Structure: Why Four Acts Instead Of Three

If you read Randy Ingermanson’s blog and e-zine like I do, then you’re likely very familiar with the 3-acts/3-disasters structure. For those who don’t follow Randy, you can read his fantastic explanation of this structure (including examples) in his e-zine from January 2006. If you want to read more from Randy, check out his e-zine archive.

And for those of you who don’t feel like reading anything (and you call yourself a writer?), I’ll paraphrase the structure very briefly:

  • Act One–>
    • Disaster One–>
  • Act Two part one–>
    • Disaster Two–>
  • Act Two part two–>
    • Disaster Three–>
  • Act Three.

Now if you’re anything like me, you’re going to wonder why on Earth there are three acts when most clearly there needs to be four. I know the three acts fits nicely with the whole “beginning, middle, end” thing, but I don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong here — I am not criticizing Randy one bit. In fact, I’m doing just the opposite. I’m taking his advice, which I find to be terrific, and modifying so it makes more sense to me.

Do you remember this image from middle school?

Plot... Mountain?

Even this suggests having four acts.

By the three act structure, the beginning (act one) and end (act three) are about the same size. The middle (act two) is twice the size of that, or roughly the size of both beginning and end put together. There is a disaster separating the beginning from middle, a second disaster in the middle of the middle, and a third disaster separating the middle from the end.

To me, that sounds a little confusing.

By the same principle, but using four acts instead of three, the story is separated into equal quarters. Each quarter is separated by a disaster (meaning three disasters). Which causes me to create this lovely diagram:

Four Act Structure

It is lovely, right?

This means I take Randy’s “First Part of Middle” from his examples and make it my Act Two, while his “Second Part of Middle” becomes my Act Three (and then his act three is my Act Four). Therefore, disaster 2 separates two acts just like the other disasters do, as opposed to chopping the middle in half. That’s it. There are no other changes whatsoever.

As it turns out, God-Chosen‘s plot fits very well into four quarters. But perhaps you prefer the 3-act structure, or something else entirely. In the end, it’s whatever works best for you, and figuring that out is a good portion of the battle.

What does work best for you? Do you have a specific structure you swear by? Or do you change things up depending on what best suits your story?


About Squishy

Writer, dancer, gamer, and admirer of all that is beautiful.

Posted on September 21, 2010, in Ishy Writes! and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This structure as you describe it does seem to comprise of 4 acts. Even Randy seems to agree as well. See how he describes the different parts of a story as quarters:

    “Simple. The Three Disaster Structure says that you have
    three MAJOR disasters in your story and they are
    equally spaced. So Disaster 1 comes at the end of the
    first quarter. Disaster 2 comes right at half-time.
    Disaster 3 comes at the end of the third quarter.”

    Me personally, I don’t think too much about structure, although maybe I should, if I want to take my writing further. However, I did read a very interesting book by Christopher Booker last year called the Seven Basic Plots. I may not agree with some of this opinions, but it is a wonderfully researched and thought-provoking book and I find his five stages to be quite handy:

    * The Anticipation Stage
    * The Dream Stage
    * The Frustration Stage
    * The Nightmare Stage
    * The ‘Resolution’ Stage

    I suspect that both these structures actually have many similarities, although I need to delve a bit more into the three-act structure. And I guess it’s time to borrow the Seven Basic Plots again from tje library and reread it.

    • Those five stages sound quite interesting, I’ll have to see what I can research on them.

      Honestly , the structure is a helper more than anything else. The only real structure you “need” (rules are made to be broken, right?) is to have characters with a goal, and a conflict that has an end. If you don’t have that, there isn’t much of a story. I love structuring because I love organizing.

      Though I might follow suit and see if my library has Seven Basic Plots.

  2. This five stages you mention fits the three disaster structure. I haven’t read the book but I can make a quess:
    In the anticipation stage the protaganist forms his goal (“disaster” one). In the dreamstage he get training, works up his plan, beat obstacles. In the frustation stage it all falls apart. Or he get what he want but discovers it isn’t what he really wants. And now he is in deep shit (disaster two). In the nightmare stage its gets worse and he need to work obstacles, come up with a new plan. It get worse untill it gets to the boiling point (disaster three). De resolution stage is the final confrontation. It is all the same but with different names the way I see it. When I talk about disaster you can also call it plotpoints, of changes in the story.

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