Story Structure Series: #1 — Introducing the Four Parts of Story

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by Larry Brooks on July 31, 2009

 Storyfix is proud to bring you a 10-part tutorial on the fundamentals of story structure. 

Today’s post is #1 in that series.

Introducing the Four Parts of Story

Some writers like things in nice little boxes.  Others, not so much.  Either way, you can look at your story like a box, of sorts.  You toss in all kinds of stuff – pretty sentences, plot, sub-plot, characters, themes, stakes, cool scenes – then stir it up and hope that somehow, by the grace of God, it all ends up in some orderly fashion that your reader will enjoy.

That’s one way to write a novel or screenplay.  At the very least, you’ll have to pour the box out and start over again, time after time, before any of what’s inside begins to make sense to anyone but you.  You can get there doing it this way… but there’s a better way. 

If fact, if this is how you go about telling your story, you’ll be reorganizing your box, time after time, until you do finally stumble upon the structure you are about to learn here. Or, more likely, you’ll abandon the project altogether, because nobody will buy it until you do.

Tough to hear, but it’s true.

Now think of that box as a vessel holding four smaller boxes.  Which means, things just got clearer, if not easier.  Imagine that each box is different, designed to hold scenes that are categorized and used differently than the other boxes.   

In other words, each box has a mission and a purpose unique unto itself.  And yet, no single box contains the whole story.  Only all four, viewed sequentially, do that job.  Each scene you write is in context to whichever box it goes into.

Imagine that these boxes are to be experienced in sequence.  There’s the first box, the next box, the one after that, and then a final box.  Everything in the first box is there to make the other boxes understandable, to make them meaningful

Everything in the second box is there to make the first box useful by placing what we’ve come to root for in jeopardy.  The first box may not make sense until the second box is opened, and when it is, the reader is in there with your hero.

Everything in the third box takes what the second box presents and ratchets it up to a higher level with a dramatic new context.  By now we are in full rooting mode for the hero of the story.

Everything in the fourth and final box pays off all that the first three boxes have presented in the way of stakes, emotional tension and satisfaction.

The things that go into any given box go only into that box.  Each has its own mission and context, its own flavor of stuff.  Or, more to the point, scenes.

When you lay out the four boxes in order, they make perfect sense.  They flow seamlessly from one to the next, building the stakes and experiences of the previous box before handing it off to the one that follows.

If you take something out of one box and put it into another, the whole thing can go sideways.  Only by observing the criteria and context of each box with your scenes will the entirety of the collective boxes make sense.  

When you add something to the mix – when you’re wondering what to write next – you need to put it into the right box or the whole thing will detonate. 

Because the box tells you what it needs.  And it will accept nothing else.

And that, folks, is the theory and opportunity of four-part story structure in a nutshell.

The first box: Part 1 of your story… the Set-up.

The first 20 to 25 percent of your story has but a single mission: to set-up everything that is to follow.  That job breaks down into a handful of things it needs to accomplish, all under the umbrella of that singular mission.  It’s not there to fully present the story’s main antagonistic force, only to foreshadow it.  Or, if it does show it at all, it shows only part of it. 

Most importantly, the job of Part 1 is to establish stakes for what happens to the hero after Part 1.  Here in Part 1 is where the reader is made to care about what happens next.

Part 1′s job is to introduce the hero and show us what she or he has going on in their life… not for the remainder of the story, but before the arrival of the main antagonistic force (the primary conflict of the story). 

The more we empathize with what the hero has at stake – what they need and want in their life, and/or what obstacles they need to conquer before the arrival of the primary conflict, the more we care about them when all of that changes. 

Which it will at the very end of Part 1.  It’s called the First Plot Point, or sometimes the Inciting Incident.  And inciting it must be.  Because the story really begins at the point at which Part 1 ends.

Part 1′s purpose is to bring the character to that transitionpoint through a series of scenes.  Part 1 ends when the hero is made aware of the arrival of something new in their life, often something very scary or challenging.   Something that creates an obstacle to what they need to accomplish or achieve, even if that quest is completely new and unknown.

The very end of Part 1 is the first full frontal view of the story’s primary antagonistic force.  The bad guy, if you will.  We may have seen it before, but now, at the end of Part 1, we understand what it wants, and how what it wants creates opposition to what our hero wants in response to it.

The rest of the story is about how the hero moves through this new quest.   A new journey begins.  This is where the story really starts.  Everything that happens prior to the end of Part 1 is a SET-UP for what happens to the hero after Part 1.

In Part 1 the hero is like an orphan, unsure of what will happen to them next.  And like orphans, we feel for them, we empathize with them.  We care.

In a novel this should take 50 to 100 pages, the first 25 to 30 pages in a screenplay.  There’s more to know about Part 1 – much more – but this is the basic mission and context of what it delivers. 

The second box: Part 2 of your story… the Response.

At the end of Part 1 you unveiled the real course and destination of the story: the showdown between the hero and the opposing force that stands in the way of what she or he needs to acquire, achieve or change in order to reach their goals.  And not the goals of Part 1, but the new goals created by the presence of the inciting incident.

It could be survival, finding love, getting away from love gone bad, acquiring wealth, healing, attaining justice, stopping or catching the bad guys, preventing disaster, escaping danger, saving someone, saving the entire world, or anything else from the realm of human experience and dreams.

Every story has conflict, or its not a story at all.  That conflict is what stands in the way of what the hero needs or wants in the story. 

Part 2 is the hero’s response to the introduction of this new situation, as represented by the conflict itself.  It’s too early to have them attack the problem; Part 2 is exclusively about a reaction to the antagonistic force.  

The hero is running, hiding, analyzing, observing, recalculating, planning, recruiting or anything else required before she or he can move forward.

Then, at the end of Part 2, just when the hero thinks they have it figured out, when they have a plan, everything changes.

In Part 2, the hero is a wanderer, staggering through a forest of options and risks, not sure where to go or what to do next.  It comprises roughly the next 100 pages of your novel – which means, there’s an entire contextual infrastructure to it… stay tuned – or from page 27ish to 60 in your screenplay.

The third box: Part 3 of your story… the Attack.

By now we’ve had enough of the hero stumbling around, being fearful and hesitant, being clueless, basically trying to figure out how to fix things and move forward and coming up empty.  In fact, the hero may not be remotely heroic at this stage.

In Part 3 the hero begins to try to fix things.  To attain the goal.  They get proactive.  It is here where they attack the obstacles.  They conquer their inner demons to do things differently than before.  They summon courage and apply creative thinking.  They lead.  They move forward.

Meanwhile, the plot thickens – the antagonistic force is moving forward, too -  and what the hero thought would work isn’t quite enough.  They need more.  More courage.  More creativity.  A better plan. 

And that’s the next 100 pages or so of your story (30 pages in a screenplay).  That’s Part 3.

The wanderer has now become a warrior.

And then, the final piece of the puzzle arrives at the end of Part 3 (the Second Plot Point).   And everything changes again.  The chase is on, and the hero is not to be denied.

The fourth box: Part 4 of your story… the Resolution.

The thing to remember about Part 4 is that no new information can enter the story here.  Everything the hero needs to know, to work with, or to work alongside (as in, another character) is already in play.

Part 4 shows how the hero summons the courage and growth to come forward with a solution to the problem, to reach the goal, to save the day or even the world, to attain the fame and riches associated with victory, and to generally beat down and conquer the story’s antagonistic force. 

Sometimes the hero can actually die in the process.  But before they do, they need to have solved at least a major element of the problem they were facing.  When heroes die it is because they must in order to save others.

And that’s why the orphan, then the wanderer, and then the warrior now becomes the martyr.  Because they do what must be done in order to reach the goal.

The Whole of the Four Parts

Each part of this structure is of roughly the same length, though you do cheat the first and fourth Parts to a fewer number of pages, made up for in the middle two parts.  In 3-act movie structure, Parts 2 and 3 as described here are simply combined – but with the same unique contextual essences – to comprise Act 2, known in Hollywood and beyond as The Confrontation.

Rent some DVDs tonight and watch this 4-part paradigm play out before your eyes.  Sometimes it’s subtle, but I assure you, it’s there.  Same with the books you’re reading.  Four parts, four contexts, four completely separate missions for their scenes.

Clarifying as all this is, it gets even better when you throw in a whole menu of story milestones and mid-Part structural elements that help you along the way.

And that’s tomorrow’s post: Major Milestones Along the 4-Part Story Road.

If you haven’t subscribed to Storyfix.com, I encourage you to do so now.  The posts will be delivered daily to your inbox so you can experience each installment in this series without missing a beat.

{ 13 comments }

Lori July 31, 2009 at 7:43 am

“Sometimes it’s subtle, but I assure you, it’s there. ”

You are sooo right! You continue to write posts that trigger me to think, “Ah-ha!” This is amazing. I can only wonder where many of us would’ve been 10 years ago (give or take…) with your clear guidance and great instruction.

I can’t wait to read the next step…

Thanks, Larry!

janice August 1, 2009 at 4:45 pm

I’m hoping folk will be soon be quoting you online as often as they do Strunk and King . Solid easy to read wisdom, yet again.

I bore my family rigid telling them at the beginning of films that it doesn’t bode well if there’s no-one to empathise with or care about right from the start. That’s why I love Matt Damon as an actor, as much as I love The Incredible Mr Ripley and the Bourne series. We care about what happens to him, even if he’s a mass murderer!

PS Techie reminder; ask your web person to get the Wordpress Subscribe to Comments plugin if you want readers to benefit from anything you share in your replies.

J.Morgan August 2, 2009 at 4:14 pm

I am watching closely, I love the way you break it down. Not only is it exceptionally helpful I was picturing my story as I read it trying to see if I had indeed done everything the way you described it.

As always great advise!

Rebecca Ryals Russell August 4, 2009 at 7:44 pm

Boy, do I have some work to do. This is certainly clarifying.

Amy August 7, 2009 at 11:12 am

Just spent an hour at a coffee shop reading and re-reading this post. Thanks for taking the time to share this concise, clear, and incredibly useful advice. I will be a regular reader!

Paul Chernoch August 17, 2009 at 6:50 pm

I have been struggling with a massive rewrite, and nothing I have tried completely fixed the problem. I came across this article and attempted to fit your structure to my novel. It fit, but in a way that revealed the problem: my part one is twice as long as any of the other parts. I do not know if I will succeed in fixing it, but now I know the problem.

Carla Gade December 6, 2009 at 10:49 pm

This was very helpful. You had me a little nervous until you mentioned how this applies to the 3 act structure by combining parts 2 & 3. Thanks for the advice.

RL April 28, 2010 at 11:28 am

LOVE the breakdown of the middle into Response and Attack. What a great way to look at that!

Phil July 2, 2010 at 12:45 pm

The Road Warrior (1981) has this 4 part progression in spades. Part 1, Max is the orphan, with no allies (aside from his dog). Part 2 Max is allied with the refinery village, but none of them no what to do to escape from Humongous and his evil crew (wanderer), Part 3 Max hatches the plan to fetch the rig and fights off the evil crew to bring it back to the villagers (warrior), Part 4 Max is near death, but drives the rig one last time to divert the bad guys from the villagers so they can escape. (martyr)

Rachel Law January 12, 2011 at 5:03 pm

Hey Larry,

I’ve been trying to practice dissecting stories to really see the individual plot points, but I’m struggling. Would you be able to show me how a story like “Pride and Prejudice” fits your story structure?

Thanks! -Rachel

Linden May 2, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Can box three be the longest?

Larry May 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm

@Linden — you ask, “can” box three be the longest. Well, any of the parts “can” be anything you want them to be. However, it’s risky to retrofit the standards to fit what’s already in place. The four parts are designed, and work best, to be roughly equal in length, with the first exception being Part 1 as slightly shorter, followed by Part 4 as slightly shorter (the percentages, then, break down over the four parts as 20/30/30/20. This isn’t arbitrary, it’s what creates optimum pacing and character arc. To make Part 3 “the longest” would mean the pace of the story needs to slow down, when in fact it should be speeding up. Or, to throw in too many twists here that perhaps should have (or would have worked better) appeared earlier in the story.

Hope this helps. This is the point when some writers resent what they feel is being presented as “rules,” when it fact, they’re more like principles of story physics.

It isn’t a “rule” that if you jump out of an airplane with the wrong sized parachute, you might die. That’s a principle, one that is designed to keep you safe.

Same with story pacing. I’d tread very carefully when considering making any of the parts markedly different than the parameters of proven principles.

Hope this helps.

Christine Bloom September 20, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Great post for me. I need to shape up my story-telling skills. Does this structure work for more literary stories? I can see how it works for thrillers, murder mysteries, romances but it seems less clear to me for literary fiction. I downloaded your book on Story Engineering and I am working my way through it.

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