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4-Act Structure: Screenwriting’s Dirty Little Secret

I’m going to give you some hard truths about story structure, and try to impress upon you that, while everything you’ve ever been told about story structure is not necessarily wrong, there is a different way to look at story structure that makes sense both from a macro and a micro point of view. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know that I am an advocate of solid story structure, especially for unknown writers who are trying to break in to the business.

In order to avoid controversy, I’ve stuck to the 3-Act mantra, and you can go back through all of my blogs on the subject, and I always refer to it as 3-Act structure, except for one random blog I posted a little over a year ago. Then I taught a class on story structure for Stage 32, and I decided that I needed to speak the truth. As much as we want to believe what we’ve always been told, it’s time to accept the fact that stories are more often than not told in four acts, not three.

We’ve always been taught that the proper way to write a screenplay is to write it in three acts with the first act being 25-30 pages, the second act being 50-60 pages and the third act being anther 25-30 pages. The reason for that is because of the power of 3. Everything should have a beginning, a middle and an end. That makes total sense, and while there are exceptions to that rule, it’s easy to look at almost any mainstream American film of the last 90 years and see that basic beginning, middle and end structure.

However, there is a different way to look at it. I, too, had been told about 3-act structure in my early days of learning about screenwriting. Then, one day I started taking intermediate screenwriting at USC, and the instructor opened by talking about 4-act structure. He didn’t make a big deal out of it. He just started talking about writing your screenplay in 4 acts. “He’s gotta be misspeaking,” I told myself. Everyone knows it’s 3 acts. I had friends who asked me about his class after I’d been in it for a few weeks, because everyone knew that he was pushing this 4-act idea which felt very controversial to them, again, because everyone had always been told, “3 acts, 3 acts, 3 acts.”

Being an open-minded, non-confrontational, go-with-the-flow kind of guy, I thought to myself, let’s split the difference. It can still be 3 acts, but I’ve seen plenty of graphs and charts that show Act IIA and Act IIB, so it’s really no big deal. Then I graduated from USC and I got a job at Disney working on the feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Now, Atlantis will never be mistaken for the greatest Disney feature ever, but it did show me that yes, movies can be told in 4 distinct acts, because Atlantis, whether directors Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale or screenwriter Tab Murphy, or anyone from the story team intended it, Atlantis is told in four acts. The Set Up. The Conflict / Adventure. The Consequences / Adventure. And the Resolution / Climax.

Milo Thatch is the Hero of the story and his outer goal is to find Atlantis. Well, he and his friends find Atlantis half way through the picture. In Act I, Milo is trying to convince the members of the board of the Smithsonian to fund an expedition to find Atlantis and is laughed out of the building. He then finds an eccentric billionaire who was friends with his grandfather and knows about the Shepherd’s Journal, which has clues that Milo is able to put together to determine Atlantis’ final resting place, and this billionaire has already put the team together. They just need Milo’s expertise. So at the end of Act I, the story changes direction as the adventure begins when they all board the submarine to find Atlantis. Then, at the midpoint of the film, they find it. The story changes direction again at the end of Act IIA (really Act II) as Milo now wants to learn as much about Atlantis as he can. That’s the definition of changing the Act. The story changes direction. Then Milo discovers that Rourke, the leader of the expedition has a much darker purpose for wanting to find Atlantis, the story changes direction again at the end of Act IIB (really Act III), as Milo now wants to save Atlantis, and we move into the Resolution / Climax of the story, which is Act III (really Act IV).

That got me to thinking about movies that I had seen and scripts that I had read, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most screenplays really are told in four acts. I am a disciple of Christopher Vogler, and I have studied the Hero’s Journey extensively. In fact, when I read scripts for coverage, I often use the Hero’s Journey as a means of evaluating, and as a means of offering up suggestions for improvement. Looking at this Hero’s Journey graph at the top, if you were to extend the vertical lines, we would see that the structure of the story is actually broken up into quadrants. Quad obviously being four. The first act starts in the Ordinary World. It sets up the problem that the hero will have to face, and usually introduces us to most of the important characters. We also learn what problem or problems the hero will need to overcome. The second act is where the adventure begins, and the hero is facing that problem. The midpoint of the story, referred to in the Hero’s Journey as the Ordeal, is often where the original problem is either solved or some other problem arises. Another common refrain for the portion of the story is that this is where the stakes are raised. In Atlantis, the stakes are raised when they discover Atlantis. It isn’t the end of the adventure; it’ the beginning of a new one. As we’ll see shortly, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, they discover the Ark half way through the movie. If the movie was just about finding the Ark, it should have ended at that point, but now the stakes are being raised, because they have to keep it away from the Nazis. That is when we move in to Act III, where we have to deal with the consequences of those stakes being raised. This generally leads to the moment where the hero loses everything, or has some comparable low point, and we transition from Act III in to Act IV. Act IV is where we have our resolution and climax.

Raiders of the Lost Ark is clearly a film that is told in four acts. Act I, Indy learns about the Ark, and that the Nazis are searching for it. In Act II, Indy searches for the Ark, and discovers it at the half-way point of the film. Act III is all about Indy attempting to get the Ark safely into the hands of the Allies and out of the hands of the Nazis, however the act ends with the Nazis getting the Ark from him, but also kidnapping Marion. Act IV shows Indy as a changed man, who was previously willing to sacrifice Marion for the Ark, but now would prefer to rescue her over getting the Ark back from the Nazis. However, overcoming that character flaw allows him to do both, and the movie ends with him losing the Ark to the Washington, D.C. bureaucracy, but gaining Marion back into his life.

Another great example is Casablanca. A four-act feature in which each act shows a different aspect of Rick’s personality. Not only that, but Act’s I and II are transposed via one of the great flash backs in the history of cinema.

Casablanca actually starts in Act II. We have already entered into the Special World of Casablanca, and we start out the film being introduced to all of the wild and fantastical characters that live there. The Tests, Allies and Enemies portion of the Hero’s Journey starts the movie. We meet Ugarte, Renault, Major Strasser, Ferrari, but most important of all, we meet Rick, who famously will stick his neck out for no one. We learn that he used to be a warrior for justice and underdogs, but those days are past. He’s now a cynical loner, apparently bereft of feelings or emotion.

Ilsa’s arrival marks the Approach. Rick is now inevitably heading to a confrontation with Ilsa, and that confrontation will be the Ordeal, but we don’t yet know why there is tension between them or where it came from.

The Supreme Ordeal is wrapped around the flashback that takes us to Act I, Rick’s Ordinary World, which was Paris. We see his loving nature and good humor. He loves Ilsa, and he loves Paris. He seems to be a lover of life. However, all of that changes when the Nazis march into Paris and Rick thinks that Ilsa will leave on the last train out with him. However, all that he gets is a note from her, telling him that she can never see him again. With that note, the young, loving and idealistic Rick dies and is replaced by the cynical, hard-boiled Rick who only looks out for himself.

Part 2 of the Supreme Ordeal shows Ilsa giving Rick a second call to adventure by asking for the letters of transit that he’d gotten from Ugarte. Rick provides a second refusal. Now we’re in Act III as Rick starts to grow as a character. He still loves Ilsa, but his bitterness doesn’t allow him to forgive her just yet.

Act IV shows Rick back as the selfless person he once was. He chooses the path that’s best for others rather than himself, but is finally comfortable in his own skin.

One final example of 4-Act structure is A Clockwork Orange. That movie clearly is told in three acts with Alex’s Ordinary World being the one in which he spends his nights doing the old ultra-violence with his droogs. Act II begins when Alex is arrested for murder, and he’s sent to the Special World of Prison. Act III begins when Alex is selected to receive the Ludivico treatment to make him good. Act IV shows Alex, a new man entirely, returning home only to find that he’s not wanted by his family and friends, and the people that he wronged in the past are lusting for revenge. This leads to a powerful climax and poses moral questions that can only be answered individually by anyone who watches the film.

On a macro level, thinking of your story from this point of view should make it easier to write an entire script. Rather than thinking of Act 2 as a 60 page monster, you really should be thinking of it as two sections of the story, with each one having to change the direction of the story. Instead of 2 equal acts bookending a larger act in the middle, the story should be thought of as being broken down into 4 equal sections.

Not only should the overall story be broken down like that, but so should your scenes. Each scene or sequence is its own story with someone trying to accomplish something, and some person or thing or force of nature is trying to stop that from happening.

And if you were to analyze most films, you’ll find that they match this story structure. Are there exceptions? Of course, there are. However, the vast majority of scripts are written in four acts, and the most compelling and most interesting stories are told with that structure.

Dramatic Structure: Four Reasons Why It’s Important

Anyone who has spent any time around my blog knows that I am an advocate for proper dramatic structure in a screenplay. This is especially true if you’re an unknown talent trying to break into the industry. Agents and executives are going to first want to know that you know the rules before they’ll trust you to properly break them. But there is a different and less arbitrary reason for making sure that your script is properly structured. That reason is that the script will just be better. You will have a better sense of the story while you’re writing it. Your characters will have clearly defined goals and needs, which will more actively engage the audience. And most importantly, the narrative will have a natural flow, which will turn your plot into a story.

As I like to say, plot is what happens. Story is why we care.

That was a title of a recent blog post and you can read that one here. I’m harping on this because I’ve been reading a lot of scripts lately and almost to a man, the most common problem with all of them is that they either have no structure at all, or they have structure that is incomplete. The most common mistake is that there’s a clear break between Act I and II, but no break between Act II and III. The reason for that is often because the writer didn’t give the hero a clear flaw that caused her to hit a low point and lose everything then have to grow and change in order to truly win in the third act. A story feels incomplete if it doesn’t have an ending. All scripts end, but not all of them have endings.

With that in mind, here are four reasons why your script needs a strong dramatic structure.

It defines your hero’s progress through the story

How many times have you been watching a movie and you start realizing that the story isn’t going anywhere? There are things happening, but it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be an end to any of these means. The reason for that is probably because the hero doesn’t have a clearly defined goal, or even worse, there’s no clearly defined hero in the script. Doing a fusion of the Hero’s Journey as adapted by Christopher Vogler and Syd Field’s 3-act structure notion, along with my own thoughts on how the best scripts are told in four acts, look at the various stages of where a character should be in relation to the story. Act I is the Ordinary World and is generally where the hero gets her Call to Adventure. The hero’s world, which had been in balance until some inciting incident knocks it out of balance, must decide whether or not to do whatever needs to be done to get her world back into balance.

Act II begins when the hero Crosses the First Threshold into the Special World of the adventure. Most people get this right and generally get it to happen in the correct point of the script. It’s what happens after it that messes people up. The first half of the second act is a series of tests for the hero to go through, and that culminates with a midpoint of the story where the hero experiences the biggest test to date. Quite often, this is where the hero attains the initial goal. Indiana Jones finds the Ark of the Covenant. Luke Skywalker rescues Princess Leia. There are many examples of this, and the second half of Act II is generally the repercussions of that. Indiana Jones now needs to keep the Ark out of the hands of the Nazis. Luke and Leia have to get the Death Star plans to the rebels. Then Act III begins, usually with the failure of the hero to accomplish what he needed to in Act II. The Nazis get the Ark. Luke and Leia didn’t get the Death Star plans to the rebels in time and now the Death Star is threatening to destroy them.

Then in Act III, the hero overcomes that failure based on new things that she’s learned and she restores balance to her world, even though it will never be the same (for good or for bad) as it was before.

The consistent thing about that breakdown, was that in those examples, we know where the hero is in the story. We know that he’s working towards accomplishing his goals, and there is dramatic tension as the forces that are against him are trying to stop him.

It creates better pacing and flow

What the above outline also does is it creates pacing and flow to the story. The natural flow of dramatic story structure, and particularly the Hero’s Journey, allows for ebbs and flows in the pacing so that there are moments of excitement and tension followed by moments where the story slows down so the audience can catch their breath.

When a story lacks structure, it also lacks pacing. The structure provides a clearly marked path for the story to follow, and without that path, the story merely meanders through a roughly defined plot. Audiences can sense this and will likely tune out if the story is too fast or too slow. Think about action movies where the plot is simply what happens between explosions. There’s little pacing to that type of scenario. It’s a fun ride, but often not a satisfying story.

It allows the story to have an arc

Piggybacking on the first two reasons is story arc. This can mean several things, but generally it has to do with the various moods that the story puts you in or the internal thoughts that it inspires. It can be understanding the flow of the story what the hero needs to do to keep the story moving. Whatever it is, you can’t hang an arc on a story that has no structure because without structure, there’s no place to put an arc. Without that arc, it won’t feel like the story is going anywhere, and the feeling for the audience will get pretty stale in short order.

It accentuates the story’s thematic components

Finally, every good story, and I don’t care what genre it is, has strong thematic components. I don’t care if it’s action, comedy, horror, western, drama, or science fiction. If it has a good story, that means there are thematic components behind it. Generally, the theme is the lesson or moral or idea that they storyteller is trying to get across. A good story structure paces what the writer is trying to say in a way that reveals information and ideas at the proper moments in the story. Without that structure, the story is nothing more than a pool of ideas and there is nowhere to thoughtfully place ideas for people to consider, even subconsciously as they watch the film. There’s just a whole lot of nothing there.

At Monument Script Services, we pride ourselves on being experts at evaluating story structure, pointing out where it could be better and offering up solutions for improvement. If you have a script that you believe has a good story, but just can’t quite fit it in to the proper dramatic structure, we can help. Click here to see the different services we provide, and let us know which one would be best for you.

Let Your Protagonist Build Your Structure

Well, I’ve been out of commission for a while, mainly because I’ve been reading a ton of scripts lately, and I just haven’t had time for blogging. I’m back now, and hopefully will be able to carve out some time to do this more consistently. Today’s topic: how story structure and a strong protagonist are mutually dependent on each other. You can’t have one without the other.

How obvious does this sound? It sounds incredibly obvious, but I’ve spent the past several weeks reading screenplays for various contests and online sights, and the most consistent issue that I was seeing was the lack of a strong protagonist, which in turn created a lack of strong dramatic structure. Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I am an advocate for strong and clean structure, especially for writers who are still trying to break in to the business. As an unknown commodity, you need to be able to show that you understand the rules before you can demonstrate how to effectively break them. Screenplays, for the most part, have one central character, the protagonist, who drives the action of the story. The drama of the story is created by whether or not the protagonist is getting what she wants, and the beats of the structure reflect her progress through the story.

I must have read a dozen scripts over the past month in which at least two people, and sometimes more, could have fit the definition of the protagonist within a single script. The writers of those stories couldn’t put an organized story together because the three major plot points depend on reflecting the internal and external states of one main character. Act I ends and Act II begins when the main character commits to whatever the adventure of the story will be. Act II is cut in half when something happens to the main character of because of the main character that causes the stakes to be raised, thus changing the direction of the story. Finally, Act II ends and Act III begins when the hero appears to be in a no-win situation, either due to her own character flaws or due to outside forces like the antagonist. That sets up the Third Act to be about the protagonist overcoming those flaws and that adversary (or not) and accomplishing whatever she had set out to accomplish at the end of the first act (or not).

The most succinct example of this is Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones receives his archetypal Call to Adventure in the first Act to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. Act II begins with him flying to Nepal to see an old lover, Marion, who may have a clue to help find it, and the adventure has begun, and Act IIA is about finding the Ark. Then, halfway through the second act the stakes are raised when Indy actually discovers the Ark and excavates it from its tomb. Now, Act IIB will be about keeping the Ark away from the Nazis. Act II ends with the Nazi’s not only getting the Ark from him, but also kidnapping Marion as well. That makes the Third Act about getting the Ark back from the Nazis and rescuing Marion.

Even though it’s primarily an action film, Raiders of the Lost Ark has a clear and concise dramatic structure because it has a single, strong protagonist with a clear outer goal and a clear inner need. His outer goal is to find the Ark of the Covenant and to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis, and his inner need is to reconcile with Marion. There are various points in the movie when these two goals come into conflict with each other, creating more drama, but never interfering with the arc of the story.

I mention all of this because I read a lot of scripts recently, mostly by amateur writers, who failed to grasp the concept that a single protagonist is needed to tell an effective story. Are there exceptions to his rule? Absolutely. There are some stories that are told from multiple points of view, the most prominent example being The Godfather, but the effective ones are few and far between. I actually did a breakdown here of how The Godfather is told from the points of view of both Vito and Michael.

I don’t know what it was about these batches of scripts that I received over the past few weeks, but many of them had this problem. The writers couldn’t decide in these individual scripts which of their characters was the protagonist. The scripts would start out with one character driving the action, but then other characters would be introduced that turned out to be just as important in driving the action.

Each one of these Scripts without exception, was in terrible shape from a structural standpoint. The structure was either muddled or non-existent because there was not a single protagonist whose wants and needs matched the plot points of the storyline. Instead there were multiple protagonists competing for attention in the stories and competing to be the focus of the structure of the story. There’s a saying in football that if you have two starting quarterbacks, then you really don’t even have one. The same thing applies to screenwriting and storytelling. If you have two (or more) protagonists, then you don’t even have one.

If you have more than one main character, then you don’t know what the Ordinary World of Act I is, because you don’t know whose Ordinary World you’re supposed to focus on. Moreover, you don’t know where Act I ends and Act II of the Adventure beginning begins because we don’t know whose adventure we’re supposed to be following. Most importantly since we don’t know whose wants and needs are most important, we don’t know where the all-is-lost moment occurs so we don’t know where Act III begins. That problem actually leads to the most devastating problem. Without a clear all-is-lost moment where the hero must overcome her internal flaw, the audience has no emotional connection to the story and no reason to care what’s going on. As soon as the audience decides they don’t care, you have no chance to get them back.

What this led to in many of these scripts was a simple lack of any structure at all. Many of these scripts were just one, long rambling act with little to no story arc and even less character arc. What these writers need to learn is that a story is more than just what happens. It’s why it happened and how it happened and (most importantly) who is affected by it. Without answering any of those issues, then your script will suffer from the same fate, and you’ll have no chance of getting anything other than a dreaded PASS on your coverage.

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