Spoilers for: His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik; The Princess Bride, by William Goldman; Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card; Star Wars series
As a writer, I consider myself to be in the journeyman stage of my career. Even though I haven’t really made any money at it yet, I feel like my apprentice years are behind me. I’ve written a couple of books. I no longer find “How to Write” books particularly interesting. I’m sort of in the middle stage of my expertise, even if I’m still in the beginning stages of my professional career.
Part of being a journeyman, I think, is developing your own tricks of the trade, the little knacks and small arts that, along with the philosophies behind them, eventually earn you the title of “master.” One of mine is my Four Act Structure, which I use in plotting a novel. I don’t know if it will work as well for everyone, but I find it a serviceable tool.
Act One: The Challenge Accepted
This takes up maybe a quarter to a third of the book. It’s the part wherein your amateur detective decides to investigate the murder; the young soldier marches off to war; the swineherd decides to kill the dragon so he can claim the princess’s hand.
Except sometimes the challenge seems to be accepted right at the outset of the novel. You’re writing the third book in a detective series, and everyone knows the detective’s going to take the case the moment the client walks in his door. In that case, I think it’s useful to have a secondary challenge, one that can ultimately serve to bring this arc to a close. In the case of the detective series, The Challenge Accepted likely ends when the detective decides to take a personal interest in the case before him, or when he decides to continue pursuing it despite some very persuasive reasons not to.
Naomi Novik’s fantasy novel His Majesty’s Dragon, begins with Captain William Laurence discovering a dragon egg. Over the course of the first thirty pages or so, he determines that the egg will soon hatch, that a member of his crew must make an effort to bond with the dragon and become its rider, and furthermore, that that person must be him. He undertakes this task with dedication, but no enthusiasm, as it will mean the end of his Naval career. And on page 28, there he is, inextricably bonded with his dragon, Temeraire.
But that isn’t where The Challenge Accepted ends. Instead, Laurence spends a good third of the novel learning to see Temeraire as a fellow being, rather than a burden. The Challenge Accepted ends when Laurence accepts the second, hidden Challenge—becoming Temeraire’s true friend and companion.
Act Two: A Grave Setback
This act also takes about a third of the book, maybe a bit less. It involves the characters proceeding along with their efforts, until, bang! A Grave Setback occurs. The prime suspect in your murder mystery turns up as another victim; the young soldier’s unit is mowed down in battle; the swineherd learns that the dragon is not only not the one who’s been terrorizing the peasantry, but is actually a pretty nice guy.
The ideal Grave Setback challenges everything that has gone before it, and makes things immeasurably harder for your heroes. It leaves the reader asking, “Yeesh, what are they going to do now?”
In The Princess Bride, the Grave Setback occurs when Westley dies. He dies! The hero dies! That is, as Mercutio might have said, about as grave a setback as you can get. The plot marches forward, and Westley comes back, but in a much-reduced state. Everything he does from this moment on must rely on strengths other than the ones he’s used to get this far.
Note: I know you’ve seen the movie. If you haven’t read the book, read the book!
Act Three: All is Revealed
This act takes up most of the remainder of the book. Any mysteries you’ve developed along the way are laid bare here. Here’s where your murderer is unmasked; where the young soldier discovers the betrayal that led his unit to their doom; where the swineherd learns that the king is actually the evil sorceror who has been making the peasants’ lives miserable.
All is Revealed is where all the little pieces click into place, where your reader can finally make sense of what’s come before. It should surprise the reader, yes, but a moment after that surprise registers, he should begin to slowly bob his head, to realize that this is the only way things could have gone. In other words, All is Revealed should grant answers that feel both surprising and inevitable.
In Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, this act concludes when we finally learn the reason for the strange and brutal murders committed by the race of aliens called “piggies.” It all makes sense, then: not just why they committed those crimes, but also why their behavior doesn’t sem to gibe with their feelings of respect for the murder victims. A dozen little mysteries are cleared up with one revelation, which winds up seeming inevitable indeed.
Act Four: Someone Wins
This act is basically comprised of the climax and denouement. Note that it’s not called “The Hero Wins.” It is only necessary that someone win. Failing that, you can go for some sort of stable resolution or compromise—but that’s not my style. I like a good, solid victory or defeat.
In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s the villain who wins in this act, setting us up for the heroes to be in deep trouble at the beginning of Return of the Jedi. I do feel that letting the villain win works best in a series, where you have room to correct the injustice in later novels. But it can work in standalones, too. One of the members of my writing group has written a standalone literary novel with a bitterly shocking Villain Wins fourth act, which leaves the hero alive but forever diminished.
Not every book will easily break down into these four acts, or even break down into them at all. Like all writers’ tools, the Four Act Structure is a guide, not a harness. It’s meant to give you a way of thinking about your novel that can help you chart your way through the murky first stages of plot-work.
It works for me, and I imagine will continue to do so. But I won’t be afraid to step away from it if it isn’t serving the needs of a particular novel, and I’ll always be looking for ways to change it up and make it freshly surprising.