Why three acts and not four?

Brian G Turner

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#1
Something that bugs me a little - the 3 act structure is basically four acts:

Act 1, Act 2a, Act 2B, Act 3.

Why not simply call this a four act structure?

I don't know if it's just because an amateur writer and therefore lacking the necessary professional experience, but I naturally structure in four distinct acts, with a climax of some sort at the end of each.

It follows the three act structure principles - but instead of Acts 2a and 2b, I clearly differentiate the four sections as four separate acts.

Is it just me who finds the nomenclature to be somewhat arbitrary? Is it called "three acts" just to be as all encompassing as possible?
 

HareBrain

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#2
Curmudgeon-of-the-week's rant of the day

I don't even know what the three-act structure is. And I'm not sure I want to.

It might well produce the most "satisfying" stories, but do you know what produces the most "satisfying" food? An exact 50/50 combination of sugar and fat. And if everyone produced food to that recipe, we would have some variety, but not that much. Plus we would all be massively overweight because such foods are addictive. We'd be sat on our sofas cramming glazed doughnuts into our maws while cramming the latest James Patterson into our glazed and putrefying brains.

It's the same as all the other checklists. They just give us more things to worry about and stifle creativity except within a very narrow band. Bah, I say. Bah!! Up with free-form storytelling!

And so on.
 

Brian G Turner

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#3
But that's the point - the three act structure is a flexible form for storytelling. It's basically a more contrived way of saying that a story has a beginning, a middle, and end (see - three parts!).

That might actually answer my question as to why it's called three and not four. :D

Three act - beginning, middle, end (3 acts!)
Four act - beginning, early part, near end part, end (4 acts!)
 

Teresa Edgerton

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#4
I don't even know what the three-act structure is. And I'm not sure I want to.
I'm not sure that I know either.

do you know what produces the most "satisfying" food? An exact 50/50 combination of sugar and fat. And if everyone produced food to that recipe, we would have some variety, but not that much.
Ummmmm. Sugar and fat. I wonder how many different flavors of ice cream there are.


Edit -- Brian posted while I was still posting.

OK. Maybe it might be:

Three act. 1) introduce the main characters and their goal/problem 2) try to overcome obstacle and succeed 3) consquences and wrap up story

Four Act. 1) introduce the main characters and the challenge they face 2) try and fail 3) try and succeed 4) consequences and wrap up story

Didn't Shakespeare always use five acts?
 

HareBrain

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#5
But (for the sake of argument) dividing into beginning, middle and end is fairly arbitrary. Nigel Watts, in Writing a Novel, uses an eight-part structure. You could use two (first half, second half) or just one: "story".

The danger is that by thinking there should be a difference or marked dividing line between "beginning" and "middle", you set out to create one, when there doesn't need to be one.
 

Kylara

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#6
A lot of opera is 5 acts (see ROH production of Faust - fantastic by the way, absolutely stunning performance!), and you do get 5 act plays.

The 3 act concept is a simplified version of this. You have introduction, then action, then wrapping up/overcoming. Or beginning, middle, end.

4 or 5 acts spread the 2 bit (the middle/action) out into parts of it. So beginning action, middle action, final/moving to final action. with the last act being the ending, the what happens to everyone, the bit after the battle is won/lost/drawn.
 

Mouse

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#7
Curmudgeon-of-the-week's rant of the day

I don't even know what the three-act structure is. And I'm not sure I want to.

It might well produce the most "satisfying" stories, but do you know what produces the most "satisfying" food? An exact 50/50 combination of sugar and fat. And if everyone produced food to that recipe, we would have some variety, but not that much. Plus we would all be massively overweight because such foods are addictive. We'd be sat on our sofas cramming glazed doughnuts into our maws while cramming the latest James Patterson into our glazed and putrefying brains.

It's the same as all the other checklists. They just give us more things to worry about and stifle creativity except within a very narrow band. Bah, I say. Bah!! Up with free-form storytelling!

And so on.
This with knobs on.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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#8
To be honest, I never worry about structure when I am writing something. I have found that if I leave the story to grow in its own way, it creates its own structure. I never see it at the time, but looking back later, I can often see something that is intricate and beautiful and surprisingly symmetrical -- much more delightful (to me) than anything I could have planned.

Of course others might look at it and see a mess, and I would never know unless they told me, but at least I'm satisfied.
 

Jo Zebedee

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#9
I'm in the 'who cares about acts?' Camp. Writing to a formula isn't what I want to do. Although, mostly, a structure happens that consists of a beginning, a slower middle and a bish-bash-bosh to the end. But I don't see how trying to force that structure, or any other, would help.
 

Dozmonic

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#10
I've never been a fan of the 3 act structure because, as you say, you cut it in 2 and have a significant plot point in the middle. It's 4 acts, 3 turning points, 2 pinch points and a partridge in a pear tree.
 

tinkerdan

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#11
my understanding of the 3 acts in some cases includes

Act 1
exposition
inciting incident
plot point1 (first turning point)

Act 2
pinch 1 Reminder of the overall conflict(contains connecting element )

midpoint middle scene possible revelation

pinch 2 reminder of the central conflict(contains connecting element )

Plot point two the dramatic reversal (Moment protagonist has had enough)

Act three

Showdown
Resolution or climax

maybe in this case the a and b for second act are the two pinch points that are divided by the midpoint.
 

Laeraneth

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#12
I started out aiming for a three 'part' split (I certainly wasn't thinking in terms of 'acts' though, just that it naturally fell into three parts after major events and decisions)
I ended up inserting a whole extra part before the last third, when I realised there was bags of potential in the situation.
Each part has fairly clear starts, middles, threats and ends of their own.
The first two don't even really have an antagonist ('the situation')
The third is the one that throws a big spanner in the works, changing the focus of the plan already in action at that point, and firmly setting the direction and drive of the last part. (which I suppose is how a final part should always be!)

but at no point did I ever sit down and actually figure any of this out until just now :)
 

Fishbowl Helmet

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#13
The three acts are typically: introduction, conflict, and resolution. But you're right Brian, the way it's broken down into four, but still called three, is silly. What can I say, three is sacred. TV typically does four explicit acts: confusion/determination, conflict, despair, redemption. With a teaser and tag. But... There Are Four Acts!

Screenwriter Hulk did a great post on this a few years ago, basically destroying three act structure as too simplistic to be useful while talking up Shakespeare's five act structure.
 

Hex

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#14
Mmmm... sugar and fat.

(I struggle with structure therefore I feel ill-equipped to comment further)
 

JonH

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#17
I've been reading up on plotting and I think I may have an answer. I think the midpoint reversal isn't necessary. At least half the descriptions I've seen have missed it out completely. It's a way of showing character growth in the protagonist that (s)he doesn't need to show succeeding until the final act anyway, so there's no reason that it should happen at the midpoint, as long as you keep escalating the tension. Using a number of try-fail cycles (or QABN if you prefer) throughout the Second Act is sometimes recommended, instead.
 

michaelhall2007

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#18
Ah, the age old question...
This has been doing people's head in since shakespeare's time.

2B or not 2B? That is the question.

Some say its about the Pains of Living Vs. the unknowing of what death may hold. But he was a writer and I think he was asking the same question you're asking.:D
 

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