Four Act Stories and Beyond


There are various forms of structure, including frameworks, work processes and goal setting.

A lot has been written about story structure. In my mind, understanding its value is priceless.

There is a lot of confusion around structure, creativity and innovation. You can find a good study that resolves much of the misinformation at managing-creativity.com. Ironically, there is much to learn about creativity and innovation from the business world, as there is an infinite amount of data and research out there. Top institutions, such as Harvard, take it very seriously.

The core concepts, with regard to story structure, include:

a) Structure increases the quantity and quality of creative output.

b) Novelty (commonly referred to as "originality") emerges from replication.

c) Certain structures help to meet the subconscious expectations of the audience.

By mapping your idea around an existing structural template, you can quickly expand that idea into a story. Once extrapolated, the needs of your particular story will begin to dictate your structure, hence you will cut and paste scenes until your story, in effect, becomes original. Then by working on each sequence to make it perfect, you eventually produce quality work.

But what structure?

The Western World has traditionally supported the concept of three act structure. But this is useless. Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end and, for writers, this doesn't help much.

If you analyse many versions of three act structure you find that, in effect, you really have four acts. For example, Syd Field argues that three acts consist of an approximate 30:60:30 ratio. But the 60 has a mid point, so we're really talking 30:30:30:30.

But even four acts do not help much.

You can analyse four acts to reach five or seven acts. But even they are useless. The problem is that they are too broad. OK, I agree, templates only have value if they are broad, but we need more.

A huge leap is the monomyth or Hero's Journey. The monomyth can be traced back to Gilgamesh in about the 26th century BC, through to the Shahnama around 1000 A.D. and so on. The latest incarnation is that of Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1948).

Campbell's Hero's Journey consists of 17 stages. So here we have 17 acts, which is much more useful to the story writer.

But the Hero's Journey ends once the Hero has returned home and provided the Freedom to Live, whereas in modern film (call them contemporary stories) the hero returns once more to battle the antagonist. So in effect we can say that we have Campbell's 17 stages and then another encapsulated in the Final Conflict. So 18 stages.

But the 18th stage can be broken down into Preparation / Final Antagonism / Journey to the Final Conflict / Battle / Moral Dilemma / Completion / Freedom to Live. Hence we arrive at 24 stage structure.

The Hero's Journey can be extrapolated into many more stages.

The question you may ask yourself now is this: how representative is the monomyth or Hero's Journey of ALL stories? In other words, what value does it really have as a template? And as I am implying, a universal template?

The best way to answer that is to search out someone with more credibility than me, that is: read a book about it. A good start is Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, ISBN: 0330375911. He compares a diverse variety of cinematic blockbusters to drive home the point.

Whether you go for the idea of the monomyth or not, the idea of working from a template is very valid, or at least helpful. And it applies not just to screenplays, but to sitcoms and novels too. What you need to do is decide which template works for you. There are quite a few out there.

From the above it follows that (most) stories are structurally derivative and yet can be very original. Watch a diverse range of films - from Midnight Cowboy to Al Pacino Scarface to Casablanca to whatever you choose, analyse them sequence by sequence and you will see stark structural similarities.

In fact, when stories are not structurally derivative then they usually turn out to be "weird" because the audience has certain subconscious expectations as to how a story should evolve. And when they are not met....well, people will just refer to it as not a proper story.

The 106 stage Hero's Journey and other story structure templates can be found at http://www.managing-creativity.com/CreativeWriting.html

You can also receive a regular, free newsletter by entering your email address at this site.

Kal Bishop, MBA

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You are free to reproduce this article as long as no changes are made and the author's name and site URL are retained.

Kal Bishop is a management consultant based in London, UK. He has consulted in the visual media and software industries and for clients such as Toshiba and Transport for London. He has led Improv, creativity and innovation workshops, exhibited artwork in San Francisco, Los Angeles and London and written a number of screenplays. He is a passionate traveller. He can be reached on http://www.managing-creativity.com/


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