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

SWOT your Antagonist: Driving the middle of your story with well-rounded characters

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Ah, ‘the middle’ – bemoaned the world over. Middle child syndrome causing siblings to feel overlooked and resentful; middle of the road thrown out in conversations to denote something boring and unoriginal; middle sections tortured by never-ending diets and exercise regimes. Even the adjective – middling – is a disaster, sending otherwise attractive nouns (like income, skill and appeal) into mediocrity.

I’m at that stage in my WIP where I am revising, fleshing-out and drafting my novel’s middle. The occasional euphoria at seeing that mandarin/sunrise orange of my Scrivener progress bar is always subject to the unease about the expectations of a great middle. Recently, I blogged about how I’ve discovered a range of business tools and techniques that are assisting me to tackle the challenge of writing a great middle – from triple-loop learning to gap analysis. Today I want to talk about SWOT analysis.

The common culprit behind many writing problems is a distinct lack of conflict. For problematic middles, poor or non-existent conflict is a killer. When you consider that the first plot point is the transition from the set-up of conflict in your first act to the realisation and consequences of that conflict in the second act, the importance of infusing well-developed and attention-grabbing conflict into your story’s middle is a no-brainer.

The easiest way to generate conflict in your book is to delegate it to your antagonist. Often, as authors, we are so caught up in the plight of our protagonists that we place too much a burden on them to carry the story for the entire novel. Middles are a great opportunity to give our protagonists a break and let the antagonists carry the story for a bit. In order to ensure our antagonists’ shoulders are broad enough to carry the load, we need to build them up. Developed, well-rounded and authentic characters are critical for generating solid conflict and a great technique for writing these characters is to put them through a SWOT analysis.


SWOT Analysis

SWOT analysis is a business analysis technique, which, despite some debate about its ongoing relevance in the business world, still offers useful application in the business of fiction writing and character development.

SWOT analysis comprises the identification, discussion and evaluation of an entity’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats – hence the acronym. Implicit in these terms is the potential for all sorts of conflict and tension – on an internal and an external level.

SWOT Analysis-Character Development-Internal and External Conflict
Generating internal and external conflict with SWOT Analysis

As indicated by the graphic above, STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES evaluate the characteristics internal to the character (in this case the antagonist), whereas OPPORTUNITIES and THREATS articulate the circumstances external to the character. Let’s look at each one in turn.

S is for STRENGTH

Strengths are the advantages an antagonist carries with them into the battle against the protagonist. Like greatness, some antagonists are born with their strength, others achieve their strength and others have their strength thrust upon them. Strengths can be skills, attitudes, knowledge, superpowers or positions of authority. Moby Dick was born with his ferocity, strength and size in Melville’s classic, whereas X-man Magneto had his ability to manipulate metals thrust upon him at an age of manifestation. Misery’s Annie Wilkes achieved her physical dominance over Paul Sheldon due to his misfortunate accident, whereas Fahrenheit 451’s Captain Beatty worked his way up to the position of Fire Chief.

Developing or intensifying your antagonist’s strengths will help to further your story’s tension and conflict. 

W is for WEAKNESS

Weaknesses are the vulnerabilities in our antagonists’ armour. Sometimes the weakness can be a a less-than-concrete commitment to the cause – e.g. an antagonist that ends up falling in love with the protagonist or an antagonist that is thrust into a family feud but has no direct, personal cause in it. Other times the weakness can be time-limited -e.g. a storm that cannot go on forever, or a superpower that can only be used for a period of time, beyond which the antagonist is severely exhausted. Weaknesses can be physical flaws or intellectual deficiencies, emotional connections (or disconnections) or problematic attitudes  (e.g. over-inflated egos, delusions, misperceptions).

Exposing and testing your antagonist’s weaknesses will bolster hopes for an eventual protagonist win.

O is for OPPORTUNITY

Opportunities are the events and circumstances that are generated external to your antagonist and often beyond your antagonist’s control – A corrupt official that allows your antagonist the opportunity to get fraudulently elected; a once-in-a-hundred-year storm that provides the conditions for advantageous genetic mutation; the arrival of an exotic stranger that allows the antagonist to cast suspicion away from themselves; a painful rejection that allows the inner antagonist to question the protagonist’s hopes and dreams. Opportunities are not borne of the character, but antagonists can catalyse or facilitate them (by nudging a character here, or manipulating a circumstance there) and will almost always capitalise on them.

Giving your antagonist the means to capitalise on opportunity will help drive action, tension and conflict. 

T is for THREAT

Threats are the events and circumstances generated by external entities that, if realised, will undermine your antagonist and possibly exacerbate their weaknesses or mitigate the advantages of their strengths. The most obvious threat to an antagonist is the developing strength and advantageous opportunities of your protagonist, but there are other, more creative, threats to consider. Distractions can offer viable threats to your antagonist – in much the same way as putting out multiple spot fires can take its toll on the ability to fight a firestorm. Threats can also come from the inside – a minion who dreams of a coup d’etat or a corrupt official who is willing to be bought by the highest bidder.

Plaguing your antagonist with a range of threats not only helps out the protagonist, but also gives you the opportunity to craft a story of two sides on the foundation of two fully-realised main characters. 

How does your antagonist  shape up after a SWOT analysis? 

SWOT your Antagonist: Driving the middle of your story with well-rounded characters