Structural Problems

A question in the comment thread of my post on Four Act Structure:

Anne asks:

I’m looking for thoughts on this…do you think it destroys the structure to include a “mini” four-act structure after the main conflict of the story has been resolved? In the story I’m working on, following the characters initially resolving their main issue, additional complications arise that lead to a second “mini” crisis/climax/resolution. Both parts of the plot fall so neatly into the 4-act structure, I can’t see how to re-organize into just ONE 4-act structure. Does this destroy the idea of the 4-act entirely, or is it acceptable?”

Well, let me begin by saying that ANYTHING is acceptable if it works. Seriously, any rule you’ve ever heard about writing in your whole entire life is proved by an exception that works. Also, there’s no rule that says you have to use four act structure. As I said in the original post:

I am a fan of the four act structure. I think envisioning your story like that is one of the easiest ways to avoid the “sagging middle.” Even if you do it naturally, going back and making sure that this is what you have done can often help you avoid later complications from bad planning.

So: if it works for you, great. If not, toss it. This is what I do with things like “character sheets,” “morning pages,” and other writing techniques that I find worthless for my own personal process. They may work for other people, but not me. And that’s fine.

Okay, back to the question. It’s pretty much impossible for me to get a grasp of exactly what Anne is talking about without more detail about the story, however, I will take a stab, because I have also been a situation I think may be similar. In fact, I was in it last year while I was writing Rampant. Around that time, I attended a workshop with Hollywood script doctor Michael Hauge (Great workshop, btw. I highly recommend it.) Hauge advocates a three-act structure which is basically my four act structure using different terminology. (That’s another hint about taking writing advice. Sometimes you actually do believe in what the person is telling you, you just haven’t had it explained to you in a way that you can understand. I didn’t get three act structure for years until I saw it explained as four act structure instead.)

Anyway, like Anne, I was worried that I had two stories going on. but then I realized I wasn’t actually analyzing my story correctly.

Standard Four Act Structure:

Act One: Ordinary world and inciting incident
Act Two: Complications leading to a crisis.
Act Three: Consequences of that crisis leading to a climax.
Act Four: Climax and resolution.

But maybe something more like this looks familiar:

Acts One and Two: Inciting incident produces complications leading to a crisis/climax in which the characters think they have resolved the issue.
Acts Three and Four: The consequences of that crisis leads to a greater complications and crisis/climax, which is then resolved.

It’s basically the same thing presented in a slightly different fashion, and it may occasionally look like two stories. The reason I think this is what might be happening to Anne is because she said the following: “ following the characters initially resolving their main issue, additional complications arise that lead to a second “mini” crisis/climax/resolution.”

What’s happening there at the end of act two can go by several different names. Some writing instructors call it the “monkey wrench” or the “point of no return.” What it all boils down to is that’s the point where the characters make choices that they think will resolve their problems, but only further serve to complicate the issue. In a romance, this may be the point where the two character sleep together, thinking that this will get their attraction “out of their system.” (Alternately, they may think that sleeping together is a symbol that they no longer have any issues and they can live happily ever after.) The point is, they are wrong. This “initial resolution” is not going to work. It’s a finger in the dam. Additional complications/consequences will arise and they are going to have to make even bigger sacrifices to resolve them. (In passing, there’s a wee bit of concern here about calling the second one a “mini” climax, but that’s a whole different post.)

So that’s option one.

Option two is that you just aren’t thinking of the right events as the core of the story. This happened to me with the last book I wrote. I was convinced that I wasn’t using the four act structure for this book, as none of the events I’d planned out in the synopsis were lining up, structurally. But after I’d completed the book, I went back and looked at what was happening at the 25%, 50%, 75% marks, and as it turned out, I was doing just fine. I was just looking at the wrong events as being turning points (physical events, in this case, when the emotional events were what really mattered –and yes, sometimes these happen in the same scene (cf. description of love scenes, above.) So what seems to you to be two discrete stories may actually be one, you just aren’t looking at it through the right set of lenses.

One important thing to keep in mind is just because the “climax” of your book happens at the end, it doesn’t mean there can’t be thrilling, high stakes stuff happening all over.

Option three is what is sometimes called a double climax. And example of this would be the movie TRUE LIES. After Arnold’s spy-slash-family-man character saves his wife (but not Key West, which is buried under a cloud of radioactive fallout that is NEVER ONCE DEALT WITH IN THE FILM — ahem, sorry, a little peeved about that), you think everything is going to be all hunky dory. Until you discover that the terrorist villain, angry about being thwarted by Arnold and wife, has somehow managed to travel to where ever it is his family lives (which is not Miami, or any Florida suburb I recognize, but man, he gets there fast) to kidnap Arnold’s daughter, a young Eliza Dushku. Then there’s a second climax of Arnold saving his girl.

Eh. I’m not such a big fan of this method. I think Cameron shoved it in there because he wanted to have the rescue on a jetplane scene. It’s not necessary for the story, as Arnold already proved his character’s growth arc of “family first” when he risked (or *failed*, poor Key West) his mission to save his wife. And we know very well that Cameron is an utter EXPERT on weaving together the physical and emotional climaxes of his films (cf. Aliens, The Abyss, Titanic, Terminators 1 *and* 2). SO really it was either laziness or he wanted that jetplane scene. Or maybe just to give Dushku more screentime (in passing, when is DOLLHOUSE airing?).

I think if at all possible it’s best to make all the climaxes of the various story threads work in tandem (reader who have attended my subplot and plotting board workshops know how I feel about this). As Vinny Gambini says in the excellent MY COUSIN VINNY: “…my career, your life, our marriage, and let me see, what else can we pile on? Is there any more shit we can pile on to the top of the outcome of this case? Is it possible?”

That’s the perfect climax, IMO, when everything, but everything, hangs in the balance.

Option four is that you aren’t writing a book with four act structure. This could be because the structure is flawed or because it just doesn’t fit that paradigm. Which is fine.

Hope that helps!

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4 Responses to Structural Problems

  1. Pingback: Fashion News » Blog Archive » Structural Problems

  2. Anne says:

    Many thanks for your input! I think it’s either Option 1 or 3 at this point. More toward option 1. Definitely gave me some things to think about – I appreciate you teasing out the structure.

  3. Carrie says:

    You know me, I love posts about structure! Thanks for giving me a lot to think about!

  4. Patrick says:

    I subscribe to the seven point plot structure(Which is essentially the 4 act structure described slightly differently)

    1. a character
    2. in a context
    3. has a problem
    4. s/he tries to solve the problem
    5. and fails — tries and fails twice more, stakes escalating
    6.victory or death
    7. validation (denouement)

    For me, the multiple try/fail sequences was the lightbulb.

    I like using A Bug’s Life for an example. At the beginning of the movie, Flick tries to stand up to the Grasshoppers by himself and fails.

    Flick succeeds at recruiting an army, but fails because they are actors.

    The try/fail sequence was an eye opener. The character must attempt to solve a problem. I had a habit of just having a character who had bad things happen to them. Then they move on to where other bad things happen to them. Not very entertaining.

    A Bug’s Life is a classic example of succeeding at making things worse.