In Which The Author Contemplates Structure

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(Man, I wish there was something I could do about this thing! it looks okay in preview…)

Killer writing day today. And boy, did I need it! Thank you so much to all of those who sent notes and posts of encouragement. I truly appreciate your support.

I entered Act Three. At some point in my development as a writer, I realized that I organically followed many of the steps writing instructors discuss in their books. (This isn’t to say I was a natural-born storytelling genius – though I *was*. LOL! ;-) I had and have and will continue to have other problems. The following just don’t happen to be examples of them). GMC? Check. Hero’s journey? Okay, got it (aside from all those hoity-toity metaphors. Caves? Really?). Chapter hooks? Woo hoo! I struggled with wrestling my story ideas into the concept of the three-act structure, until I saw it explained as truly a four-act structure, and then I realized that there was no wrestling involved. I think that with extensive reading and other methods of soaking up storytelling, certain rhythms just become ingrained. I don’t fill out GMC charts or think about my “acts” before I plan my novels, though if I find myself running into a problem, I use the tools in order to diagnose it.

I am a fan of the four act structure. I think envisioning your story like that is one of the easiest ways to avoid the “sagging middle.” Even if you do it naturally, going back and making sure that this is what you have done can often help you avoid later complications from bad planning. (I’m a big planner, by the way. BIG.) At it’s most simple, it can be viewed as follows:

Act One: Ordinary world and inciting incident
Act Two: Complications leading to a crisis.
Act Three: Consequences of that crisis leading to a climax.
Act Four: Climax and resolution.

To illustrate, let’s look at The Matrix, one of my favorite films.

Act One: Neo meets strange individuals who reveal to him that the world he has lived in is a lie, and he is in fact asleep inside a computer program. (ordinary world) He awakens, naked and bald in a pus-filled pod in the war-torn real world, forever disconnected from his digital life. (inciting incident)
Act Two: Neo trains to join an army of cyber-warriors. He learns that his leader believes he is a prophesized savior, but is told by an oracle (and believes himself) that it isn’t true. (complications) Returning from the meeting with the oracle, the crew is betrayed and murdered, and his leader is captured by the evil machines. (leading to crisis)
Act Three: Neo and the remaining members of the crew must fight to save their leader before he is forced to reveal the codes to their secret base. Neo believes he is at fault for his leader’s capture because the leader so firmly believed that he was the prophesized, invincible savior. (consequences of that crisis) Neo’s abilities are indeed astounding, but after saving the leader, he is fatally shot by one of the bad guys. (leading to a climax)
Act Four: As Neo dies, one of the crew reveals that she has always known that he was, indeed, the savior. (climax) Neo, realizing that it’s the truth, shakes off the fatal bullet wound, and proceeds to kick the bad guys’s asses, showing that he is indeed, the invincible savior. (resolution)

Ooh, this is fun! Let’s do other movies! The interesting thing is, authors often switch the setting upon a change in acts. That’s a signpost that you’re in a new act, and a hint for those looking to diagram stories. In The Matrix, Act One is almost entirely in the computer world, with Neo “waking” at the end. Act Two is half in the real world, and half in digital. Act Three begins in the real world for a pow wow with a quick return to the digital, and act four, again, is triggered by a powerful moment in the real world. The other important thing to keep in mind is that the “climax” in this structure is an emotional one, not a physical one. Often, they are intertwined, but the emotional high point of the story is the true climax. When Neo, the hero, is dying, and Trinity says that she loves him, and because her destiny was to love The One, he must be it, even the most hardened punk-metal action movie fan in the audience was holding his breath. Was Trinity right? Would Neo survive (to claim the kickass, raven-haired, leather-clad hottie)? Stay tuned for Act Four!

These acts don’t have to be the same size. In fact, they usually aren’t. Act Four of The Matrix is maybe 10 minutes, and most of those are Neo being a show off.

And, to illustrate how valuable this exercise is, in doing it, I realized that I’m not ACTUALLY in Act Three yet. I’ve begun the crisis, but it doesn’t reach its full strength for another chapter. (By the way, you non-planners out there, this is why it’s okay to plan, even if you end up changing things. My structure remains intact. My crisis is the same as it always was, it’s just got a different page count.)

You see, I’ve given my protagonist many things, and she likes them all. She likes her grades, her job prospects, her romances, and her secret society. And now that she has learned to appreciate them, I’m going to take them away from her, one by one, until she is thrust, trembling and determined, into Act Three. Mwahahahaa

Let’s she if she becomes The One.

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22 Responses to In Which The Author Contemplates Structure

  1. TJBrown says:

    Very, very interesting… Can I ask a stupid question though? What is GMC?
    Teri

  2. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Not a stupid question! Writer jargon for “goal, motivation, and conflict”: what a character wants, why they want it, and what’s keeping them from getting it. Building blocks of characterization and plot.

  3. Elizabeth Kerri Mahon says:

    I’ve never heard of the four act structure, just the 3 act. Very interesting. I’ll have to think about this.

  4. Diana Peterfreund says:

    The four act structure I outlined is merely a reinterpretation of the standard three act structure so popular in screenwriting. Most teachers explain the second act of the three-act as having two parts. Acts two and three of the four-act are simply those two parts given their own acts. The names don’t really matter. It’s just what “clicked” for me.

    I like dividing it up that way because you are guaranteed a “mini climax” in the middle of your novel to help perk up any sags. However, it’s not a cure-all, esp. as regards Act 2 (Act 3 takes care of itself, because the characters are in crisis. It should be non-stop action). I’m always concerned in Act 2 with making sure each of my “complications” are increasingly exciting and suspenseful in order to propel the reader forward, to make them anticipate and fear the crisis that I’ve hinted is coming. But it is soemthing I struggle with.

  5. Amie Stuart says:

    I like your example sooooooo much bette than “The Wizard of Oz” *ggg*
    Sounds like you’re having way too much fun there too girl, torturing your character!

  6. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Okay, Cece, you are now assigned to four-act The Wizard of Oz. I’m very curious. Barring that, another film of your choice. Please post below. ;-)

    And regarding tortured characters, it was not an easy path to get to this point! In fact, it was and remains one of my biggest struggles in my development as a writer. I love my characters. I hate hurting them! But alas, I must, or the book would fall flat. So I have to learn to be a bit macabre about the whole situation — to embrace my inner divinity and pull a Book of Job.

  7. Amie Stuart says:

    LOL Diana I think I have the oposite problem. I love my characters but sometimes watching them twist in the wind is um too much fun (blush).

    You are so mean but I’m gonna give this a shot. Sorry no Oz *ggg* I’m doing “Enemy of the State” (please take into consideration it’s been a while since I watched it and I can’t quite remember how it starts).

    Robert Dean (Will Smith) has a run in with some mobsters. He’s a lawyer and they want something from him (Ordinary World).

    Then a bigwig Senator is assassinated by some rogue NSA Agents (Inciting Incident) who later discover the murder was taped by an envoronmentalist. The environmentalist slips Dean (Smith) the recorder as he’s being chased by the NSA Agents. Except Dean doesn’t KNOW he has the recording. (Complications)

    The NSA sets out to ruin Dean’s life–they take his wife, his kid, his money, his job, credit cards EVERYTHING (leading to the Crisis) and eventually murder his ex-girlfriend (who did PI work for him), framing him for said murder.

    This leaves him completely alone (even his wife turns her back on him). Dean makes contact with the ex-girlfriends “source”, Brill, (Consequence of the Crisis) and finally figures out what the NSA is after, only to have it destroyed in a fire. (leading to )
    They try to set the NSA up, only to have Brill get caught.(the climax).

    Knowing that the FBI has the mobsters under surveilence, Dean sets up the NSA agents to meet him there, allegedly to exchange Brill (and his cat) for the recording at which point a mighty shoot-out ensues (Resolution) and the FBI calls in backup and all is revealed *g* .

    P. S. this was tough! LOL

  8. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Hmmm. Okay, this is kind of tough, because I saw EotS on a plane, so I think I missed a lot of it (though I do remember that Jack Black and Sean Green were supposed to be computer hackers) and that Will Smith seemed to be doing a lot of running down fire escapes. However, judging from what you wrote:

    I think it’s important to remember that the inciting incident is what thrusts the protag out of his ordinary world, what *directly affects* the protag, so in this case, I think the II is “The environmentalist slips Dean (Smith) the recorder as he’s being chased by the NSA Agents. Except Dean doesn’t KNOW he has the recording.” The bit about the assassination is really backstory, like, say the war with the machines that turns everyone into human batteries in The Matrix.

    And then complications complications complications ruining life, leading to the crisis. Now here’s the part where not being entirely familiar with the movie may trip me up. Being framed for a murder is definitely a big crisis, but the crisis signaling the third act is often a moment of reversal for the protag. Whatever he’s been doing up to this point, it ain’t working. He’s usually lost everything. His role must change. In The Matrix, Neo is on his own once his leader is caught and needs to take a strategy role in the crew, rather than be led around as the “newbie”. In Star Wars, you have a similar situation when Obi-Wan dies and Luke needs to face the future without a guide. In Pride and Prejudice (which has a VERY long Act One which ends only with Darcy’s first proposal), the “crisis” is Lydia’s disappearance, because it will forever change the status of the Bennet family. The crisis is the point of no return. So, is the crisis in Enemy of the State the murder of the ex-girlfriend, or is that just a really BIG complication that leads to the protag finally trying to solve the mystery of who is after him and why? Which event triggers the most noticeable tonal and structural shift? Or, are they the same event?

    Now, the argument can be made for either (at least, without having seen the film), and the idea that it is muddled can be used to illustrate a point about how purity of form and structure can lead to a more solid story arc. I think EotS was decently received, but the Matrix was a runaway hit that became an instant benchmark of film history.

    I think that even without training in these terms, an audience will resonate more with a storyline whose structure is sound and whose turning points seem to build off one another. The idea of a fire destroying the MacGuffin and a convenient mafia coming at the last minute threw me off a bit, but maybe I’d understand more it I was more familiar with the movie.

    Anyway, ti’s not easy nor always clear cut, especially if the person writing the story deliberately went with a different story structure. I was trying to think of how I’d do Wizard of Oz, actually. I think: II: Kansas to Oz; Complications: Killing witch of East, meeting scarecrow et al. on way to see Wizard; Crisis: Learning that wizard won’t help her until she kills witch; Consequences: off to kill witch, kills witch, returns triumphant; Climax: learns that wizard can’t help her anyway, but then that shoes can; Resolution: uses shoes, goes home. I’m sure someone can improve upon this, though.

    I read somewhere that the 3 act structure came into popularity in Hollywood when Spielberg and Lucas revolutionized the industry, and the Wachowski brothers are definitely of that tradition, so perhaps that is why The Matrix works out so neatly.

  9. Amie Stuart says:

    Which event triggers the most noticeable tonal and structural shift?

    You’re gonna make me go watch it again, aren’t you? hehehe

    No, seriously, being framed for his girfriends murder and having to beg for help from someone who doesn’t want to help is big, but it’s possible that having the tape destroyed in a fire is probably a bigger point of no return because then he has to find a way to solve the conflict without giving the tape back AND get his life back in the process.

  10. Jaye says:

    One of these day, that Hero’s Journey is going to *click*. I’ve even taken two online workshops in it. And every single time my eyes start to glaze over….

    The funny thing is, I can *sort* of see it after the fact. Bits and pieces of it, but not the whole ‘flow-thru’.

  11. Sean Ashby says:

    Four acts, eh? Very interesting, thank you! I’m learning so much more about structure than I ever thought existed. I just read an interview over at Writer Unboxed with Blake Snyder about his book “Save the Cat”.

    He’s a screenwriter, but the same principles apply to novels, I think. Anyway, he breaks down all stories into only 10 basic, fundemental stories (using movies as examples, natch). He says that if you model your story around these “primal” story arcs, you’ll connect with and engage the reader every time.

    Ever read it, or ever heard of approaching stories in a similar way?

    Again, thanks for the post!

  12. I just followed the link from your recent Romance Divas workshop (I’m reading through it late.) and found this article. I found myself laughing to see that this is EXACTLY what I ended up doing in my book! When you mentioned these four acts, at first I wondered, “Do I have four acts?” “What’s the difference between the crisis and the climax?” But then you mentioned four settings, and I realized, with shock, that I’d done exactly that, and that made me say “duh!” because my crisis and climax were oh-so-obvious. It just struck me as funny that someone who doesn’t know me from Adam and has never read my book can show me the structure of it so easily. :-)

    Is that what you mean by organic… that you write according to structure, style, themes, etc. that you’ve absorbed, rather than planned out?

    Anyway… I’m kind-of a panster, in that I have to sit and write scenes as they come to me in order to get to know the character. If I just sit and think, I end up with disjointed stuff that doesn’t flow well. The result would sound too contrived. But if I put the character as I know him in a scene and see where that scene takes me, then I end up discovering new things about his character, his motivations in life, what things he’s up against, etc.

    But THEN, as I discover all these wonderful things, I have learned that I must go back to the beginning and write the story all over again… scrapping a lot of what I wrote, because it was “discovery” writing, and writing the scenes as the reader needed to see them.

    I honestly don’t know if this is how lots of writers write, or not, but your discussion of plot on RD and here is helpful. I’m using it to make sure that I got everything in there right during the re-write.

    Anyway, thanks for the workshop on RD, and for this wonderful article!

  13. Anne says:

    I’m looking for thoughts on this…do you think it destroys the structure to include a “mini” four-act structure after the main conflict of the story has been resolved? In the story I’m working on, following the characters initially resolving their main issue, additional complications arise that lead to a second “mini” crisis/climax/resolution. Both parts of the plot fall so neatly into the 4-act structure, I can’t see how to re-organize into just ONE 4-act structure. Does this destroy the idea of the 4-act entirely, or is it acceptable?

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  18. I just followed the link from your recent Romance Divas workshop Is that what you mean by organic… that you write according to structure, style, themes, etc. that you’ve absorbed, rather than planned out?

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  20. thanks for the workshop on RD, and for this wonderful article!

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