Rinse & Repeat – The Four Act Novel Structure

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently I reached the midpoint in the first draft of Divided Elements (Book 2). As anyone who has read my blog would know, I am not a fan of drafting ‘story middles’. After smashing through 5000-word weeks while drafting the first act, I watched with dismay as my production levels dropped and my indecision set in.

So, I did what I always do – I went back and reviewed my story structure. 

Like most advice on novel plotting, my own story structure model is great for guiding a writer through the first and final act – the breakdown in structure is clear and detailed and logical. But looking at the middle acts and it all breaks down. The gaps between the single turning point (the Midpoint) stretch for too long and the detail of what is required is reduced to ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’. Not very helpful, is it?

I’m not alone in that department, though. Even the legendary Save the Cat (Snyder) only gives us ‘B Story’, ‘Fun and Games’, and ‘Bad Guys Close In’. Story Engineering (Brooks) makes it even simpler, ‘Reaction’ and ‘Attack’.

Looking back on my plot outline, I knew immediately that the ambiguity around my story middle was the issue. Whereas all the other acts had detailed notes and clear plot points, Act 2A and Act 2B were notated with bare, broad-brushed statements – narrative equivalents of ‘Reaction’ and ‘Attack’.

I needed more detailed advice and guidance, so I started to analyse movies to find a common structural breakdown (I tend to find movies easier and quicker to analyse…). And what I discovered was surprising.

All story structure can be broken down into four acts. And those four acts essentially follow the same structure consisting of five elements. 

To draft this story I didn’t need to plot five turning points and the gaps in between, I just needed to write the first act four times.

“What??” I hear you say.
Stay with me…

The Rinse & Repeat Story Structure

So, this is my new and improved model of story structure, which borrows heavily from the old model but re-imagines it from a completely new perspective:

  • There are four acts: Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2b and Act 3
  • The main story elements still apply – the inciting incident, the plot points (or doorways), the pinch points, the midpoint, the dark night of the soul, the final battle, the denouement – they’re all still there, but they’re framed differently.
  • There are five elements to each act – i) Status Quo, ii) Incident, iii) Initial Response, iv) Escalation -/+, and v) Decision
  • Each act deals with these elements in slightly different ways

The Matrix - Smith Clones

And this is how it plays out when plotting a novel:

Act 1 – NO ACTION or WRONG ACTION | Protagonist Mission: Maintain 

  • Status Quo – The Normal World – Showing the current state of play and hinting at why it shouldn’t (or can’t) continue on the same trajectory…
    • Introduction to protagonist in a characteristic moment that hints at their strengths, their ‘armour’ (what they draw comfort, protection, stability and strength from), and their critical weakness (their ‘fatal flaw’, ‘wound’, ‘misbelief’)
    • Introduction to the story world or environment that hints at its dark underbelly, vulnerability or weakness
    • Early indications, emerging issues and/or opportunities for a potential incident
  • Incident – The ‘Inciting Incident’ – the incident that threatens the status quo or (as is often the case in sequels) exacerbates it, and that calls the protagonist to action
  • Initial Response – Lack of engagement due to avoidance, resistance, ignorance, inability or error
  • Escalation -/+ – Increased Threat (the negative) followed by the Removal of the Obstacle to Action or emergence of a New Incentive for Engagement (the positive).
  • Decision – ‘Plot Point 1’ –
    • Conscious decision to engage, and
    • Articulating the goal or desire that will drive the protagonist forward from this point on.

Act 2A – ACTION WITHOUT STRATEGY | Protagonist Mission: Survive

  • Status Quo – The New World – Showing the Protagonist challenged by and reacting to the new world they find themselves in
    • Pandora’s Box – Removing the obstacle to action has introduced a whole raft of other obstacles to the protagonist goal
      • Introduction to other players – who assist, distract, antagonise, mentor…
      • Introduction of subplots – to deal with the various new obstacles presented
    • ‘Promise of the Premise’ – Let’s get tropey! – this is what Snyder calls the ‘Fun and Games’, it’s all the stuff you imagine when you hear ‘alien caper film’ or ‘time-travel romance novel’.
  • Incident – ‘Pinch Point 1’ – Hints at the true nature of the threat encountered in Act 1 and raises the level of tension and expectation. Requires a ‘boosted’ effort by the protagonist – i.e. deciding to engage isn’t enough; they need to interact with the threat (note: this is unlikely to be the true antagonist at this stage and more likely to be a manifestation or cronies or similar…)
  • Initial Response – Failed attempts. This is the heart of ‘all action, no thinking’. Everything is reactive, incoherent, unorganised – either because the protagonist and co are acting in the heat of the moment or because they don’t yet have what they need (information, resources, expertise, collaboration, etc) to develop a strategy. In this part of the story, the protagonist is still approaching the new problem the way they would in the old world.
  • Escalation -/+ – Threat of overall failure (the negative) – This needs to be HIGH STAKES! In the face of total failure, the protagonist can not have the option to just walk away. “Failure is not an option!” Immediately followed by a new understanding, revelation, or insight (the positive) that changes everything the protagonist and/or the reader knew (also the ‘Midpoint’)
  • Decision – To take on the antagonist – To deal with the real problem, not just its manifestation.

Act 2B – STRATEGY WITHOUT CHANGE | Protagonist Mission – Win

  • Status Quo – New Imperative – the frenetic action of a new plan coming together. Anticipation, excitement, urgency. Preparation and initial implementation/roll-out.
  • Incident – ‘Pinch Point 2’ – Highlights the underestimated strength of the antagonist and the continued weakness of the protagonist. Sets tone of menace even though the plan seems to be going swimmingly.
  • Initial Response – Continued implementation of the plan, building towards confrontation with antagonist, stringing together small wins, meeting the interim milestones needed for the plan to ultimately be successful. Building towards the False Victory. (This is the opposite of the Initial Response in Act 2A)
  • Escalation -/+ – The plan fails in the worst possible way and all seems lost (the negative) (also the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’). Immediately followed by a reprieve – an indication that success can be obtained, but that it will require facing impossible odds and taking extreme risks.
  • Decision – ‘Plot Point 2’ – The possibility of success is worth the risk / the threat of failure demands that every chance of success is pursued. The greater good takes precedence over personal safety.

Act 3 – CHANGE AND TRANSFORMATION | Protagonist Mission: Resolve

  • Status Quo – Final preparation. Coming to terms with what is being risked. Shedding the ‘armour’ and confronting the ‘misbelief’.
  • Incident – ‘Final Battle’ – Confronting the antagonist in the ultimate battle – a zero sum game – only one can survive.
  • Initial Response – The protagonist stumbles. This is the moment in The Karate Kid when Johnny sweeps the leg, or the moment in Rocky when he’s down for the count, just before the music builds and he lurches himself into one final effort.
  • Escalation -/+ – Threat of overall failure is palpable (the negative), immediately followed by new and extreme resolve (the positive).
  • Decision – The last ditch effort. All-in.

The Decision of Act 3 doesn’t lead into a new act, instead it progresses to:

  • Outcome – the Protagonist defeats the Antagonist (and either survives, or dies (literally or metaphorically) in the process)
  • Impact – the ‘Denouement’ – the resolution of the story. The impact of defeating the Antagonist. The ‘true’ goal of the protagonist is achieved – the intangible, bigger picture, ‘thematic’ goal (e.g. happiness, closure, forgiveness, etc)

 

I hope this helps you with your novel drafting and editing as much as it helped me. Can you see this structure playing out in your own book or favourite movies? Does it work? Let me know in the comments!

Rinse & Repeat – The Four Act Novel Structure