Week 8

The 3-Act (4-Act?) Play

Show Transcript

Nick [00:00:06]:
Okay. So I’ve alluded to this before, and you may have even heard this before, but the 3 act play that we know and love, we were taught this in middle school, even elementary school, I think. This is actually kind of 4 acts. At least in, you know, the way that I do it and the way that a lot of writers that I’ve talked to do it. If we leave it 3 x, what do we get? We get, a 100% of the book is kind of split into 33.33 repeating. Is that, you know, proper math? I don’t know about the repeating part. 33% of the book is the beginning, 33% is the middle, 33% is the end. I’m gonna tell you right now that Freytag’s Pyramid style of of breaking this thing up, It doesn’t work super well for genre fiction because it makes the beginning way too long and it makes the end way too long.

Nick [00:00:46]:
All that denouement we talked about, It’s gonna get real boring if we keep going and keep going and saying, oh, well, this and that, and then they kissed and they kissed again, and that, you know, we just need to get in and get out quickly. In the middle is where that fun and games and the bad guys close in. That’s the promise of the premise stuff. So I’m getting ahead of myself, but if you think of the 3 act play, is actually 4 acts. It’s gonna make this a lot easier. So the 20 1st 25% is act 1. In this, the readers are introduced to our world. Fantasy, this is really important.

Nick [00:01:13]:
We have to set the rules, the boundaries, the magic. We have to establish some of that. We get to meet the hero and usually the villain. If we don’t meet the villain, we at least see that the antagonist kind of behind the scenes. Right? So we can see the machinations of, of Voldemort. Right? He Who Shall Not Be Named, at the beginning 25% of that book. And we don’t actually meet him, I don’t think, until later, much later. And so that’s fine.

Nick [00:01:37]:
We just need to know about that world. We need to kind of experience that. But if we do too much of it, if we do 30% or more, it feels like too much. I usually keep this to 20 to 25%. Act 2, this first part of act 2 is the reactive part. Our main character and their team, They’re running away. I could think of this as running away from the problem. You know? That they they they’ve had the inciting incident.

Nick [00:01:57]:
They’ve committed to the problem, but they’re still just reacting to that problem. They’re still just reacting to, the big scary, horseback. What are they called in Lord of the Rings where they They were some of you nerds probably know what I’m talking about. Right? They’re reacting to that. Elijah Woods running away from horses. That’s I’m not a fantasy guy. Sorry, everybody. I’m trying to figure out what’s going on.

Nick [00:02:17]:
The second half of act 2. So this is the 50 to 75% mark of our book. This is the proactive scene where our main character in the team, they’re finally chasing toward something. So instead of running away from it, they’re chasing something. They’re running towards something. They’re making a plan. Guess what? It’s not gonna work, but they’re making a plan. That’s good.

Nick [00:02:35]:
We like the plan. We like to see them taking some agency. Right? And this all ends with their plan failing and the all is lost scenes with the culmination being the woe is me scene. Your main character’s heart is just broken. Right? And then finally, the act 3 or another, you know, part 4, I guess, is our main character and friends, their team put their heads together and they’re just like, you know what? Damn it. We’re gonna make this work. We’re gonna try to win the day. And they do in most books.

Nick [00:03:01]:
Typically, we’ll have it doesn’t have to be a happy happily ever after. You know, somebody may die along the way, but the the the problem has been solved, and all that happens in act 3. So I’ve broken this down so you can kinda see it work throughout this. I’ve kept the same slide design so you can see where we are at a glance. Act 3 will sometimes have a 4 next to it because, you know, it’s the 4th part of the structure. So I hope that all makes sense. I just wanted to break it down and show you what I’m talking about here.

Unveiling the 4-Act Structure of Compelling Storytelling

Today, I want to delve into the art of storytelling and dissect the traditional 3-act play structure, unveiling its often overlooked 4-act nature. 

Let’s start by challenging the conventional wisdom surrounding the 3-act play.

While it’s been ingrained in our minds since middle school, I invite you to consider a different perspective.

The traditional 3-act structure can often feel constricting, especially when applied to genre fiction. The rigidity of Freytag’s Pyramid can lead to pacing issues, making the beginning overly long and the denouement tiresome.

So, if the 3-act play is actually 4 acts, how does this revelation transform our approach to storytelling?

By reimagining the structure as four distinct sections, we gain a deeper understanding of the narrative flow. This expanded framework provides a more balanced and engaging progression for the reader, ensuring that each part serves a specific purpose and contributes to the overall storytelling experience.

Act 1 – Setting the Stage

In the first 25% of the narrative, we embark on a journey to introduce the readers to the world we’ve crafted.

Whether it’s a realm of fantasy or a contemporary setting, this initial act is crucial for establishing the rules, boundaries, and the essence of our story.

Here, we make the pivotal acquaintance of our protagonist and often catch a glimpse of the elusive antagonist lurking in the shadows.

Act 2, Part 1 – Reacting to the Inciting Incident

As the plot unfolds, our main characters find themselves in the reactive phase, dealing with the aftermath of the inciting incident.

They’re running away from the problem, grappling with the newfound challenges that have confronted them. This section sets the stage for the trials and tribulations that lie ahead.

Act 2, Part 2 – Taking Proactive Measures

Moving into the second half of Act 2, our characters transition from reactive to proactive. They shift from evading the problem to actively pursuing a solution, formulating plans and taking charge of their destiny.

However, it’s important to remember that this proactive stance is often met with setbacks, leading up to the “all is lost” moment where our protagonists face their darkest hour.

Act 3 – The Climactic Resolution

Finally, we arrive at the conclusive act where our characters rally together, fueled by determination, to confront the ultimate challenge.

This segment brings us the gratifying climax where our heroes strive to overcome the obstacles and emerge triumphant.

However, it’s essential to acknowledge that while most stories culminate in a resolution, it doesn’t always guarantee a fairytale ending.

Embracing Flexibility

It’s crucial to emphasize that while understanding the 4-act structure adds a layer of sophistication to our storytelling, it doesn’t necessarily mean adhering to a strict formula.

Crafting narratives is an art, and it allows for a degree of flexibility.

The 4-act model serves as a guide, empowering us to orchestrate the ebb and flow of our stories while catering to the specific needs of the narrative.

It’s essential to harness the power of the 4-act structure to create narratives that resonate with readers on a profound level.

Whether we’re embarking on a tale of adventure, romance, or mystery, understanding the rhythm and balance of the 4-act structure equips us with the tools to construct narratives teeming with vitality and resonance.

In conclusion, the 3-act play may indeed be a 4-act endeavor. By revisiting our approach to storytelling and embracing the dynamic nature of narrative pacing, we can elevate our craft to new heights.

The 4-act structure presents us with a comprehensive blueprint for orchestrating enthralling tales that entice, captivate, and endure in the hearts and minds of our readers.

I hope this exploration has sparked your creativity and granted you a fresh perspective on crafting narratives.

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