail, it’s because they deserved it. They may fail at their original goal, but succeed at some other, better goal. If this happens, it’s because the lead character deserved it.
But That’s Not How Real Life Works!
No, real life doesn’t work out that way, most of the time. Your reader doesn’t want your story to be “just like real life.”
Your reader wants your story to be “the way real life would be if there was justice in the universe.” That’s why your story should always end with the lead character getting what they deserve. That’s justice, whether your lead character succeeds or fails.
Stories are about our longing for justice in an apparently unjust universe. Let’s be clear that we have no idea if the universe is actually just or not. It doesn’t look just. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and sometimes good things happen to bad people. But nobody wants that, except bad people. Decent people wish the universe were just, and they desperately hope it will turn out to be just in the end.
And that’s why your reader wants to see your story end with justice for your lead character. Nothing can erase the desire for justice from your reader. You can break a lot of rules in your fiction writing, but here is one I strongly urge you to never break:
Always give your lead character what they deserve in the end.