I know what you are thinking: “Brittany, how can a story have four acts?! There is a beginning, middle, and end. Count ’em..one, two, three! Where is this arbitrary fourth act coming from?”
One thing I’ve learned throughout the years is that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing. Sure, most writers favor a Three Act story structure because it is easy. Beginning, middle, end. But each story is different and requires a unique approach. One of the reasons it’s taken me so long to write my current novel is because I was trying my hardest to make what is a four part story fit comfortably into three acts. It took me a while to realize that it is okay to break away from a Three Act structure if that is what your story needs.
The story structure book I swear by is called The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers by Christopher Volger. This book is filled with many gems, including a break down on common character archetypes and an in-depth explanation of the Hero’s Journey. There is a wonderful chart that provides a perfect visual on what the Three Act story structure looks like. You can see that chart below.
In the original version of the chart, Volger divides the sphere in half. Act 1 encompasses Steps 1-5 (Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, and Crossing the First Threshold). Act 2 starts with Step 6 (Tests, Allies, Enemies) and ends at Step 10 (The Road Back). Act 3 begins with Step 11 (Resurrection) and ends at Step 12 (Return with the Elixir). This is pretty straight forward and easy to follow.
However, I was running into problems in Act 2 of my novel. There was just so much going on and I was so overwhelmed. Act 2 is the largest section of any story and is arguably the most difficult one to write. I would get stuck somewhere around the midpoint and have a minor break down.
And then it hit me. Why does Act 2 have to be so long? Why can’t I divide Act 2 into two sections? The writing became more manageable for me when I started thinking about my novel as four parts. And, to be honest, the protagonist at the beginning of Act 2 changes at the Midpoint, and usually character change should dictate story beats. So, I decided that Act 3 starts at the Midpoint and ends at Stage Ten. After all, your character most likely has a different goal at the Midpoint. They are usually more confident and are hurdling towards the climax.
Vogler himself even hints at the idea of dividing Act 2 in half. On his chart he labels the beginning of Act 2, The Descent and the end Initiation.
This is how Vogler’s Hero’s Journey looks under the Four Act Structure:
Act 1: Separation- (Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Meeting with the Mentor, Crossing the First Threshold)
Act 2: Descent- (Tests, Allies, Enemies, Approach, Central Ordeal)
Act 3: Initiation- (Reward, The Road Back)
Act 4: Return- (Resurrection, Return with the Elixir)
Adding a simple vertical line to Vogler’s chart revolutionized story structure for me, and allowed my ideas to flow more freely because they were no longer chained to the Three Act structure. That is not to say that three acts doesn’t work. Many stories do a beautiful job with the three act structure. But I also thinks that some narratives can benefit by dividing Act 2 and thinking of them as two separate parts of the story.
Of course, during the course of your writing, you may discover that five acts works better than four. And that is okay. To quote Captain Barbossa story structure acts “more like guidelines than actual rules.” You need to do what works best for your story.
I hope this helps and I would like to hear more about what kind of story structure you prefer.
Until next time, kill your darlings, slay your dragons, and keep writing!