Addressing A Few Misconceptions, Misnomers and Items of Miscellaneous Mischief

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.

18 Comments

Filed under other cool stuff

18 Responses to Addressing A Few Misconceptions, Misnomers and Items of Miscellaneous Mischief

  1. I’ve been indoctrinating anyone and everyone on the structure of successful story telling in both movies and books. The 1PP, Midpoint and 2PP are the easiest to explain, and usually convince people after they’ve seen it happen repeatedly in books and movie.

    I was talking to my parents this morning (on the other side of the world and getting on) and my mother mentioned that for the first time she noticed the ‘this changes everything’ moment (which is how I describe the Midpoint) in the book she was reading, ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’. (I haven’t read the book, or seen the movie, but apparently it involves a photograph that reveals a new clue.)

    It was great to have yet another doubter converted.

    Related: Finished the first draft of the latest book I’m working on. Took 6 weeks to put together the FIRST story that actually reads like a story. Previous efforts had the characters, and the plot and what I think was a pretty good mystery, but didn’t have the needed structure.

    Keep doing what you’re doing. I’m still at the Freshman stage. Plenty of stuff for me to soak up yet.

  2. Great post Larry!

    I only have one thing to say–You are not a pr*ck. There are many of us who just adore you and your straight to the point method.

    Keep up the good work. Can’t wait to find out the other websites you have up your sleeve. 🙂

    Okay, maybe I said more than one thing. LOL

  3. BRAVO!!! Love and agree with everything you said in this post!!

    It takes time, a lot of effort and persistence to become proficient at writing, in general. So thank you for helping writers who are willing to work at the craft of writing fiction. Maybe the person who wants to know what you will write about NEXT just enjoys reading about writing.

    Regarding rules for writing, and the woman who called you a “p***k”–that exchange reminded me of something I witnessed on Facebook recently. One of my “friends” had a craving for pie and started a discussion about pie that went on for quite a while–hours, actually. Somewhere in the middle of that long discussion, a friend of my friend, who apparently has some unhealthy food-related habits, got REALLY upset with people who were talking about pies. She claimed that their comments could trigger negative responses in people with certain problems (anorexia?) The woman on FB apparently didn’t want to believe people could have healthy conversations about food, as your reader apparently doesn’t believe in rules for writing. Mindset is a difficult thing to contend with.

  4. M.L.

    As one of those one-hit wonders, I say, “Preach it, brother.” Rules (guidelines for those who can’t stand the word rules) and structure help one heck of a lot more than they hinder. If I’d known that the first time around…

  5. Misty

    Thanks for another great post, Larry. What’s interesting to me is that some people get so upset about this “rational planning” stuff, thinking that it’s antithetical to the creative mystery of writing. But anyone who reads your book on structure will receive their own “ah-ha” moment and understand that both can and should happen. People short- change themselves and their readers when they don’t work with both sides of their brain when putting words on the page.

  6. Folks, Larry has posted about fiction writing being story_telling_. That says _communication_.

    Ever try to get something across to or from someone in a foreign language you don’t know? If you’re lucky, you can communicate with gestures and maybe drawing pictures.

    The 3-Act/4-Part structure has been with us pretty much world-wide for a _long_ time. Use it because it works, it’s expected, because it’s real to the reader and because it communicates.

    Just as you as a reader get pretty tired pretty fast with an author’s 1-page paragraphs (and are likely to abandon it), the 3-Act/4-Part structure is what we’ve come to expect.

    And no, we don’t expect our “average” reader to recognize that our structure isn’t working (How often do you get feedback saying, “Where’s the FPP at 25%?”). The professionals (That’s us folks reading this blog) will look for and recognize it, though.

    Larry points out that most writing “rules” are actually principles. We as writers better know and be able to use the principles before we try to bend or stretch them.

  7. Are you releasing an audio book version of the 6 cores?

    Sure hope so.

  8. See, I have no problem with people just picking up and writing whatever comes to mind. Sometimes people get fabulous ideas and just go with them to see what happens.

    That’s all well and good. And they probably will have to go back and do a lot of revision to get their work publishable. That’s not a problem either, if you feel you’ve got something worth it.

    Stephen King was an English professor and I’m sure that he has a good understanding and even possibly an instinct where it comes to the structure of a story. And therefore when he tells his readers to just write and uncover the story–I don’t necessarily think he’s saying “If you do this, you’ll get published.” I think it’s simply an exercise to get people writing, period.

    Once you start writing–and USING your imagination in conjunction with what you learn about structure–then you can worry about publication.

    Structure is for writers who are writing stories instead of vignettes or “slice-of-life” pieces or journal entries. 🙂

  9. ps.
    Larry, the famous pantsers like King never say whether they have a full grasp of (and have previously learned) story structure.

    I’m listening to Stephen King’s On Writing audio book right now. He say to just run with it, but he never states his level of awareness to story structure.

    He mentioned that he reads about 70 books per year, so I’m sure he can (at least on a subconscious level) incorporate structure into his pantsing. But, it appears pantsers come to their conclusions about which way works best without mentioning that they are aware of the fundamentals of the other crowd.

  10. I’m with Kari–Stephen was urging people to “just write.” If you don’t write first, you won’t be able to figure out the importance of structure. Stephen King has written so much for so long, he’s probably forgotten all the lessons he learned by trial and error. That’s one way of doing it. I’m too impatient to do it intuitively (though intuition is an important part of my writing). I want to be as good as I can be each step of the way. Larry, your lessons in structure help me in that journey. Anyway, just because somebody is great at DOING something doesn’t mean he is great at TEACHING it. Don’t get me wrong — I love King’s book on writing. It is very inspirational and I recommend it to every writer I meet. Then, I recommend this blog because I am constantly struggling with structure, and it has been a great help.

    I’m so excited that you are taking on “process” in your next book. It’s been a lifelong fascination of mine, how two people will receive the same info and one will know how to put it into practice while the other is totally lost and just gives up.

  11. Shirls

    Kari, I get what you say and for myself I’m inclined to believe that for me this “uncovering” is necessary because try as I have, I can’t do an outline of a story unless I do a bit of pantsing first. Not the whole novel but more of an exploration of the characters and situations. I need to see the characters interact when I write them before the ideas start flowing. Only then can I start applying the structure (which I think is the most marvellous thing I’ve ever come across) and really planning the story.

  12. I can’t tell you how much your blog and workshops at the WW Conferences have helped my writing. I’m reading differently than I used to (still for pleasure but looking for structure), and preplanning my novels more successfully.

    I had a good chuckle during last season’s Northwest Author Series when Naseem Rahka spoke about “The Crying Tree.” As I understood her, she “pantsed” her first draft of the novel. An attendee expressed awe that Ms. Rahka “just started writing and ended up with a novel.”

    Ms. Rahka knows how a story should be structured and the finished novel is solid and well done. I suspected that even when “just writing” the first draft to develop the characters and plot, Ms. Rahka had story structure in mind. She knew what needed to happen when and wrote to explore her characters and discover how they would get there. In fact, she shared a sample of the detailed outline she made of her first draft as part of her editing process. (Which, by the way, made me appreciate developing the structure of the story before writing.)

    So I just had to shake my head at the attendee who only heard: “Just sit down and write several hundred pages and you end up with a publishable novel.”

  13. @Mary — thanks for contributing this. One of my favorite comments, not just because it’s validating, but because it shows that you really get it. Now take it and run with it! Larry

  14. Gill Hill

    Larry, in case you don’t hear it enough (which, if you are getting emails with such negative comments, you might not be) I LOVE your blog posts. I also love that you keep telling us the same things, because this is complicated, but basic stuff. By which I mean, it takes a lot to get your head round it, and also that it’s almost impossible to write a decent story without it. I keep thinking I have it, but when I try to put it into practise I can see I am missing something. And then an email link to your blog pops up and I get to read something that helps hammer this stuff home and makes my story better. I’m so glad you refer to Robert McKee, I constantly juggle your theories and his, and I think they complement each other so well. Keep telling us what we need to hear! Gill

  15. Curtis

    Larry
    I’m sure you’ve heard the short story writer, Flannery O’Connor’s take on the truth making us free. She claims that “the truth will make you odd.”

    I’m still amazed that anyone wants to argue with you. It is not like you’re a mind thief.

  16. Gill Hill

    I just finished watching Red Road, a Scottish film, which I think is excellent, but also saw the classic story structure in it, which delighted me! Glad the repeated readings of your website are finally beginning to sink in. I would warn anyone wanting to watch it that it has one pretty graphic sex scene in it, but it is absolutely essential to the story. I sat with my picture of the tent, setting out all the placings of the story structure, and was amazed to watch it fall into place. I would definitely recommend it to anyone trying to understand this process.

  17. Gina

    This might be a stupid question, but what about classic novels like Moby Dick or War and Peace? Do they adhere to the story structure discussed here?

  18. @Gina — well, it’s been a long time since I’ve read Moby Dick, or any other classic stuff, I pretty much focus on contemporary models of storytelling and successful commerical stories. The reason is that — and I don’t mean this sarcastically in any way — it doesn’t really matter whether those classic stories follow the same structure, or not. Nobody should start out trying to write a story for today’s market using a centuries old, or even decades -old, story as a model. Such a story would never sell. That’d be like building a stadium and using the Roman Colosseum as an architectural model. Things change, including this model.

    I’m positive classic works demonstrate the core principles of dramatic fiction, but less sure (or concerned) that they follow modern principles of structure. In essence they certainly do, but with specificity… I’m not sure.

    Great question. Thanks for reading and contributing.