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On Acts and Structure

So, I'm constantly fiddling with my outlining process, and especially with my 3-page treatment process. I've used all sorts of templates, I've gone completely without templates, I've made up my own templates... it's an evolving thing.

At the moment, I've been basing things on Christopher Vogler's steps in the Writer's Journey. I rearrange and omit some steps as a story calls for it, and I think I'm starting to move away from using it as a template, but it's still a wonderful tool. I think my favorite part about it is that it's not inherently tied to a three-act structure. I mean, sure, it fits in nice, but it's not required or even necessarily assumed.

I don't like how three acts are just assumed in everything screenwriting (often, in everything writing). The problem as I see it is that the word "act" means two different things, and we've kind of combined them. In the one sense, "act" is just used to mean beginning, middle or end. So in that sense, virtually everything could be considered to follow the three-act structure, because of course everything is going to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. I'll refer to these as ACTS.

But then "act" can also be used to refer to any large story beat - simplistically, whenever the balance of power shifts in the story. These, I refer to as acts. Acts often match up with ACTS - but not always.

I think this is why so many writers struggle with the second ACT of a story - it's because they're trying to stretch one act out to fill it, when the story they're writing is big enough that it needs at least two. If they would just adopt a four-act structure, they'd find everything flowing a lot more smoothly.

So with that in mind, here are a few of the basic act structures I compare things to, and how I'd lay things out.

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The Traditional (3 Acts)

This is the standard 3-act structure, very useful for many stories, and despite me kind of rebelling against it at times, a good default.

Act One: Establishing the Stakes. Set up the protagonist and the world they live in, and show why everything that's about to happen needs to happen.

Act Two: Rising Stakes. The protagonist acts against the antagonistic forces, trying to accomplish whatever their goal is.

Act Three: Resolving the Stakes. The protagonist either achieves or fails to achieve their goal.

The False Ending (4 Acts)

As the Traditional, but with a fourth act tagged on to the end. I would say this is the structure used by Speed, or Alien. It's great for the shock value.

Act Four: Final Resistance. After everything appears to be settled, the antagonist comes back for one last strike against the hero.

The Built-in Sequel (5 Acts)

This is the one that spawned this post, really, because it's likely what I'll be using for the treatment of Dominion. It's related to the False Ending, but for when the twist comes halfway through, rather than just at the tail end of things.

Act One: Establishing the Stakes. Set up the protagonist and the world they live in, and show why everything that's about to happen needs to happen.

Act Two: Rising Stakes. The protagonist acts against the antagonistic forces, trying to accomplish whatever their goal is.

Act Three: Whoops, Wrong Stakes. Everything the protagonist assumed about their goal is revealed to be wrong. They suddenly have an entirely new goal, with exponentially greater stakes.

Act Four: Rising Stakes (Again). The protagonist acts against newer, bigger antagonistic forces, usually with a strong dose of irony (they're fighting their former friends, or alongside their former enemy). 

Act Five: Resolving the Stakes. The protagonist either achieves or fails to achieve their goal.

The Long Second ACT (4 Acts)

This is basically just a Traditional structure, but with a twist or two in the second ACT that's strong enough to necessitate more than one act.

Act One: Establishing the Stakes. Set up the protagonist and the world they live in, and show why everything that's about to happen needs to happen.

Act Two: Rising Stakes. The protagonist acts against the antagonistic forces, trying to accomplish whatever their goal is.

Act Three: Changing Stakes. The protagonist encounters a strong setback requiring them to redouble their efforts; alternatively, the protagonist is distracted from their goal, requiring them to reevaluate whether they want the goal after all.

Act Four: Resolving the Stakes. The protagonist either achieves or fails to achieve their goal.

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Hopefully this all came across clearly, I know I have a tendency to ramble. Especially when I'm mostly just writing about subjects so that I can understand what I think about them.

 - Teddy