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.)
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)
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.
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