Why I Use a Four-Act Story Structure

The Ghost Train by Arnold Ridley. Patricia Mantuano, playing Julia Price.
Photo Credit: Patricia Mantuano.

Think of a story as a 4-act structure. This is true for a novel, a short story, a TV episode, or a feature-length film. There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end, with the middle broken up into 2 separate acts.

Within all 4 acts are the same 4 stages:

  • Alienation
  • Connection
  • Breakdown
  • Resolution

Today, we’ll look at each stage and how stories progress from one to the next. It’s all about tracking the change between characters, events, places, and themes. Whether you’re J.K. Rowling writing about a boy wizard at Hogwarts, or you’re Ta-Nehisi Coates writing about his youth dealing with street crime in Baltimore, you can still tell a powerful story once you see how the tale breaks down in a way all audiences can digest.

Part I: Alienation

Meet the heroes. The world as they know it is out of balance. This is where the families are feuding in Romeo and Juliet. This is where Princess Leia gets captured, her two droids go wandering in the desert, and Luke is wasting away on his uncle’s farm in Star Wars. Whatever the hero is looking for in life, they’re not getting it, and they’re trying to make do.

Part II: Connection

The hero faces an unexpected turn of events. Romeo meets Juliet while disguised at a party. Luke Skywalker meets Obi-Wan Kenobi. Suddenly, their old world is gone. They meet new allies. They start working on a plan of action. Their antagonist shows up, or at least new obstacles do. This is all the signature action that audiences tend to see in trailers and commercials.

Part III: Breakdown

By the Midpoint of the story, the hero’s old goal is replaced with a new one. Romeo and Juliet are married, but now Romeo’s been banished, so how can they stay together? Luke has rescued Leia from the Death Star, but Obi-Wan’s gone, and the Empire is in pursuit. Everything the hero trusted before now begins to fall apart. They begin facing setbacks. They sit back and try to work out just how they’ve screwed up. You’ll often recognize these moments in a story, where the hero is sitting alone, trying to wrestle with something after a major defeat.

Part IV: Resolution

We’ve hit the Darkest Hour. It’s do-or-die time for our hero. Juliet fakes her death to escape an arranged marriage, but her plan ends in tragedy for her and for Romeo. Luke flies with the other Rebel pilots, and with Han Solo’s last-minute rescue, he’s able to blow up the Death Star. The hero has to make a risk here. They have to make a sacrifice, to put themselves in danger, whether it’s a shootout at a warehouse or just a fateful conversation. Whatever happens after that will change both the hero’s life and the world around them. At that point, they’re no longer stuck with the same problems from the Alienation phase, and the story has reached its natural conclusion.

Of course, maybe you’ve read this and you think to yourself, “Yeah, well, I prefer the 3-act (or 5-act) structure.” If so, why? Or do you have your own way of outlining a story? Please share your thoughts in the comments section. I’d love to see how other writers think.

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