The Four Act Plot Structure

Everyone talks about the Three Act Plot Structure. But have you ever heard about the Four Act Structure? It is the basic structure of classic Chinese poetry, and in places like Japan (probably Korea and China as well) students are encouraged to write all stories and essays based on this structure.

The Four Act Structure is defined by four Chinese characters signifying the “Opening” , “Developing”, “Twist” and “Conclusion”. Here is a simple example:

Susan is smart, cheerful and beautiful.
Anyone would fall in love with her in a minute.
My brother would never believe this.
Yesterday she said “Yes”.

The first line introduces Susan. The second line develops on the introduction. The third line skips to someone unrelated to the story. The last line presents the ending. The unrelated third line provides emphasis, a change of pace, and a new vantage point. It also provides the “break” into the fourth line. The structure could be used in a more elaborate passage as well. For example:

First Paragraph: A graphic report on a grizzly murder of a young black man named Joe.
Second Paragraph: A report that five similar incidents that have happened to other black victims in the same poor neighborhood.
Third Paragraph: An analysis that much fewer such murders occur in wealthier white neighborhoods.
Fourth Paragraph: Joe’s mother pleads that reforms be made to prevent further such incidents.

Paragraphs 1, 2 and 4 are about a poor black neighborhood. 3 is a departure from that area and describes a very different kind of neighborhood. This four paragraph article is something I just made up, but you might have noticed that many reporters have unconsciously adopted this format, although I doubt too many of them have been trained to do so.

Depending on what the third paragraph talks about, the general impression of the article can vary greatly. For example, the third paragraph might compare the frequency of murders in neighborhoods of similar economic situation in countries where guns are unavailable, in which case the article might sound like an argument for gun control. Or if the third paragraph focuses on wealth inequality, the article will seem to advocate liberal economic policies. If the third paragraph talks about Caucasians who behaved in the same manner as Joe with much less harmful outcomes, the story becomes a treatise on racial inequality. In each case, the third paragraph takes the reader out of Joe’s neighborhood to a seemingly unrelated environment. The twist can define the conclusion.

The four act story structure is as ubiquitous as the three act structure. It is just that not many non-Asian writers discuss it very much. Let’s look at the original Star Wars: Episode IV.

In the Three Act structure:
Act 1: Luke decides to follow Ben, fight for the rebellion and rescue the princess.
Act 2: Luke finds the princess, loses Ben, and escapes the Death Star.
Act 3: Luke blows up the Death Star and saves the rebellion.

In the Four Act structure:
Act 1: Luke learns that his father was a Jedi and hears for the first time about the Force.
Act 2: Luke follows Ben on an adventure and witnesses several incidences in which the Force is used.
Act 3: Lots of shooting, chasing, running and exploding that has nothing to do with the Force.
Act 4: More shooting and chasing, but Luke hears “Use the Force!” which he does and succeeds.

You can see that it can work just as well both ways if you are retro-fitting it to a completed story. In the Four Act structure, not only does Act 3 have little to do with Luke’s introduction into the world of the Force, but his mentor is lost during this act.

In the Three Act structure:
Act 1: The protagonist starts from a static situation, gets hit by an inciting incident and starts moving.
Act 2: The protagonist faces difficulties, surmounts them, suffers losses, then gets going again.
Act 3: Stakes are raised, difficulties are greater, he almost loses, then wins.

In the Four Act structure:
Act 1: The protagonist is introduced in a static situation. His quest is presented.
Act 2: The protagonist embarks on his quest. Along the way he is faced with tasks he must accomplish in order to attain his objective.
Act 3: On the road to accomplishing his tasks, he meets obstacles, questions, doubts and inner conflicts.
Act 4: The protagonist completes his quest. He is changed through his journey.

But retro-fitting a structure to any given story is pointless. The structure is a tool for composing a story. How does the four act structure fair in that arena? Other than the fact that the entire canon of Japanese literature, and most of East Asian literature, was written to the four act structure, it has been proven useful to the few Western writers who employed it as well. Granted, some Japanese screen writers have said that adhering to the four act structure is less important than the emotional journey of the story, and some people argue that since the whole Hollywood community works with the three act structure, the four act structure in not necessary, it could still be a useful addition to your toolbox. Even Blake Snyder, in his book, proposes a story board composed of four parts. Act 1, Act 2: first half), Act 2: second half, and Act 3. The second part of Act 2 is the “twist”. In his Beat Sheet, the second half is further divided into four sections “Bad Guys Close In” “All Is Lost” “Dark Night of the Soul” and “Break Into Act 3”. The four act structure is there whether you are conscious of it or not.

It is really not a bad idea to be aware of two structures. Both structures should fit your story just as well. These are just tools for composing your story anyway. The more tools the better.

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