Three-Act Structure vs. Four-Part Structure
In response to a recent post about writing in different genres – my point being that emphasis, rather than license, is the only real separation between them – I heard from one reader asking if… westerns require the four-part structure, like the other genres require it, or if they can be written with a standard three-part structure.
I paraphrase, but that’s the gist of the inquiry. Gotta admit, it stumped me at first, too. Not the answer, but the question itself.
I’ve been asked about three versus four-part storytelling on several occasions – this is confusion at the most basic level of narrative skill – so allow me to clarify.
The question implies there is a difference. There isn’t.
The four part structure I describe here on Storyfix, as it applies to writing novels, IS, in fact, the same three-act structure commonly associated with screenplays.
Notice the difference between the word parts and acts. In novels there are still three acts, it’s just that the middle one has two parts. Which adds up to four funcational parts to the story, in total.
My intention on this site is to drill down to expose and define what the missions of the second two parts (which together comprise the entire Act II in films), and how they differ. They – Parts 2 and 3 – are different enough, in fact, to label the film’s accepted 3-Act paradigm as insufficient, because it splits its Act II (known as The Confrontation) into two sub-parts, with separate missions, divided by the story’s mid-point.
Four parts of a novel – AND a screenplay – are as follows:
Part One, the Set-up.
Part Two, the Response.
Part Three, the Attack.
Part Four, the Resolution.
Each with specific criteria, content, mission and flow, each separated with a specific story milestone with its own mission and criteria.
In any genre.
If you want to know what those criteria and standards are, they’re all here for you in the Storyfix archives. Or, in my forthcoming book (see below) on the subject. Or, in my ebook, which will remain available on this site through the end of the year.
The Near-Term Future of Storyfix.com
Another reader suggested I’ve covered it all. That it’s time for a change. She asked, what are you going to write about next?
Again, I paraphrase.
My response: I haven’t even scratched the surface in exploring how great stories are conceived, structured, rendered, reviewed, rewritten, submitted, evolved, read… and the creative processes and mechanical choices involved in getting there.
I’m starting several other sites on other topics, so I’ll write about what’s next there. For now, we’re going to stay with the storytelling course.
Structure is for Movies. Everybody knows that.
Someone – again, a reader – tried to tell me that this is a belief system held by anyone who has demonstrated success as a novelist. A few recognizable names were dropped in doing so, supposedly supporting this contention.
If Stephen King told you the world was flat, would you believe it? When Stephen King tells you that you should get an idea for a story and just start writing about it (which he essentially did in his otherwise fine book, On Writing)… you shouldn’t believe that, either. He’s dead wrong.
That particular reader suggested that, somehow, writing a novel calls for something mystical and mysteriously ingenious – she’s not wrong until the next part – beyond the inspired storytelling a successful screenwriter must summon.
It’s that last part where she’s been misled. Or, is unwilling to accept.
It is interesting to observe, and understand, that the novels written by the structural skeptics mentioned in her feedback all adhere to – down to the finest detail –the principles of story structure discussed here (because they apply everywhere in today’s literary and film market), along with a set of criteria and conventions that apply to the other five essential core competencies involved (structure being but one of six).
Then again, pretty much every screenwriter already knows that. By far the most under-informed segment of the writing population is busy writing a novel.
We seek to remedy that – the under-informed part – here.
Literary accidents of good fortune do happen. Maybe those writers got famous by being lucky. Maybe they don’t use or understand the labels of structural theory that more structural writers use. Maybe they’re just kidding themselves, or trying to sound oh-so-literary and artistic from behind a podium.
Rest assured, the rest of us are not kidding ourselves.
Your story – screenplay or novel – won’t sell until it falls into an expected and proven structural paradigm – shape and flow and dramatic sequence – within the context of accepted expositional theory.
If you don’t know what stuff is, if you are unwilling to acknowledge, accept and apply it… then you, too, will have to get lucky to get published.
Lucky, as in, you stumbled upon proper structure without realizing it.
It happens. Those writers are called one-hit wonders.
Story Engineering: Understanding the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing
That’s the title of my forthcoming book, by the way. In case you’re new here.
I received the final copy edit from Writers Digest Books this week. The book comes out in February.
This isn’t a plug (I’m not even putting in a link to Amazon here), it’s a progress report. Many of you have asked.
If anyone knows Robert McKee’s personal email, I could use a blurb. I am singing his song in this book (and if you’ve been to his weekend workshop – relative to his surprise ending – you know I’m not being literal about that… I can’t sing a note; then again, neither can he, but somehow it all works).
I’m about to propose a related, follow-up project for this publisher within the next couple of weeks. This one will be about process… or how to take the six essential core competencies and apply them toward the discovery and development of a killer story idea that will efficiently, and effectively, make its way onto the page.
Theory and standards translated into action. That’s the idea. Evolving from ground school to advanced air to air combat skills.
Writing a successful story is like describing how to build a house. You can read about how all year long, but until you show up on a vacant lot with a blueprint and a truck full of stuff, you won’t ever really know.
Two analogies in sequential paragraphs.
See, you can break all the rules you want, as long as you don’t break the wrong rules.
And to the lady who suggested I was a pr**ck for suggesting that there are, in fact, rules about writing an effective story…
… how’s that particular belief system — and interpersonal style — working for you lately?
Fiction is the label for what we write, not what we should believe. Because what we believe becomes our truth, and thus, our destiny.
The truth will set you free. This is as true for your writing as it is for the rest of your dreams.
Nobody reaches the finish line by kidding yourself about the important stuff.
Keep studying the writing craft. Unless you believe in fortunate accidents.