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.


Isle of Dogs and Wes Anderson’s Wild Animations

Copyright © 2018 by Fox Searchlight Pictures

I love Wes Anderson movies. They’re the epitome of quirky American cinema, but there’s a lot of heart in those stories and some pretty clever cinematography at work, as is Anderson’s style. When you see a lot of yellow? That’s Wes. When you see a whole dialogue within an extremely symmetrical scene? That’s Wes. When you track an impressive line of characters moving horizontally across the screen? Yep, that, too, is Wes.

I adored The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I fell for Moonrise Kingdom. And now I’m pleased to watch the director’s latest project, Isle of Dogs.

In the near-future, the Japanese city of Megasaki has seen an outbreak of dog flu, and Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has decreed all dogs be banned and sent to Trash Island. He faces public opposition from Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito), who seeks a cure for the virus, as well as opposition at home from his nephew Atari (Koyu Rankin), who will do anything to find his beloved dog Spots (Liev Schrieber). Meanwhile, on the island itself, a pack of four dogs (voiced by Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, and Bob Balaban) come across Atari after he crashes his plane into the island, as well as a stray dog named Chief (Bryan Cranston). As the clock ticks down to the Mayor’s final plot to eliminate all dogs from the area, Chief leads his newfound pack to help the boy find Spots and get word back to the mainland about their plight.

As dramatic as the above synopsis sounds, the story’s pretty simple. A pack of dogs and one determined 12-year-old take on the Mayor’s oppressive regime. Even so, for something that seems goofy, the spirit is definitely heartwarming. Anyone who’s even been a dog owner will get half the jokes. There’s also a nice recurring motif and exploration of the line, “Whatever happened to man’s best friend?” Isle of Dogs spends as much time making fun of the way we treat dogs as it does exploring how dogs and people view each other. Loyalty’s a huge theme here, and it shows on both sides of the conflict.

The casting for this film is excellent. I mean, you’ll get exhausted just trying to keep track of who’s who in this movie. So I’ll just keep it simple and say that Bryan Cranston, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeff Goldblum are ideal for the dogs they voice. Greta Gerwig blends in well with her sharp, uber-serious diction as Tracy Walker, the lone English-speaking student in a Megasaki City high school. Also, the Japanese voice acting blends in well with the English voice cast. Much credit is due to Kunichi Nomura, who helped Anderson develop the story and how brings both pathos and power to the role of the cruel Mayor.

The stop-motion animation is breathtaking, with so much detail poured into the way dog fur moves and the subtle changes of human expression on characters like Atari and Tracy Walker. I’ll admit that, at this time, I haven’t seen Fantastic Mr. Fox yet, so I can’t say how it compares, but I imagine it’s on par.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I, in fact, am not of Japanese descent. Therefore, I can’t really claim to be a credible witness about cultural appropriation with this movie. This is, after all, a film written and directed by Wes Anderson. But even so, given his collaboration with Mr. Nomura and the amount of work that went into representing all the details of modern Japanese life in stop-motion, there is a certain syncretic spirit within the plot. English-speaking characters like Tracy aren’t made superior to native Japanese like Atari, and even her place in Japan as an exchange student gets commented on at various points. The dogs also speak in an English vernacular, but they highlight that life as a housepet in Japan wouldn’t be all that different from the life of a pet in America or Europe.

But perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps I’m not giving cultural appropriation its due. I can only say this much: go see the movie. Whether you love Wes Anderson or you just love seeing dogs in action, consider going to see Isle of Dogs. For all its quirks and commentary, at the end of the day, it’s still a pretty heartwarming story for all ages. It’s an offbeat, funny, farcical romp with a dramatic core that never lets up.

Isle of Dogs is available through Fox Searchlight Pictures. It is currently playing in theaters.

Bibliography: Isle of Dogs. Directed by Wes Anderson. Produced by Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales, and Jeremy Dawson. Screenplay by Wes Anderson. Story by Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Kunichi Nomura. Perf. Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Bob Balaban, Kunichi Nomura, Ken Watanabe, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Fisher Stevens, Nijiro Murakami, Harvey Keitel, Koyu Rankin, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Akira Ito, Akira Takayama, F. Murray Abraham, Yojiro Noda, Mari Natsuki, Yoko Ono, and Frank Wood. Indian Paintbrush; American Empirical Pictures. Fox Searchlight Pictures. US release date: March 23, 2018.

Night in the Woods and the Power of Representation

Copyright © 2017 Infinite Fall and Finji

Spend enough time online in the gaming community, and you’ll hear all about the ongoing debate over whether or not video games should be escapist fantasies or grounded in reality. Personally, I’m a fan of games that can do a little of both, that borrow from real-world issues and still give us pure cartoon physics. And you get a bit of that and more in an indie title like Night in the Woods, brought to us by the good folks at Infinite Fall and Finji.

Set in the small town of Possum Springs, you play as Mae Borowski, a small cat person who’s dropped out of college and moved back home with her parents. While reconnecting with her life in a changing hometown, Mae discovers how things have grown between her old friends Gregg, Angus, and Bea. And she discovers that issues from her past, like one notorious teenage incident, won’t stay settled. And Mae quickly discovers something’s wrong with the town, especially when she witnesses mysterious figures ambushing innocent people in the dead of night and spiriting them away. Between the issues in her head and the mysteries in her neighborhood, Mae and her friends go to work on trying to solve them together.

Now, don’t let the cartoon imagery of the game fool you. Mae may look like a cat, but her problems and reactions are very human. This game explores childhood traumas, quarter-life crises, unemployment and stagnant economies, Rust Belt conservatism, mental illness, and the tragic loss of friends.

Mae Borowski, of course, doesn’t understand any of this. All she wants to do is go back home, explore the town, do fun things, and hang with her friends. She needs all this explained to her.

Which, in a sense, makes her the perfect representation of the player.

In fact, everyone in this game feels more like a real person than a fictional character (a theme that, without giving the end away, Mae has wrestled with previously). Mae’s family, neighbors, friends from high school, and random acquaintances all feel like genuine people plucked from any small town in the Midwest. They’re made up of all sorts, too: liberal, conservative, religious, atheist, straight, gay, undecided, hard-working, and generally goofing off. It makes every side conversation worth revisiting, just to see how much detail and story the writers added to this world.

As for the game’s mechanics, there’s not much to say. Other than, you know, you’ve got to get really, really good at the double-jump. Master this, and there’s no limit to where you can go or what you can find in this game. Anything plot-related is usually handled for you with action and dialogue prompts. Also, it’s real cute and fun to watch Mae jumping everywhere and tiptoeing along power lines like it’s no big deal.

Without spoiling anything, I will say that this game does have a surprising turn into the cosmic horror genre. But not even the nightmares it unravels manage to take away from the overall nostalgic and true-to-life atmosphere of Night in the Woods. It’s a fun little exploration game, a mix of horror and slice of life storytelling, and an interesting commentary on contemporary small-town American culture. If you’re patient and you love quirky humor (and a bit of scary things), then you’ll like this.

Night in the Woods is available for purchase through Steam and itch.io. You can learn more about the game through its official website.

Bibliography: Night in the Woods. Developed by Infinite Fall, Secret Lab, and 22nd Century Toys. Published by Finji. Designed by Alec Holowka, Scott Benson, and Bethany Hockenberry. Programmed by Alec Holowka and Jon Manning. Art by Scott Benson and Charles Huettner. Written by Bethany Hockenberry and Scott Benson. Composed by Alec Holowka, Gordon McGladdery, and Em Halberstadt. Unity (engine). Microsoft Windows; macOS; Linux; PlayStation 4; Xbox One; Nintendo Switch; iOS; Android. Original release date: February 21, 2017.

What Every Story Needs

Ernest Hemingway at the Sun Valley Lodge, Idaho, 1939. Photo by Lloyd Arnold.

Every good story has a good plot.

Every good plot has a driven character.

Every character’s drive is based on a real need.

Define your character’s need and never stop seeking it.

The detective needs answers in a world that won’t give them.

The fighter needs to risk their life to protect what they love.

The doctor needs to find the cause of their patient’s ailment.

The lonely man needs to look after his disabled brother.

The single woman needs to feel secure in a new relationship.

Define your need, and you define your story’s biggest obstacles.

Define your need, and define how your character must change to get it.

The semi-rant you just read is something I came up with a few weeks ago. Honestly, it’s something I’ve been revisiting as I work on not one, but two manuscripts at the same time. Figuring out a character’s basic need, and how it relates to their expressed desires and genuine feelings, is becoming a cornerstone of my writing process. It’s really just a nifty insight that I wanted to share with y’all.

Best of luck, all you working and aspiring writers out there!

Read John Scalzi on Why You Should Be Paid for Writing

The blog Lifehacker just posted a piece entitled “Why You Should Write For Free,” in which writer Nick Douglas (on staff, note) explains when he believes writing for free is appropriate — and when it is not. The headline alone is enough to fluff me up with righteous fury, as my own, consistent refusal to…

via No, In Fact, You Should Not Write For Free — Whatever

The link above says everything you’ll want to know, but I’ll add my two cents here.

For more than 8 years, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get work as a writer. And let me tell you, it is not always easy or fair to get the pay you deserve. Freelance writing is hard enough because you’re spending so much time trying to convince others that you could write for them.

Now imagine that you’re asked to put out content just for clicks, and not for the actual words you write. You could copy-and-paste your second-grade book report for some employers, so long as you had the right SEO formatting. So, when you’re looking for employment opportunities to write, don’t just settle for “exposure” or “vocational experience.” Aspire to be a professional, and to be treated as such.