Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Story in Four Acts

Deb McLeod's Story in Four Arcs
by Deb McLeod

I came to understand Story Arc by the long road. Like all readers, I had a general idea of story structure; you absorb that as you read. While I could collect scenes and understand character, my stories didn’t make it because they didn’t have an arc. While I thought I knew what that was, I couldn’t explain it and I certainly couldn’t create it.

Not long ago I found Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheets and discovered a whole new way to look at stories. Before that, understanding the three-act structure and Freytag’s Pyramid were okay in theory but not in my stories. They made sense and they were a good way to deconstruct a published work, but I was never able to transfer them into my writing in any meaningful way. I got the First Act and I got the Third Act. But what about that long middle?

Once I understood the beat sheets and saw them in action in movies and books, I finally got the structure of story.

If you look at the novel as the record of a journey of the main character, it begins to make sense. When I say journey, I’m not necessarily talking about the traditional journey motif or even the Writer’s Journey with its wizards and gatekeepers that honestly never resonated with me. I’m talking about a growth period journey.

We all have growth periods in our lives. Times when circumstance, the universe or whatever else forces us to change. If you dig in to those personal transformations, you’ll see the three-parts of story acting out in your very life. If I look at the structure of a novel as the record of the possibility of a change in the main character’s life. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a story.

Snyder divides the arc into four equal parts for his Hollywood-type movies. I use that same four-act structure to look at novels. Only they aren’t necessarily divided equally into four parts, but when they are, the story works a whole lot better.

The First Act

The first act is about the character’s “before” life. What’s not working and how it is for the character in their world. We might see them in trouble. Or not living up to their potential, but just like humans nothing has yet begun to force them to change.

Towards the end of the first act the catalyst happens. Some event forces the main character out onto a road they hadn’t planned to take. When character steps out of their comfort zone, they begin to change. So at the end of the first act something has forced the character onto a different path – usually reluctantly, but not always.

First Half of Second Act

In the first half of the second act the main character finds herself in a new world and a new way of being. Obstacles come her way and she fumbles and stumbles through this new way of being until the midpoint. She hasn't really started to change in the first half of the second act. That will come later and only when she's forced to change.

Second Half of the Second Act

So, in the second half of the second act, just like the universe we all operate in when we have to change, but don’t, things start to get worse. Now it’s serious. Now there are consequences to not changing. Bad things happen and worse things happen and the main character begins to get squeezed. Because, let’s face it, the only thing that makes us change is force, right?

So the second half of the second act is about that force. When the ego has been stripped only then will the main character be forced to change. And that takes us through the third act.

The Third Act

The third act is when the character makes that change. They experience a few more ups and downs but the general direction leads toward the possibility of real change. Suddenly the goal they thought they were striving towards isn’t what is really important. The worst has happened, she’s lost everything. She has to change.

If a character needs to learn to be more understanding, doesn’t it hold that the issues that would come up would test that ability to be understanding? Wouldn’t there be something that happens that would test this to the MC’s nth degree? Does the MC change in the end? Maybe, maybe not. But if the theme stated is their rigidity and perhaps their inability to understand and maybe forgive, then the story needs to be about that. And the rest of the plot follows the 4 acts of the tests the MC undergoes to break through to the possibility of changing that characteristic.

Happy ending? Then the character is beat down until they change and rise triumphant. Tragic ending? Then the character holds to their misguided value until the bitter end. And they don’t get the girl. Or the gold. Or the self-respect. Or whatever the plot has presented along the way. They stay the same. And that’s tragic.

Criticism of this method

Blake Snyder came up with his beat sheet for Hollywood movies. Novelist critics (some clients I have had) have been very leery about using the beat sheets. I mean who wants to write a Hollywood movie that masquerades as a novel? Some of us are more serious that than.

Well, I have to say I was a critic at first myself. But then I started to see how you could reduce movies and some television shows to these beats. Then I started beating out books. Books like “House of Sand and Fog” by Andre Dubus III as well as more commercial books like “The Host” by Stephanie Meyer. In Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” screenwriting book, he beats out a Pledge commercial that contains a story. Someone on his website has beat out some Taylor Swift songs.

Story has a universal arc. For me, dividing that arc into four acts works. And best of all, looking at it this way, I'm writing better stories.

About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fourteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more, see

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