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!

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Rinse & Repeat – The Four Act Novel Structure

Plotting to the Midpoint: Why you need a half-time plan

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

With Divided Elements in the hands of my copy-editor, I’ve been using July to get some new writing done. Having signed up for both #JulyWritingChallenge and Camp NaNoWriMo, I was worried that my efforts would falter the way my first attempt at NaNoWriMo did – a lot of angst and procrastination, not much writing. Pleasantly enough, I am slaying it! (Already at 12,000 words (I set my target at 15,000))

The two secrets to my success?

  1. Detailed and logically-structured plotting – thanks to my awesome plot roadmap
  2. Detailed and logically-structured plotting only up to the midpoint

The second secret is the important one (at least, for the purposes of this post).

I’m not sure whether it is pure genius or a product of my creative limitations, but it seems to be working. The thing is – when I get an idea for a story, it usually goes like this:

  • Thematic image and general premise – aka A visual and a one-liner ‘this is a story about…’

    Since I don’t want to give away the juicy details of the new WIP just yet, let me show how this would work if I was writing Sons of Anarchy … (bear with me, it’s been a while since I’ve watched it and the memory may be rusty…)

    Jax and Tara

    I would picture that moment where Jax takes on the Presidency and Tara stands behind him as his Old Lady, a corruption of two individuals who had the potential to escape a violent and toxic environment but have ended up as the next generation of everything they didn’t want to be – Clay and Jemma.
    That image also gives me my premise – the story of a son who seeks to escape the corrupted legacy of his father, who finds that escape in the return of an old girlfriend, but who ends up corrupted and corrupting her in his efforts to escape. Like struggling in quicksand – it only conspires to work against you.

  • That image and one-liner (okay, okay – one paragraph) give me everything I need up to the Midpoint – I get the status quo (Jax in the MC, Tara at the hospital), the hook (Jax finding his Dad’s journals), the inciting incident (reconnecting with Tara), the first plot point (going after Clay), the Midpoint (Jax and Tara as the new Clay and Jemma).

And that’s usually where the ideas run out – not because I can’t think of what happens next, but because there are so MANY paths this story can take. I generally know where I want it to end. I just don’t know how to get to that end.

This is why the first half of my plot outline for the new WIP is pages long and full of cool details. And the second half is … um, well… it’s blank.

I was kind of worried about this, but then I figured it could be a good thing. And I figured this while watching my beloved Wests Tigers play (and lose) another game (don’t get me started…).

A book, much like a game of football, is a tale of two halves. Every team goes into a game knowing the starting point (kick-off) and the end goal (walking away with a win, preferably a crushing defeat, that supplies two points on the ladder and a fantastic points differential). There will also be a detailed game plan – based on last week’s performance, where they are on the ladder, what current issues/injuries are affecting them, players playing out of position, whether it’s a home game, what they focused on in training, etc, etc.

But that game plan is only good up to the half time siren.

You walk into the sheds at half time with a 20 point deficit, you shake things up. You end the first forty minutes with three major injuries and a player sent off, and you start thinking twice about your earlier plan of putting on early points.

What it boils down to is this:

You can’t plan your second half until you know what position your first half has put you in. 

Same goes for stories. I’ve spoken about this before – sometimes the little details you use to fill in your plot outlining can introduce a range of subtleties and nuances that shift the direction of your story. In the beginning the shift is negligible – but as it continues on that same trajectory, the difference becomes more and more noticeable.

Tangent

It was the same with Divided Elements – what I had planned for my second half and what I executed were wildly different. In a good way. If I had stubbornly kept to the original game plan, I would have ended up with a incoherent, disjointed story with a lot of loose ends and an unsatisfying ending.

Which is why I am blissfully writing my way through the first half of this WIP without having a game plan for the second half. That can wait. I figure I will use the Midpoint as my new status quo and plot from there once I know my backstory (the first half).

What about you? If you are a plotter, do you plot the entire novel? And if so, do you ever allow yourself to change the plan late in the game?

Plotting to the Midpoint: Why you need a half-time plan

Protagonist & Plot Problems – The 3 types of problems in stories

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

So, we’ve figured out that stories are about stuff happening. And the best kind of stuff happening is the stuff that happens because of a problem. Problems are what are driving your story forward – they provide tension, intrigue, character development and (by necessity of requiring a solution) they provide momentum. Problems should plague your protagonist and proliferate in your plot.

But, as I have discovered, not all problems are equal. Some problems are better at ratcheting up tension and accelerating momentum. Some are deliciously subtle. Others are explosive. And others are…well, they are just another problem – an obstacle, a thorn in the side, a stone in the shoe.

Danger

Which brings us to the three types of problems you can introduce in your story:

  1. Causal – A problem that happens directly as a result of something else in your story. 

    Causal problems are those that occur as a direct result of cause and effect. It rains, you get wet. You put your hand in the fire, it gets burned.

    Causal problems in your story are the explosive, flavour-packed, all the tingly feels problems that are perfect developments from situations that have come before in your story. The best of these are problems that happen because of something your protagonist has done (or failed to do), but still work well if they happen because of something else in your plot (e.g. something another character has set in motion, the result of a environmental incident, etc).

    e.g.
    * Your protagonist runs away from a fight, that leads her into a dark alley where murderous thieves are lurking. A problem that occurs directly as a result of something your protagonist has done.

    * Your protagonist’s sidekick tries to pick up the local barmaid and lets slip some vital intel that is overheard by the antagonist’s goons. As a result, the antagonist is able to hijack the protagonist’s mission. A problem that occurs directly as a result of something another character has done.

    * An earthquake hits town, cutting off all roads and leaving the protagonist stranded and unable to get to their destination. A problem that occurs directly as a result of an environmental incident.

  2. Correlative – A problem that is related to something else in your story, but not caused by it.

    Problems that are correlated are (as the word suggest) related, but not caused by the other. I put my gumboots on, my friend grabs their umbrella. I grab frantically for a bandage, my friend screams in horror. While these things aren’t causal – they are related. My friend and I both grab our wet weather gear because it is raining. I grab for a bandage and my friend screams because I have burnt my hand in the fire.

    Correlative problems are the subtle problems in your story. The problems that hint at a deeper understory or that give clues about possible plot developments, character flaws, or story complexities. They can be explicit – where the ‘binding agent’ (the third aspect that relates them) is known; implicit – where the binding agent is hinted at; or inexplicit – where the binding agent is unknown.

    e.g.
    * The earthquake causes widespread damage and destruction. The protagonist, left without a car, heads out on foot through the city to get to their destination, vulnerable to aftershocks and violent looters. Character B, whose child is injured, races out into the city to find medical assistance. Both journeys put each character on a collision course. The two problems are caused by a known binding agent – the earthquake. –> This closely mimics a causal relationship (since the cause of these related problems is known).

    * People around the city are falling sick and/or dying unexpectedly. Character A frantically attends to their sick child before running out of the house. The protagonist, a renowned epidemiologist, receives a phone call in the middle of a celebration, immediately turns serious and leaves without telling anyone. The two problems are caused by a hinted binding agent – a disease outbreak of some sort. –> This is great for causing the kind of tension that comes when a reader reads on to find out if their hunch is correct. Whodunnits are famous for it – giving readers enough of a hint in order for them to form a theory of their own and keep them reading to get validation/confirmation.

    * Character A withdraws her life savings and buys a plane ticket. The protagonist packs up their car and heads out of town. The two problems are caused by an unknown binding agent. –> This type can seem as pure coincidence at this point in the story, but is discovered to be related later in the story (a satisfying pay off). To be effective, both incidents need to be evocative (causing the reader to wonder why these two events are happening and to keep reading to find out). It can also help if the same type of emotion is present – in this case urgency – or opposite emotions are present – e.g. extreme joy vs extreme disappointment — both of which help to establish or hint at a shared connection.

  3. Coincidental – A problem that is neither caused by or related to anything else in your story. 

    Coincidental problems are those that are completely unrelated. I lose my watch and my worst enemy becomes my boss.

    In stories, these problems provide points of interest and action, but can (if overused) give an episodic feel – you know, the “and then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened” style (for more on why you should avoid this pitfall – read this).

    Sometimes the coincidental problem is inevitable – and sometimes it is necessary. Accidental Hero stories depend on them – your average Jane finds herself embroiled in an international terror plot, just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

    The best place for coincidental problems is at the inciting incident stage – where unlucky circumstances can be forgiven as a plot point. But if all your protagonist and plot problems ‘just happen to happen’, then you may need to review whether you have a plot or just a series of unfortunate events…

 

What problems have you introduced into your story? How do you use them to establish tension and drive momentum? 

 

Image courtesy of Frederic Bisson via Flickr Creative Commons.

 

Protagonist & Plot Problems – The 3 types of problems in stories