How to Write Books Using the Four Act Structure

Let’s take a closer look at how the four act structure bolsters commercial pacing, provides purpose to your plot, and eradicates soggy middles!

There are a million different ideas and methodologies for writing books, but let’s make one thing perfectly clear: there is no one way to tell a story — there are only ways that work for you and ways that don’t. Not every story is going to fit nicely into four pre-conceived boxes, but if you’re interested in writing fast-paced commercial fiction, the Four Act Structure could be exactly what you’re looking for! Let’s take a closer look at what the Four Act Structure is and how to use it when plotting. 

What is the Four Act Structure?

The Four Act Structure is a plot organizational device that allows you to chart the rises and falls of your story, and personally, I think it’s made of magic. But before we dissect how the Four Act Structure can work for you, let’s debunk some myths about what it is and is not.

Myths about the Four Act Structure

  • Using the Four Act Structure produces longer books
  • You can’t use Save the Cat as a reference if you want to have four acts
  • I can’t use the Four Act Structure because I’m a pantser
  • The Four Act Structure won’t work for my story because [insert any excuse here]

Facts about the Four Act Structure

  • The number of acts does not influence the length of your manuscript. This tool helps provide structure within your word count so that your plot always has a purpose. 
  • Craft tools are not mutually exclusive. Mix and match, baby. We’ll use Save The Cat as a touch stone throughout — it’s one of my favorite craft books!
  • Let the tools work for you! If you prefer to dive into your story head first without any plotting, by all means dive. You can utilize this outlining tactic at any point, whether you’re prepping or revising. (But if you want my two cents: plot your books!) 
  • The Four Act Structure is not genre or audience exclusive, but if you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to! 

Whereas Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheets (and, later, Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat Writes a Novel) utilizes a three act plotting mechanism, the Four Act Structure breaks your book into slightly smaller, more manageable chunks in order to provide shape and purpose to your plot. Essentially, the Four Act Structure is created by splitting the hefty second act into two pieces. That’s the primary difference. It’s really that simple! 

Why you should try writing with the Four Act Structure 

So, what? You split act two in half, and suddenly everything makes sense? In my experience — yes! Breaking act two down has a slew of benefits. Here are a few reasons I think you should give it a shot:

  • More detail makes pacing easier. If you’re hoping to write the kind of book that grips readers and doesn’t let go until it’s over, you can’t afford to get lost along the way. Plotting with a more detailed hand will help you stay on track. 
  • 50% is a daunting portion of your book to tackle at once. A second act that takes up literally half of your book is often too much to swallow at one time — especially when so many crucial things happen in the middle of stories. Breaking it down into bite-sized pieces helps to not overwhelm the writer (and underwhelm readers.)
  • Provides the “Fun & Games” section the attention it deserves. This is it! Fulfilling the promise of the premise! Perhaps the most fun part of your book, and you’re going to lump it in with all the Bad Guys and Dark Nights? I don’t think so. 
  • Understand and explore your character’s challenges and growth. Splitting into four acts gives you more mental room in the Fun & Games section to truly examine and challenge your main character so that their growth can be effectively highlighted in act four!
  • Emphasize the midpoint. In the three act structure, the midpoint is buried in the second act, but now you’ll be able to highlight what is perhaps the most crucial turning point in your entire book the way it deserves.
  • Foster more accentuated turning points. Not only will your midpoint be emphasized, but all of your turning points now have more room to shine. 

How the Four Act Structure works

Have you heard about soggy middles? It’s the stodgy, bogged-down section of your book right before the midpoint. Your characters are wandering aimlessly, your plot is nowhere to be seen, and everyone’s eating taquitos and talking about what needs to be done, but nothing’s actually happening

Soggy. Middle. 

Your book may feel like it’s dragging on and on and on for readers if you’ve lost sight of the character’s motives and agency, which is so easy to do when the second act is a whopping 50% of your story with very little direction. 

Thinking of your story in four separate chunks can help you see the picture clearer. 

The two trickiest parts of a book are, in my opinion, the parts with the least amount of structure: Fun & Games and Finale. Although the names are different, I find it helpful to remember that each act you write (no matter how many!) has its own set-up, catalyst, debate, and forward motion. Because it’s organized into smaller pieces, the Four Act Structure gives us enough direction to apply this technique easily.

What now? 

Next time you sit down to plan a book, try using the Four Act Structure instead! See how shifting your perspective from three acts (25% – 50% – 25%) toward four equally-sized acts (25% – 25% – 25% – 25%) changes your approach to plotting. 

And if you’re interested in learning more about writing, stick around! I’m always happy to talk plot — especially if it’s about one of my favorite movies, *ahem* Son in Law (1993).

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