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.

How to Build a Character Arc (Using Lost in Translation)

Copyright © 2003 by Focus Features

Stories are about plot—

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Let me try again…

Stories are about about characters in a plot—

No, still not quite right. Let’s try once more…

Stories are about a plot where characters deal with a major change in their lives.

And there it is. That’s what this post is about, too. There’s plenty of articles and books on the subject of how to outline your story, and whether you ought to consider a Hollywood 3-act structure or a Shakespearean 5-act structure. But what’s at the heart of those outlines and plots? Why should any audience consider your characters for an entire book, TV season, or movie?

It’s because we want to see them as people. We want to see them grow. And to do that, they have to confront an unexpected change. Whether it’s a hostage situation or an awkward first date, the change has to be real and it has to be meaningful. Once you know this, you can create the subtext for any plot, whether your story resembles something like The Avengers or it’s closer to My Dinner with Andre.

To give you an idea of how this might work, let’s look at one of my favorite films: Sofia Coppola’s 2003 drama Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson.

The Arc: How Bob and Charlotte Face Their Crises

Part I: Alienation

Bob arrives in Tokyo to film a commercial for Suntory Whiskey and avoid his marital issues back home. Charlotte explores the city, unable to do anything while her husband John goes to work as a celebrity photographer.

We meet our protagonists here. Both are facing a life crisis (Bob at midlife, Charlotte at the cusp of adulthood) and estrangement from their spouses. One is at the end of his career, and the other is still figuring hers out. They see their alienation on display in Tokyo’s design.

Part II: Connection

Bob and Charlotte keep running into each other at the hotel. They meet and chat at the bar when they can’t get any sleep. Later, Charlotte invites Bob to meet some Japanese friends for a night of fun. They spend more time together and have intimate talks about their real troubles.

Two lonely souls find each other. They appreciate each other’s wit, and they both don’t get life in Japan. They have a good time together, and they bond over feeling odd together.

Part III: Breakdown

Bob ends up sleeping with the jazz singer at the hotel bar, which upsets Charlotte. They have a terse argument over lunch. Later, during a fire alarm evacuation at the hotel, they meet and reconcile.

The jazz singer’s episode feels like a step back. It’s Bob losing interest in Charlotte, and a sign of his age and distance to her. But a genuine emergency brings them close together again: the fire alarm wakeup and the fact that Bob’s leaving soon.

Part IV: Understanding

Bob has to leave the next morning to return to the US. He says goodbye to Charlotte in the hotel lobby. Later, in a taxi, he spots Charlotte walking a crowded street and gets out. They hug, share some tears, and Bob whispers something reassuring. After they kiss, Bob departs.

Tender moments abound. Bob leaves, and Charlotte remains. They try to be polite, but they can’t hide their pain from each other. Bob gives Charlotte a whisper of something to keep her moving forward. He’ll move forward just because he met her.

The Arc: Wherever You Look, It’s There

If you were to ask me, this kind of approach is good for building character arcs in just about any story. If I show you a random superhero movie, you can point out how the hero undergoes the same four basic steps.

Part One (Alienation): Peter Parker wants to be special, but he faces the struggles of any other high school student.

Part Two (Connection): Peter uses his newfound abilities as Spider-Man to help people in his city and to stand up to common crooks.

Part Three (Breakdown): Peter’s superpowers make him and his family a target for the villain. He begins to feel the pull between being a student and a superhero.

Part Four (Understanding): Spider-Man saves the day, but Peter has to keep his true identity secret to keep his family safe.

Like I said, this is something that any story can feature. Just because there’s explosions and punches in one story, and quiet conversations over dinner in another, doesn’t mean that we can’t watch our characters struggle and adapt to the change in their lives, and maybe grow a little wisdom, too. When we see how a character—how a person—can grow, we can set that growth against any backdrop, from the crowded streets of Tokyo to the crime-ridden alleys of Gotham City and beyond.