4-Act Story Structure

4 act plot structure

Like most writers, I’ve always had trouble writing the middle of any story. Back before I even knew what plotting was, I would start a story and write and write… and then hit a point where I had to stop because I would have no idea what happened next. Even if I knew how the story ended, there was this wasteland in-between the beginning and the ending.

I always referred to this wasteland as the ‘murky middle,’ because even though I knew that stuff – big stuff, even – happened, it was never quite clear to me what any of that stuff was.

Now that I’ve been studying plot structure, I look back and see that that point that I could never write past was invariably the beginning of the second act. And it makes sense. The first act (beginning) and the third act (ending) each take up 15-30% of the text. This leaves a whopping 40-60% for the second act (the good ol’ murky middle).

That’s a lot of words for very little structure.

The problem with 3-act structure

I think the reason most writers have trouble writing the middle is the way plot structure is traditionally laid out. You have the beginning – inciting incident, introduction to mundane world, escalation, exit into fantastic world – it’s all tight and obvious and gone in a flash. Seriously, it’s so short that you can finish the first act on adrenaline alone. The third act is basically the same – short and sweet, and you’re writing on the fumes of ecstasy that the story is nearly finished.

But then there’s the murky middle. A huge amorphous blob right in the heart of your manuscript. Barely any sign-posts, all you know is you have to get from point A to point C and keep your readers engaged to boot.

It’s like trying to build a bridge out of jellyfish. There’s no structure. No wonder so many books just seem to peter out after the first act.

But there is a better way.

How 4-act story structure can help you slay the murky middle

First, let’s look at what makes writing the first and third acts so easy and enjoyable:

  1. They’re short
  2. We know where we’re going and how to get there.

How can we bring these elements to the middle of our story? Simple – we just divide the infamous second act in two manageable chunks at the midpoint plot point (for more info on the midpoint plot point, check out Plot Bones: How to create a plot skeleton to write your story on).

Now your story is divided in four equally-sized chunks, and just like you used the first act to build up to the beginning of the second act, you use the second act to build up to the midpoint plot point, or the beginning of the third act. Bonus: Not only does this momentum make it easier to write, it will keep your readers engaged.

How 4-act story structure looks

Spoiler warning: We’re using plot points from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games as examples.

Act 1

Inciting incident, introduction to mundane world (what Main Character (MC) will leave behind, or risks losing), build-up to the MC entering the fantastic world.

In The Hunger Games, we begin in District 12 on the day of the reaping, where we see how everyday life unfolds. Katniss volunteering to take her sister’s place is the inciting incident, which thrusts her into the fantastic world of the Capitol.

Act 2

Learn more about the fantastic world, get necessary backstory, learn about the problem, develop plan to solve problem. This plan should seem likely to succeed – there will be time for hail marys later.

Katniss and Peeta learn about the fantastic world of the Capitol. They train for the games, each developing a game strategy with Haymitch. 

The implementation of the plan leads too….

Act 3

The turn for the worse. Possible entrance into ‘the dark world.’ The plan doesn’t work, perhaps a traitor is revealed. Each scene should spiral downward toward the hero’s ‘dark moment,’ where everything looks hopeless and they give up. Act 3 should end with a conflict lock, which tells us what the game plan is for defeating the big bad in act 4. There should be some sort of incendiary incident, either one last bad thing that forces the MC over the edge, OR they learn some bit of info they didn’t know before, AKA they ‘find the key.’

Katniss and Peeta enter the arena. Rue dies, and it looks hopeless that either of them will survive.

Act 4

If they haven’t entered the dark world already, they do so to face off with the antagonist. The protagonist either wins or fails. (This is the time for that hail mary.) Re-enter the fantastic world, which now no longer seems that fantastic to the MC.

Katniss and Peeta are the only ones left in the arena. It seems that one of them will have to die, but then they decide to eat the poisonous berries. The Capitol is forced to announce that them both winners. They are taken out of the arena and back to the capitol.

4-act story structure = 3-act structure in disguise

Notice that we aren’t actually adding extra acts, merely dividing the middle into two chunks. Untrained eyes will still classify this as three-act structure. You tricky devil, you.

So what do you think? I four-act story structure the way to go, or is the traditional three-act structure correct? Let me know in the comments!


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H. Duke
H. Duke writes fantasy, horror, and more. Her works include the weird west / urban fantasy serial mashup, Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer and the Christmas horror collection, Things on the Shelf: Three Tales of Christmas Terror, as well as the forthcoming Pagewalker series. She wrote the first season of Jeremiah Jones Cowboy Sorcerer while living in Arizona with her husband, Giru, and a shiny black dog named Jupiter. To see what she's up to now, visit her website.

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