Thursday, July 14, 2011

3-Act Structure – More like 4-Act Structure

When I write, I adhere strictly to 3-act structure. I come from a screenwriting background where my professors and books like Syd Field’s Screenplay drilled structure into my brain. But I love it. I am huge proponent of 3-act structure. A plotter to the core. The only pantser part of me is that I wear them occasionally. However, I actually use 4-act structure. I split the middle act in half, which is what happens in 3-act structure anyway. The middle is very daunting. Once your characters enter a new world, they muddle through and stuff happens until the visit to death/end of the world/new plan for Act 3 comeback. That’s a lot of pages to fill in the meantime – 60 pages of script and untold pages of manuscript.

I always prefer breaking down a large task into a bunch of smaller steps, and that’s what I do here. The 2nd act was meant to be split in half at the midpoint. At the midpoint, your MC’s mission changes. They have more clarity and now they know what they must do. My professor would reference the midpoint of Gone with the Wind: Scarlet O’Hara raises her fist in the air and exclaims “As G-d is my witness, I will never be hungry again!” Your MC should have a moment like that (maybe not as histrionic).

At the midpoint, your MC should be used to his/her new world. If you’ve ever seen fish-out-of-water movies, the first half shows the MC adjusting making culture-clash mistakes. By the midpoint, those jokes stop and their mission shifts. Next time you watch a movie, pause it at the 1 hour mark. See if you notice a shift in the story.

Some examples:
-Hunger Games: When Katniss first gets to Panem, her mission is to survive and figure out her world. Halfway through, she becomes used to the games and life in the arena. Now, she begins plotting. Her goal is no longer to survive; it’s to win.
-Pride & Prejudice: [SPOILER ALERT] At the midpoint, Mr. Darcy confesses his love to Elizabeth Bennett, and she rejects him. She spent the first half of the book detesting him, and now she realizes that she likes him and made a horrible mistake. As G-d is her witness, she will get him back.
-King’s Speech – At first, Bertie is getting used to Logue’s unorthodox methods. He’s learning to speak properly. At the midpoint, his brother abdicates the throne, making Bertie king on the eve of WWII. Now, as G-d as his witness, he will learn to be a leader and give a reassuring speech to his citizens.
-Legally Blonde – When Elle Woods goes to Harvard, the first half of Act 2 focuses on her getting adjusted and fitting in. Total fish-out-of-water. But then she gets used to it. She has a cool montage where she types at a computer and raises her hand a lot. At the midpoint, she gets selected for Callahan’s internship. Now the mission is getting Brooke Wyndham acquitted of murdering her husband.
-Lost – It’s rare for a TV series to have a midpoint, but Lost had one at the end of the third season. I won’t ruin it for anyone, but if you’ve watched the series, then you know what moment I’m talking about. The moment the changed the show forever.

Can you think of any examples of the midpoint in books or movies?  Also, how do you keep the middle chunk of your story moving?


  1. That's good advice. I've only written one novel and, like I've said countless on my blog, it was whispered in my ear by some sort of ghost standing at my shoulder. I have little recollection of plotting anything. It just sort of...happened.

    But now that I am trying to pin together another story, I need all the advice I can get.

    Hey, Phil, do you ever adapt manuscripts into screenplays?

  2. HUGE LOST fan. HUGE. One of the best shows ever written. But now I moved on to Dexter. WOW. Check that out if you haven't!

  3. @Nancy, if you need help with plotting, I strongly recommend Screenplay by Syd Field, and/or Story by Robert McKee. Screenplay will help with nuts and bolts of story structure, while Story will help with structure, character arcs, and everything in between. I've written screenplays, but haven't yet adapted an MS into one.

    @Charlie. I heart Lost, except the last season. That left a bad taste in my mouth. And confession: I fell asleep trying to watch Dexter :( But maybe I'll give it another chance!