The Four-Act Paradigm

If the second act is twice as long as the first and third act and also has a major plot point in the middle of it, then why not just call the paradigm four acts instead of three?

This logical question has occurred to more than one screenwriter. One of the more eloquent discussions on the matter happened on the Screenwriters Listserv on the Internet. Andrew Ferguson begins the discussion, followed by two replies I've kept anonymous:

Field calls it the "pinch". Vogler calls it the "second major threshold". What they both refer to is the middle of the traditional second act of the three-act structure.

For God's sake, gentlemen, LET'S CALL A SPADE A SPADE! It's been there all along, yet no story structuralist wants to go against the grain and say that the middle act is in fact TWO ACTS (point C on the diagram).

What's the problem with acknowledging that the traditional three-act structure has in fact been a four-act structure all along? It's not going to shake the foundations of Hollywood. But it might help screenwriters fix stories that sag between pages 30 and 90 (in the 120-page paradigm).

            REALM 1  .  .  .  . A .  .  .  .  REALM 4
            .                 * | *                 .
            .               *   |   *               .
            .             *     |     *             .
            .           *       |       *           .
            .         *         |         *         .
            .       *           |           *       .
            .     *             |             *     .
            .   *               |               *   .
            . *          ACT 1  |  ACT 4          * .
       p.30 B-------------------|-------------------D p.90
            . *          ACT 2  |  ACT 3          * .
            .   *               |               *   .
            .     *             |             *     .
            .       *           |           *       .
            .         *         |         *         .
            .           *       |       *           .
            .             *     |     *             .
            .               *   |   *               .
            .                 * | *                 .
            REALM 2  .  .  .  . C .  .  .  .  REALM 3


        REALM 1         The hero's Ordinary World.  This is the realm
                        That the hero knows -- he knows the terrain
                        and how to live in it.  But here is just your
                        average Joe Public, although he displays hero

        REALM 2         The Netherworld.  This is the realm the novice
                        hero must pass through to reach the Kingdom of
                        Evil.  This territory is unknown, frightening
                        and wonderful.  Here, the hero is swept along
                        on an inexorable tide that leads to ...

        REALM 3         The Kingdom of Evil.  Here the forces of evil
                        are the masters.  This is their home turf,
                        where they are strongest.  The hero is gonna
                        have to be very clever to avoid capture.

        REALM 4         Back to the Netherworld.  Only now the hero
                        knows the rules and expectations of this
                        realm.  He'll need this knowledge to help him
                        evade the pursuit by the Bad Guys.


      - Each act is the reflection of it's opposite.  Realm 1 is the
        opposite of Realm 3, just as Realm 2 is the flipside of Realm
        4.  Where in Act One the hero feels relatively safe, secure,
        and in control, in Act Three he faces mortal danger,
        uncertainty, discomfort, etc.

      - In Act Four, the flight, the helpers of Act Two reverse to
        become hinderers (revealed to be agents of evil all along),
        the hinderers of Act Two reverse to become helpers
        (swapping sides to join the forces of good).

      - The development of the hero shows a similar opposition between
        Act 1 & 3 and Act 2 & 4.  In Act One the hero is a powerless
        orphan; in Act Three he has become a powerful warrior.  In Act
        Two he is a wanderer in the Netherworld, acting on his
        own behalf and being pulled or lead toward the domain of evil;
        by Act Four the hero has become a Martyr working for society,
        leading the way instead of following.

There is *nothing wrong* with working in four acts instead of three. You still work with a beginning, middle, and end. You still work with ascending levels of conflict and crises. It will only make your story stronger by clarifying the middle of your story.

First response:

If it works for you, your writing and screenplays, go for it. I've often felt reading other scripts the middle of Act Two was a critical point in the story; getting from page 30 to page 90 is agony without page 60, to my way of thinking, so I try another mini-story in 30-60 and another mini-story in 60-90 --call them B-story and C-story perhaps.

Second response:

Welcome to the club! You're not alone on this one. In fact, when I was teaching the screenwriters class in Texas, I told the students there that I was a firm believer in mythic four act structure as I call it. They kind of looked at me like WHAT? Now there's four of them?

Vogler even divides them into four acts himself. I don't think he goes into it in JOURNEY but in his class he flat out told us he looks at them in four acts. I was happy to see someone else thought the way I did.

He told us exactly what I told my students that day. Us writers will just have to keep that little ditty to ourselves. I can hardly get producers and development people to understand three act structure. Throwing another one in would just devastate them. :-)


I don't care how many acts a screenplay has. If you want to use the logic above, which does make some sense, then call it four acts instead of three. However, who ever said all acts had to be roughly the same length?

The reason I continue to use three-act terminology is simple: it comes out of beginning-middle-end logic, which is essential to good storytelling. But saying this, I also know the long second act is the most troublesome part of the structure.

Kristin Thompson's 4-segment structure

A variation of the 4-act paradigm is the structural argument made by Kristin Thompson in her excellent and important book, Storytelling in the New Hollywood. While I believe that here, as others do elsewhere, Thompson raises issues on what are essentially semantic disagreements, her insight into the four large movements of screenplay storytelling is sharp:

"Instead of starting with an a priori assumption that all films have three acts, we can instead simply study the plot patterns to be found in a sampling of Hollywood films, both from the studio era and from more recent times. What we find is striking. A great many of these films -- indeed, I would contend, the bulk of them -- break perspicuously into four large-scale parts, with major turning points usually providing the transitions.

"Drawing upon what seems to me the most usefully descriptive terminology that has been employed by scenario-manual authors and commentators in other narrative arts, I will refer to the four parts of the average feature as [italics mine] the setup, the complicating action, the development, and the climax. A short epilogue usually follows the climax. This schema points up something I will elaborate shortly: that movies very often present a crucial turning point more or less at dead center."

If you are more comfortable with calling these four major structural segments, which indeed are what we find when we look closely at films (as the dozens of films analyzed in this book show), a "four-act paradigm" or a four-segment structure, or anything, rather than a three-act paradigm (as I do), adding the important footnote that the larger act two has a midpoint "turning point," then by all means use this terminology. To me it is not important what labels we put on these structural parts as long as we realize that they are there and that they determine the structure of screenplay storytelling.


MODULE 4: SCREENWRIGHT: the craft of screenwriting