How many acts should your novel have? - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
October 19, 2020

There are a few established rules of writing. Adverbs should be avoided. Show don’t tell. Novels should have three acts. Or… should they?

This week I threw out that last rule and opened my mind to a new concept — using four acts in your novels. I first heard it from John Adcox, author of Raven Wakes the World, though he didn’t invent the approach. (A lot of authors swear by it. Here is Rob Tobin’s article about how the four-act structure applies to screenwriting.)

4 act handout
Download this free handout on the four-act structure.
John walked me through the benefits of using the four-act structure for novel writing on the latest First Draft Friday podcast episode. Joining us on the live online chat was Lou Aronica, veteran editor, publisher and New York Times bestselling author.

Traditionally, a novel’s three-act structure unfolds with:

  • An opening (25% of the manuscript)
  • A middle (50% of the manuscript)
  • A conclusion (25% of the manuscript)

The problem with this traditional structure is that the middle can often get bogged down. Authors often struggle with the writing during this middle, and readers get bored or distracted if the story isn’t executed properly.

John teaches that a more effective way to think of story composition might be in using a four-act structure:

  • The inciting action (protagonist as orphan)
  • The exploratory action (protagonist as wanderer)
  • The operative action (protagonist as warrior)
  • The climactic action (protagonist as martyr)
Authors often struggle with the writing during this middle, and readers get bored or distracted if the story isn’t executed properly

We discuss this in some detail in our online chat (embedded above). In each act, there is an individual story arc.  Here is an example, breaking down the movie Star Wars:

  • The inciting action: Luke discovers the message, meets Obi-Wan, and loses his aunt and uncle.
  • The exploratory action: Luke heads out into the universe, learns the Force, teams with Han.
  • The operative action: Luke rescues Leia, loses Obi-Wan, determines to destroy the Empire.
  • The climactic action: Luke risks everything for a desperate mission, destroys the Death Star, becomes a hero.

With this structure, each act has a point of causality that moves each mini-arc from rising action to falling action.

John dives deeper into this structure, taking the four acts and breaking them each into two halves — in a sense, breaking it down into eight “mini-stories,” each of which:

  • Is more or less self-contained
  • Has its own rise and resolution of tension
  • Moves both the plot and the character arcs forward in a way that makes them feel inevitable.

This aligns closely with the recommendation from our A.I. Marlowe that a story has a “beat” at approximately 10% intervals, which gives your story that “pager-turner” pace.

To watch the full presentation and chat, click above to watch the First Draft Friday event. Please subscribe to our email updates so that you receive notifications of more First Draft Friday events.

And be sure to subscribe to our new First Draft Friday podcast.


Transcript of our conversation

Alessandra: All right. We are live. This is First Draft Friday. I’m Alessandra Torre. I am joined today by Lou Aronica and John Adcox. And we are going to be talking about Four Drafts Fiction, which I am so excited about. I was talking to a couple of authors yesterday about doing this and they said, “Four-Act. That’s not right. It should be three-act.” And I was like, “Well, just tune in and see.” So I’m really excited about this topic and to chat with you guys, I will let you each do your own introduction. So, Lou, you want to kick us off?

Lou: Sure. I’m Lou Aronica. I’m the publisher of the Story Plant. I have been in the book business forever. I am also a New York Times Best-Selling author, multiple New York Times Bestselling author and you know, just endlessly fascinated with the book world, and so delighted to be here. John.

John: First of all, Lou, you need to let me do your introduction next time. You really, really undersell yourself.

Alessandra:  It’s true.

John:  My name is John Adcox. I am a first-time author. My debut novel “Raven Wakes the World” just came out this month and I’ve been absolutely thrilled with how it’s doing so far. I’m also the CEO of a company called Gramarye Media where Lou is one of my business partners. We’re sort of a next-generation book publisher and movie studio of the future. That’s me.

Alessandra:  I love it. Hi, it’s great to have both of you guys. Congratulations on your book release, that’s always a really exciting time. So, let’s dive right in. I believe that we have a slide, but also we’re just going to talk openly for the next half hour. So if this is your First Draft Friday, sit back and enjoy. So I’ll let you guys begin.

John:  Sounds good. So this is a shorter version of a talk called the Storyteller’s Toolbox. The longer version also goes into things like character and milieu that are very important to the storytelling process. And if you’d like to see the whole thing, there’s a video of it on my website at But today, we’re focusing on structure because when we’ve run novels through Marlowe, the thing that we’ve found most helpful was how it looks at things like pacing and structure. Lou, I think would be the first to agree with me on that.

Lou: Yeah. It’s been tremendously helpful actually to see the structure of the book plotted out in that way and has actually influenced a couple of editorial conversations.

John:  By the way, did you run Blue, your novel?

Lou: I did. Yes, I did. It was perfect, of course.

Alessandra:  Shining gold standard.

Lou: There some interesting things in it and its funny, this is a longer conversation, but they are interpretations of pacing. What Marlowe was seeing as a downbeat was actually a place where emotions were simmering and, you know, it’s just a fascinating thing to sort of remind yourself that if you don’t make that as active as you think you’re making it, you might be taking something away from the reader.

Alessandra:  And just to jump in really fast for those of you who are listening, and maybe haven’t watched the First Draft Friday before, or aren’t aware of who Marlowe is when we’re referring to Marlowe. Marlowe is an AI developmental editor. So if you visit, the website, you can upload your manuscript and she can give a report that shows your plot and your pacing and structure of your novel. So when we say Marlowe, we’re referring to the AI Marlowe. Sorry, go ahead.

John:  So this is my book and my contact information, as well as Raven Wakes the World is a page within my site. So if you’re looking for the video of the longer talk, that’s where you will find it. So we’re talking mostly about structure in this talk. Like I said, the original, this is the last third of a much longer talk. But structure I think is what Marlowe does that’s most interesting. So I’m going to walk you through structure really quickly and then end with how my understanding of structure matches what Marlowe’s AI algorithm does. 

Most of what we know of the structure began with Aristotle, who according to Wikipedia, looked rather like this. His idea of the structure was this chart. Now, unfortunately, this is basically the axis of time, meaning the story begins somewhere and meanders on until it comes to an end. And unfortunately, this is how most first-time writers, I’m not thinking of anybody in this room, in particular, think of story and think of structure, which is why so many first drafts feel very episodic. And they don’t have that sort of page-turning pace that makes you want to stay awake and read under the covers with a flashlight.

But Aristotle also added a dot to his time and this is very important. It’s what he called the Reversal or the Recognition. In comedy, it’s a reversal where the story changes direction and goes to an inevitable conclusion. In tragedy, it’s a recognition where something is realized that leads the tragic hero to an inevitable fate. So the point is you come to a point in your story, that’s about 25% from the end or 75% from the beginning of your story where something changes and leads it to an inevitable conclusion. And this was our understanding of structure until the 15th century when a playwright named Lope de Vega introduced what we now know as the famous three-act structure. He basically took Aristotle’s timeline and added another dot. This was separated from the first act from a middle act, from a final act. Now, Lope de Vega did it basically to introduce bathroom breaks and food breaks in his plays, but it still really works with how we understand the story of the future.

In Act One, you’re sort of introducing the nature of the story; you’re making the case. In the middle act, there follows inevitable conflict; then finally in Act Three, you resolve the case. So this is your basic three-act structure; there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that’s pretty hard to argue with. By the way, as we go through this talk, you’ll see a lot of dots like this, they’re important. They do more than just divide acts because they’re points of causality. They cause the next parts of the story to happen. That’s why they divide acts because they cause the ensuing action, and that’s really, really important. Actually, the idea of calling these a point of causality rather than an act break is an idea I got from Lou.

Lou: Well, and I think actually just to address the point for one second, I think most writers, most first-time writers, certainly, but most writers right across the board would say, that’s the hardest part of writing a book is writing the middle of the book. Because if you know the story well, you have some sense of what’s causing the action to happen. And you have some sense of where you want to take the story at the end. And then you have this long middle part that feels squishy. It often feels squishy, even if you’ve written 20 novels. There’s a reason for that, right, John?

John:  I think so. And in fact, I also think this is the leading cause of writer’s block because you just don’t know what follows.

Lou: Storyboarding ahead of time solves that, but that’s a different conversation.

John:  So, this was our understanding of structure until the 19th century when Gustave Freytag added another axis and another dot. The axis is over here on the left and this is the axis of tension, and I’ll go into that. He also added another dot at the very end. And what that is it basically says there is a point where the story ends, but the world of the story continues past it. So if you think about the ending of Star Wars where you have that metal ceremony, but you’ve also just seen the Darth Vader’s alive scene or there are more stories to tell. At the end of Hamlet, where everybody is dead, but the few characters that are left are sort of cleaning up the mess, you know, that their story is going to continue. The world doesn’t end when the story does. So Freytag’s axis is the axis of tension and tension begins to rise from the beginning of your story. There’s an instigating incident at the beginning that sort of tells you, this is why the story begins here and not at some point later. Hamlet comes home, Rick Blaine and “Casablanca” get presented with the letters of transit; that start that story going, that’s when it starts on that day and not the day before or the week before or the week after.

But the tension begins to ride until you get to the reversal and then it starts to decline as it gets to an inevitable conclusion. So your story is always about raising that level of tension and until you get to an end. I think understanding what tension is, is really important to storytelling. And this is one of the things I think that Marlowe is looking for when it’s looking for its action piece, if you will. There’s a mathematical formula for how to define tension, it looks like this. Hope versus fear equals tension. We hope something will happen. We’re afraid something else will happen. When you have those two things wrestling with each other, your story is working, and you have people turning the page and you have people staying up late to read under the covers with a flashlight.

Alessandra:  I love that equation. I haven’t heard that before. I have to write it down.

John:  It’s easy to remember.

Alessandra:   Yeah. Hope versus fear. I love it.

John:  So this is our basic understanding of the three-act structure. In the movie world, this first dot is called Plot Point One. That’s where the story makes a major turn. You’ve introduced the world of the story. You’ve had an instigating incident that started the story, but now something happened that turns it. In “Casablanca,” it’s when the woman from Rick Blaine’s past, re-enters his life and turns everything upside down. And the tension continues to rise until you get to Plot Point Two or the Reversal, which turns it again towards the ending. Anything you want to add here, Lou?

Now in a screenplay, this is about 30 minutes of time and the last act is also about 30 minutes of time. The middle act is 60 minutes of time. So there’s a little bit of imbalance here, and this works the same with a novel. If you’re writing a hundred-thousand-word novel, which by the way I chose because it made the math easy. Your first 25K words are going to be your first act. There are 50,000 words in the middle, and then another 25,000 to make the end. That makes 50,000 words. But it’s still imbalanced, but this is your three-act structure. It’s really, again, hard to argue with. You have a beginning. You have something that changes the direction of the story. You have a middle part where all the conflict happens and then you have something that shifts it toward the ending, right.

But there’s something that happens in the middle and it has a name. It’s called the Midpoint. And the weird thing is that this midpoint acts exactly the same way as a Plot Point does. It also turns the story in a different direction. And a lot of times you’ll actually see this referred to as Act 2-A and Act 2-B, which frankly I think is a bit silly. There’s an easier way to do it. Frankly, again, I think this works beautifully if you’re just talking about the external action of your story, the events, but, and this is another lesson I learned from Lou, what’s more important than the events of your story is what’s happening to the character and the growth of the character. 

So if you’re thinking about how the events drive changes in your character, it needs to be a four-act structure and it looks just like this. And the reason for this is because your characters go through changes, and I’ll give you an example as we go forward. In the first act, your character is in some way an orphan. Think of Rick Blaine in “Casablanca,” he’s isolated himself from his past and from the world and he’s become a cynical, isolated shell. And then something happens. Elsa comes back and he’s shifted out of that shell he’s built for himself. But he’s not directing his own actions. Something is changing him. He’s a wanderer. And then at the mid-point, something shifts again and he becomes a warrior, and then finally a martyr. Now you also hear the last act as the enlightenment act where the character has realized something. But I like the orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr structure because I think that makes it really elegant to understand the journey that your character is going through. And by the way, this doesn’t just work with an individual character. It also works with an ensemble. Yeah, The Big Chill does this just beautifully, where not only that each character has their own art and their own orphaned, wanderer, warrior, martyr journey, there’s also an arc for the entire ensemble, their friendship.

Lou: I keep thinking of new writers or developing writers when talking about this kind of thing, I think the key that this difference underscores is that what it’s saying is that there’s an important action that has to happen halfway through your middle. Where whatever the characters are doing or whatever the main character is doing, by the middle of the middle; those characters need to be actually engaged in the action that’s going to take them through to Act Four. And I think one of the core problems that a lot of writers face is thinking that action is the thing that happens at the beginning of Act Three. It’s the thing that happened in the middle of what we’ve been traditionally calling back to.

John:  I couldn’t agree more. So each one of these plot points changes in the direction of your story and changes your characters’ journey somehow. And if you’ve done your work well, they make that change inevitable. Now you can also break this down even further. Break each act into two mini acts. My friend and one of our Gramarye teammates is a guy named Chris Soth who calls this the Mini-Movie Method. He’s talking about screenwriting, but it works just as well for novels. Each one of these little movies is a little self-contained story with its own intention. And again, I’ll give you an example as we go forward. Your first act is two mini-acts that make the orphan part of the story. And again, it’s 15 minutes or 12,500 words in a novel. Again, if you’re writing a hundred thousand words, if you’re writing fewer or more than that, you have to do your own math. But most computers and phones come with a calculator, so you’ll be fine.

Again, the second act, same thing, 15 minutes. I’m going to give you an example. I used the original Star Wars movie because I thought that everybody on the planet had seen it until I gave this talk at a university and found that so many of the kids there had not. In Star Wars, the main character is Luke Skywalker. But the first little mini-story isn’t about Luke at all. It’s about R2-D2 and C-3PO because the movie begins when Princess Leia puts the message in R2. That’s what starts the story going. Because that message she puts in R2-D2 is the driving thing of the story, the MacGuffin, as they say. So the 15-minute story is about R2 and 3PO getting away and trying to get to a place of safety. So we hope that they’ll get away from the empire and they’ll get through the desert. But we’re afraid that the empire will catch them and blow them up. So that tension is what drives the story.

Now, the second act of that story ends when they get to Luke Skywalker. Then the story becomes about Luke. And the next part is Luke wanting to leave and go have adventures, but feeling trapped in his home. And he goes off, he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi and learns about the force and the Jedi and has his opportunity to get what he wants. He wants to go off and have adventures, but he’s trapped in his home. His uncle and aunt make him stay on the farm. And that act changes when Plot Point One happens. That’s when he goes back and sees that the empire has killed his uncle and aunt. So he can’t go back. He must go forward. He must follow what he wants and become a Jedi. So this is the act where Luke is an orphan. The first 15 minutes is a little mini-story about R2 and 3PO getting away from the empire.

The second part is about Luke wanting to go off and have adventures. At the end of that half-hour Plot Point One happens almost right on the dot. And you can take your watch to a movie, which by the way, will absolutely ruin movies for you. I saw a movie called I think it was “No Way Out” with Kevin Costner and I was on a date and she kept asking me, “Why are you checking your watch? Are you bored?” And the question I was trying to figure out was who’s the Russian spy? And I looked at my watch, right when Plot Point Two which will lead you to the end was happening. And I said, “Oh, Character A is the spy, right?” She’s like, “How did you know?” Because I knew that that was the point in the movie where there would be a plot point and the only character on screen that could possibly be the Russian spy was that character… because I understood structure. So I’ve learned not to look at my watch during movies anymore and just get lost in the story. When you go back later, it’s a great tool for you. So that’s the first act. It’s two mini-stories that are self-contained and this is Luke’s journey as an orphan. He’s literally an orphan. He lives with his aunt and uncle just like Harry Potter is literally an orphan. Rick Blaine in “Casablanca” is a metaphorical orphan. But in some way, your character is an orphan. 

The next act is the wanderer act. Luke has decided to follow Obi-Wan Kenobi, but he doesn’t know where he’s going. And he’s like; I’m going to come with you. He’s not making decisions. So he goes off. He goes through the bar through the first threshold. He meets his first helpers and manages to get off Tatooine and doesn’t reach his destination, but he gets somewhere. And that’s the end of a little 15-minute mini-story, him leaving his farm, getting off Tatooine, and arriving at the next destination, which unfortunately happens to be the Death Star. Now for the next 15 minutes, you have another little mini-story where Lucas is still a wanderer. And that’s a story about them planning to get off of Death Star, where Obi-Wan goes to turn off the tractor beam, and Luke and Hunter are supposed to wait. But something happens at the exact midpoint of the story. That’s when Luke realizes that Princess Leia is on the station and decides they have to go rescue her. Now Han Solo was arguing saying, “No, no, no. The old man wants us to wait right here”. But Luke says, “No, we have to go rescue her.” He is now making decisions and driving his own story. He is now a warrior.

Lou: And that’s where the action begins. The conclusion of the story, really starts from there.

Alessandra:  So we’re taking the four acts and then dividing them into almost two acts per or two scenes.

John:  Little mini-stories.

Alessandra:  Or mini-stories per act. So your four-act structure is going to be 8 to 10 scenes, roughly, I mean.

John:  About eight.

Alessandra:  About eight.

John:  Its four acts that break into two little mini-stories and that’s a great way to structure it. If you think about it, writing a 120-page screenplay or a 200, 300, 500-page novel is pretty intimidating. But if you break it down into these small digestible chunks, not only do you get that page-turning pace, that Marlowe likes, that makes a best seller that keeps people awake at night. It’s also much easier to digest them, right because you know your story so well.

Alessandra:  And before, just because we’re starting to get close to our time, I just want to put the handout here. This is a handout that follows along with this. So if you want some actionable tips and a summary of some of the things that John’s talking about, you can check out that handout and hopefully, we’ll put it in the chat as well. If anyone has questions as we’re going, feel free to shout them out. Okay, go ahead.

John:  Sounds good. I’m almost to the end. So the next story is when Luke realizes he rescues Princess Leia. They go through the belly of the beast as Joseph Campbell would say, and then this story ends when they escape the Death Star, but at a cost. And in a way that’s when they lose Obi-Wan Kenobi and they escape the Death Star. Now the next 15 minutes is I’m getting to their next journey. It’s sort of mirrors the second half of Act One. But they escape and Luke mourns the loss of Obi-Wan Kenobi and in a strange way, he mourns him more than he mourns his uncle and aunt. And one of the reasons for that I think is because Luke is realizing that Obi-Wan Kenobi has just made a great sacrifice. And Luke is probably going to have to do the same thing. He’s recognizing in his mentor, his own journey.

So they arrive at the place of safety and now comes the final act. And this act is the martyr act because Luke is willing to put his entire life on the line. So you have a 15-minute mini-story where they prepare for that attack. They learned their lessons. Luke loses one by one the last of his support systems. Han Solo runs off and leaves and the attack begins. And the last act is that final, all cards are on the table, it’s the desperate moment. This is the moment of martyrdom. They fight, but Luke starts to get his helpers back. Obi-Wan’s voice is heard. Han Solo returns and says, “Yahoo” and the Death Star explodes. And then they have the middle ceremony at the end. So you know, that this story has ended, but there’s still more world out there. The world has continued.

So if you think about it again, what you’re looking at, by the way, my drawing looks a lot like a stegosaurus, doesn’t it? Someday, I keep telling myself, I’m going to have a real artist do this, but don’t hold your breath. So it’s basically lots of little stories and each of these act breaks or mini-story breaks are points of causality that again, make what happens next inevitable. So if you’ve had a Marlowe analysis and I forgot to add the E there, so sorry about it. This is a Marlowe spelling. What a lot of, if you’ve had a Marlowe analysis of one of your novels, and if you haven’t, you really should, you’re going to notice, it looks really familiar. Lou can talk about this probably better than I can. But these are the narrative beats that Marlowe, this is my own novel, “Raven Makes the World,” by the way, and as you can see the beats that Marlowe identifies as having really, really good pacing is almost exactly that same structure I just showed you. So if you want to write the type of story that is what Marlowe is recommending, this is the method to do it. By the way, this is us again with our contact information. If you’d like to get in touch, this is my email and that’s Lou’s. Please reach out. We’d be happy to talk to you. I thank you very much for your time.

Alessandra:  Thank you, John. That was really helpful. When you were talking about mini-stories; that is perfect for Marlowe’s structure because she plots out what we call story beats or narrative beats which is an action that happens. In a best-seller, you know, what popular novels have shown in the past is that spacing them out every 10% roughly is key to keeping your readers engaged and keeping them turning the pages. So that lines up perfectly with everything you just taught.

Lou:  The job is to take each of the major beat points and have that drive the story forward. 

John:  Right. So you’re telling a big story that’s made up of lots of little stories.

Alessandra:  So if you notice as an editor about lagging in the beginning, Lou, would you suggest adding a backstory or adding another…?

Lou: What I would definitely suggest is adding more tension points. Because if the story feels like it’s starting slowly or it may be dragging in the middle. It’s often because the writer noticed where they want to go at the end but haven’t built-in tension points along the way.

John:  And by the way I wrote, “Raven Makes the World” before I knew about this and the illustrations that you just saw were from Raven. But I didn’t really understand the structure at that point. What I did understand was that I was following the structure of some of the wonder tales and mythology of the indigenous peoples of the American North, Inuit people, and others. And those wonder tales follow the same exact structure. So this is not something new. It’s something that goes back to our cave painting and campfire days. It’s a rhythm that we all understand in our hearts. It’s how we understand the story works. It’s like music has a structure to it and understanding how music works, lets you do more with it and lets you be creative. Understanding how the story works gives you the same gift.

Alessandra: Going back to just the basics, it’s when you’re telling your kid a bedtime story and you’re making it up and you can tell like you have a point you’re getting to, but you’re losing them. So suddenly in the middle of it, you have to have like a dragon jumps in and you know, something that catches their attention. So I think you’re right, like going back to caveman days like they understood like you have to keep the reader interested and you do that by smaller stories along the way.

John:  It’s the old quote about when in doubt, have two guys come to the door with guns.

Alessandra:  Yes. Or throw a dead body in the mix, right, if it’s getting boring. We are already out of time. Is there anything you want to say to wrap up or anything you didn’t get a chance to cover that you want to include before we sign off?

John:  I think I covered everything I can think of.

Alessandra:  Perfect. Thank you. If you enjoy this event, please show us some love by sharing this video, following our channel, or reviewing our podcasts so other book lovers and authors can find us. We do First Draft Friday, every other Friday right here, however, you’re watching it. So I hope you come back. Thank you, John and Lou, it was so great to have you. I really appreciate your time and all of your wisdom.

John:  Thanks for having us.

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