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

Time for Reflection (2) – What I learned about first drafts

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Recently, I was feeling all kinds of nostalgic about nearing the finish line for Divided Elements | Resistance, and decided it was a good time to reflect on all the big lessons I have learned as a first time author. Last week I talked about the very sage advice of setting up your author platform (seriously, if you haven’t already done this step, add “start wordpress blog” and “set up at least one social media account” to your list of things to do). This week, I want to talk about the lessons I learned (and some I should have avoided) and the things I figured out for myself in writing a first draft.

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Lesson 1: Gnothi seauton. (Or, for the non-ancient Greeks, “know thyself”)

This is a lesson I had to figure out for myself and one I’m still trying to fully figure out. Every writer is different – in what we write, in how we write, in why we write. Inspiration for story ideas will come to each of us differently. There are those of us that start with a character (e.g. I want to write a story about your average suburban girl who has found street cred and a way to brush off her legacy of schoolyard geekery via zombie hunting), those that start with a genre (e.g. I want to write a supernatural dark comedy), others that start with a theme (e.g. I want to write a story about love overcoming prejudice), those that start with a setting (e.g. I want to set my story in post-apocalyptic Australian suburbia), and those that start with a premise (e.g. I want to write a story about a  zombie hunter whose mum has just started dating a zombie).

Each of these starting points represents a key aspect of the story you are about to write. Regardless of whether you are a plotter (someone who structures their story before they write it) or a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants without a roadmap), figuring out each of these is important for determining your story’s trajectory. Knowing your character is a starting point. Knowing your character, and the setting, theme, and tone (indicated by genre) of their core conflict (indicated by premise) – that’s trajectory.

Figure out yourself, figure out the gaps, and figure out the story trajectory. A story about a surburban zombie hunter in a paranormal mystery is a very different story to a one about the same hunter in a coming of age story or a dark comedy.

Lesson 2: Don’t write shitty first drafts

The old adage ‘write shitty first drafts’ abounds in writer circles. I agree with its underlying sentiment – “just write!” – but don’t agree with its call to action.

For me, ‘write shitty first drafts’ belongs in the same proverb bag as ‘he who hesitates is lost’. But, for every pithy idiom is another to contradict it –

“Look before you leap!”

“Haste makes waste!”

“Measure twice, cut once!”

“A stitch in time saves nine!”

I am not one of those writers who can vomit out words and then spend an inordinate amount of time going back and editing that word vomit into shape. I prefer to get my stories mostly right and then undertake strategic edits to fix problems that are the exception and not the rule.

Having your story trajectory sorted will help with not writing word vomit – so will these other awesome tips:

  • Read and watch and listen to good stories. When I get stuck or feel that the quality of writing (or dialogue, or setting description, or exposition) is sub-par, I read a few pages of a writer I admire or a book that I see as a benchmark. It serves as inspiration, motivation and a quick ‘how-to’ guide.
  • Understand story structure. Regardless of whether you are a plotter or pantser, you need to recognise that the human brain is pretty much hard-wired to absorb a story in a very specific way. It seeks out certain patterns and conventions. It’s why romance readers demand their happily ever after, why thriller readers demand their moment of ascendancy for the antagonist, why mystery readers demand their subtle clues and red herrings.
  • Know your end-point and where you want to go. This one is a little trickier (as I note in the next lesson)

Lesson 3 – Don’t go in blind. But, don’t plan too far in advance.

Okay, hard-core pantsers, you may look away at this point – this is one for the plotter-leaning amongst us (like most things, I think it is more accurate to think in terms of a Kinsey-like scale of plotting/pantsing, rather than strict binaries).

I love story structure. I spend each new novel planning stage extrapolating an outline from the bare premise I start with. I think you need a game plan before you run out on to the field. That said, I don’t think you can anticipate everything in advance. If your story writing process is anything like mine, your characters will have a way with assuming control of your story and shifting it along unexpected tangents, or your research will uncover some new and exciting aspect to the story that seems to shift its tone or direction.

You need to have a plan, but you also need to be flexible and open to new directions.

My approach goes like this:

  • Figure out my story trajectory and use that to frame the broad parameters for writing. Everything should be consistent with the trajectory, and the trajectory should be wide enough to allow for some deviations within the lines.
  • Outline (and write) in stages. Typically, I outline (and then write) each gap between the five key turning points. This gives me some structure to write to (which makes for much more productive writing sessions), while also allowing for new tangents, developments and ideas to be picked up in the next part of the story. Outlining in stages also helps me to keep fresh the key points I need to be hitting in each part of the story.

 

Well, that was cathartic! Hope you found it helpful 🙂

 

Image courtesy of DangerPup via Flickr Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

Time for Reflection (2) – What I learned about first drafts

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

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