Friday, March 6, 2015

Hollywood and Screenwriting Part 2

Yesterday we began our discussion on screenwriting and touched on the three-act and four-act structures.

So what about this four-act thing? How did this come about? What is the deal?

Google Images: Star Wars
The truth is, it’s not much different than the three-act structure. The issue was that people were having problems with the second act. In fact, most writers tend to struggle with the middle of the story. Usually people have a better idea of how things start and how they end. Connecting the two seems to be troublesome. Things have a tendency to lag or get blown off-course. Enough people had problems with the middle of their stories that something had to be done about it. The three-act structure just wasn’t cutting it. One keen individual, Syd Field, came up with something called the Midpoint, the point directly in the middle of the screenplay. This effectively divided the troublesome second act into two more manageable parts. Thus, the second act simply gets broken up into two parts, creating a new four-act structure. Where you once had a story broken up into three parts (25%, 50%, 25%), you now have four equal parts around 25% each.

Pretty simple. That gives us a fairly decent guideline, right? Think of it like an itinerary. It’ll be a lot easier to tell where your story is slow or fast at a glance. For example, if the story is 300 pages, divided into four equal parts, you can figure you should have established the characters by page 75. If you are well past that, you know you should probably rein it in. Readers are going to wonder when the story is going to start. That’s just one example.

So how does this help you, as a writer of a novel?

Like I said before, one of the most obvious things is being able to use it as a guideline to help determine how well your story paces. You can use it as a guideline to help determine if your character arc is moving sufficiently. You can use it to help pinpoint stagnation, extra stuff that might not serve the story, etc. We’ll dive into the specifics of each act in later posts, because each one is a specific part of the story, and comes with specific elements that need to be addressed.

For right now, though, let us look at the four acts as part of the hero’s journey, with each act representing a different archetype. While this might not make sense at first, the Hollywood Formula was derived from careful analysis of some of the top movies of all time, each of which follows this same pattern, right down to the same key plot points and character archetypes. If you think that makes the story too structured for your tastes, consider that Jaws, Star Wars, Sleepless in Seattle, E.T., Batman, Liar Liar, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Avatar, Titanic, and Home Alone all utilize this formula. These are all very different films, so it’s clear that creativity isn't hampered.

Because there’s so much to cover, I’m going to close this post out by giving a quick description of the four archetypes every protagonist goes through during each act. You should definitely try to see if you can match up the archetypes with the protagonists from these films. I will expand upon this topic in future posts.

Act One: The Orphan – The character is a literal or figurative orphan, distanced from something (parents, a normal existence, society; the character is an outsider in some way). Luke Skywalker, Bruce Wayne, Will Turner, Peter Parker – all literal orphans. Kevin, from Home Alone, is literally orphaned when his family goes on vacation without him. Some characters distance themselves by choice. Fletcher, Jim Carrey’s character in Liar Liar has chosen his work over his family, essentially distancing himself from them. As a result, they have moved on, and he becomes a figurative orphan. Many characters start out not knowing who they really are, maybe struggling to find their identities. The orphan archetype allows them room to find who they really are throughout the course of the story.

Act Two: The Wanderer – The character is thrown out of their comfort zone into a world of uncertainty. They have some sort of goal they must accomplish, but they don’t realize how to do it yet. They must wander, searching for clues, answers, helpers, information, skills. This is a sort of discovery phase. Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle are killed, and he must go with Obi Wan Kenobi. Neo is awakened from his slumber. Jake Sully must learn about the Na’vi race through his avatar. These characters are all ripped from their comfort zones into a world of uncertainty, where they don’t have the skills yet to succeed.

Act Three: The Warrior – After the midpoint, the hero has acquired all the knowledge, assistants, skills needed to attain the final goal. Now it is time to act. As you can see, the character has already changed, just by pulling them through the first two archetypes. This is a tried-and-true way to ensure characters arc throughout the story. The protagonist has what it takes to fight for what they want. As the warrior, they are confident enough to take action. Bruce Wayne has had his training and has acquired all his gadgets. Neo has learned Kung Fu. In the Sixth Sense, Cole admits he can see dead people, and decides to confront them instead of being afraid.

Act Four: The Martyr – The stakes must be high enough that the protagonist must risk it all to get it all. If the stakes are not high (life or death, either literally or figuratively), the audience isn’t going to care. Think about all the people complaining about something trivial on your favorite social networking site. You think, “Nobody cares!” If your protagonist doesn’t have to go through hell to achieve their goal, the audience isn’t going to care. They won’t feel like the character deserved it. The more impossible the end goal is to pull off, the greater the payoff will be. If there is no risk at all, the story falls flat. In the end, the hero must be willing to make an ultimate sacrifice to bring everything to a resolution. Think about Jack in Titanic. Fletcher in Liar Liar risks everything to stop the plane from taking off. E.T. martyrs himself so Elliott can live.

Each of these acts encompasses a lot more than just these four archetypes, but we’ll dive into those details in later posts. Watch one or two of the films I mentioned and see if you can pick out when the protagonist goes through each of the archetypes. There’s a lot more the four-act structure has to offer, and in the next post I’ll cover more of the plot points that make up each of the acts. We’ll also cover the ins and outs of writing a screenplay, how to adapt your story into a screenplay, and more.

What are your thoughts about the four-act structure? After looking at some examples, do you feel it will be too limiting or do you think you can find something helpful from it?  Please leave us a comment.

Daniel Donche is an author, screenwriter, actor, graphic artist, and all-around modern Renaissance man. He runs Colorado Writers and Publishers on Facebook, Darkana Creative, and HexCam USA


  1. I modeled the Story Building Blocks on the 4 act structure. There are 40 basic scenes made up of four layers: external,internal, antagonist, and interpersonal conflict (you can do more or less). If you can write 40 sentences that show cause and effect, you have a conflict outline. When I put it in that perspective, it wasn't as terrifying as 400 pages of, "What do I do next?" It kept me working through the muddy middle.

  2. Such an intense post - I'm going to moodle this a bit before asking dumb questions.

  3. Goes to show nothing is completely original in writing. All variations of what already exists.

  4. I think this structure works great. When I first started writing scrips we focused on plot points, things that happen or choices characters make, that spin the story in a new direction. What you have written here melds with that nicely, making us look closer at why the the character makes that change. Great series so far.

  5. I'm following this series with interest. Thanks!

  6. I just read about five-act structure today - wondering how and why about that now.

  7. Thank so much for this! Great information and I know it will be really helpful. =D


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