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

Stuck in the middle: Fighting mediocrity with strong plotting

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently I hit the middle of my novel and discovered that it was everything everyone said it would be – brutal, intimidating, a bog of viscosity to rival the pitch drop. You get the idea. Yes, the middle of a novel can be rough – thankfully, there are hundreds of helpful articles and blog posts out there to give advice or just share the pain. Most of them advocate a common panacea – ‘structure’.

I’m a big fan of structuring novels (well, I am now). Gus the plumber opened my eyes up to the simple effectiveness of building a novel from a logline through to a detailed three act summary and the Script Lab helped me to further develop my novel’s structure with the eight sequence synopsis.

I saw these tools as my very own Higgs Bosons – allowing the small seed of my novel idea to gain mass as it waded through each of the higher stages of evolution.  I have separate documents in the research folder of my Elementals scrivener file that document the development of my novel from a logline to a three-sentence summary, to a three-paragraph summary and to an eight-sequence synopsis. I have research documents that articulate the major plot development points of movies and books that have helped me develop a deeper understanding of these structural elements.

Basically, when it came to structure, I thought I had it sorted. But then the middle struck and my awesome structure wasn’t enough to help. I was like Artax in the swamp of sorrow. I had hit the saggy, mushy middle and it was dragging me and my novel down. As Chuck Wendig sagely notes:

The beginning’s easy because it’s like — BOOM, some shit just happened. The ending’s easy because — POW, all the shit that happened just lead to this. The middle is where it gets all gooshy, like wet bread or a sloppy pile of viscera.

Gross, right? That was my middle. Even though I had the basic structure, my middle needed more support than my beginning and end. It needed more detail. Deciding on that detail was a major challenge.

 

Plotting the Second Act – Planning your Road Trip

Plotting a second act is like deciding your route on an epic road trip. You know where you’re starting from and you know where you want to end up. If you have a decent structure, you also know some major pit-stops along the way (the midpoint and lowest point). But even with those basics decided, there are a multitude of routes you can take. Do you go the most direct? The fastest? The most scenic? Do you make sure you pass through all the towns with funky art galleries and quirky historical icons? Do you throw in a random “let’s check out Hobart, even though its nowhere near our general route, because let’s face it – it would be awesome and we’re never heading in this general direction ever again’?

With a road trip, you make these decisions based on non-negotiable and ideal criteria – time, budget, aversion to sea/air travel, penchant for art/history, etc. And that is what was missing from my middle’s plot development and structure – the CRITERIA.

So, what criteria do you need to set for your middle? For me, the answer is found within a solid understanding of your protagonist. What does she need to learn, discover, obtain, let go of, in order to react/respond to a) the midpoint and b) the lowest point, the way you need her to?

For instance, your story may be about a intergalactic guitarist who slays aliens with the wicked chords she strangles from her obsidian axe. The inciting incident is her discovery of a mega-alien that is seemingly immune to her cool, yet deadly, tunes. The first plot point comes when the mega-alien, annoyed at our protagonist and her black guitar, kidnaps her boyfriend. Now the music warrior protag must find a way to defeat this mega alien. As a feel-good novel about how cool music solves all problems, we know our protag will eventually defeat the alien and rescue her boyfriend. The mid-point comes when our hero realises that it is not a perfect technique that will do the ultimate damage, but a riff of unparalleled uniqueness and awesomeness. The lowest point will come when her guitar is smashed under the alien’s foot before she gets a chance to play her riff.

The mid-point sets up a situation where the protagonist needs to LEARN or DISCOVER the true solution to defeating the alien. The lowest point sets up the situation where the protagonist needs to DEVELOP her original musical voice that goes beyond her guitar-playing. Knowing what our hero needs, we can now start plotting out the situations and encounters and near-misses and glimmers of hope that will eventually give her what she needs: guitar battles with the mega-alien’s minions; conscription into a league of awesome guitar player warriors; an encounter with a grumpy, retired guitar warrior; an appreciation for the obscure and alternative musical elements of her world, etc, etc.

That’s what the middle is all about – knowing what the protagonists needs and watching her struggle and fail and almost obtain it – each time learning something or gaining something or developing in some way that will ultimately reward her.

I love thinking about the middle in this way because it also allows me to create an environment in which the bond between my reader and my protagonist will deepen. Making the events of the midpoint and lowest point all the more powerful, poignant, gut-wrenching and all sorts of other high-charged emotions.

Now to writing it… Wish me luck!

 

(Featured Image courtesy of id-iom, via Flickr Creative Commons)

Stuck in the middle: Fighting mediocrity with strong plotting