Which Novel Structure Works Best? Three Acts? Four Acts? Five?
Writing a successful fictional narrative is the dream of many authors, but structuring the plot in a way that captivates readers can be a really daunting task because there are several approaches to organising a story.
The three-act structure, four-act structure, and five-act structure are the most popular options. Each one offers unique advantages and disadvantages, but all three can be used to create a powerful and compelling narrative.
The three-act structure is perhaps the most widely known approach to crafting fiction, and it can be used to create a compelling story in a short amount of time.
The four-act structure is a more complex version of the three-act structure and, by taking advantage of its added complexity, a writer can create a more nuanced narrative.
The five-act structure is the most complex of the three and can be used to create a highly detailed and intricate story.
Let's take a closer look.
The Three-Act Structure
Novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights are often taught to structure their stories using the three-act structure, a concept that has been around for centuries. This structure covers the basics: a beginning; a middle; and an end. It has proven to be an effective way to craft stories that are both engaging and memorable.
Act 1: The Beginning. This part of the story introduces the characters, settings, and themes that will be explored throughout the narrative. This is where the protagonist is introduced and the plot is set in motion. It's also the part of the story where readers are first introduced to the conflict that will drive the plot forward and create tension and suspense.
Act 2: The Middle. The middle is the part of the story where the protagonist is faced with challenges and obstacles that he or she must overcome. It's in this part of the story where the plot thickens, tension and suspense increases, and the characters must face difficult choices that will ultimately shape the outcome of the story.
Act 3: The End. This is the final act of the story and is where the protagonist succeeds (or fails) in overcoming the challenges and obstacles from the middle. This is the part of the story where the plot is resolved and—well, you know—the story, like... ends.
The origins of the three-act structure can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and their belief in the power of storytelling. For example, the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus divided his plays into three distinct sections—a break from the traditional five-act struture we'll talk about later. This same structure was adopted by the great Roman dramatists and has been used by storytellers ever since.
The three-act structure is an effective way to structure stories because it creates a natural and satisfying arc that readers can follow. It separates the story into distinct parts, allowing the author to explore each part and keep the reader engaged.
The three-act structure is also popular because it’s easy to understand and apply.
The Four-Act Structure
For some novelists, the four-act structure has become the norm, offering an alternative to the traditional three-act structure used in the past. But what is the four-act structure, where did it come from, and what advantages does it have over the three-act structure?
The four-act structure, also known as the “Hollywood Model” of story structure, is a format for structuring stories that originated in the—you guessed it—film industry. The four acts are setup, confrontation, climax, and resolution.
Act 1: The Setup. This act is identical to that of the three-act structure. The setup establishes the story's world, depicting the day-to-day life of the story’s main character. But an inciting incident should also occur—one that pulls the protagonist out of their normal world and into the main action of the story.
Act 2: The Confrontation. This act contains the rising action and complications arise that get in the way of the main character accomplishing their goal. This act culminates in a midpoint, in which the stakes are raised and the reader can only begin to imagine the potential drama that's about to unfold.
Act 3: The Climax. In this act, we begin with the crisis, and the main character attempts to solve the problem or reach their objective. But they must fail, all hope seeming lost. In reality, it's only a temporary defeat.
Act 4: The Resolution. Act four kicks off with a new plan. The characters dig deep and find a new way to overcome the challenges, culminating in a final battle, equipped with renewed determination. The character either wins or loses, and the plot winds down, addressing any loose ends.
By breaking the second act of the three-act structure into two, the four-act structure enables clearer pacing of the story, helping to keep the story from feeling rushed or dragged out.
The Five Act Structure
When you are writing a novel and want to keep your narrative pacing even, compelling, and understandable, the five-act structure is your best friend.
The five-act structure has been used since Ancient Greece, is based on Aristotle’s Poetics, and remains one of the most popular and effective structure templates for writing a narrative.
The five-act structure is an organised way of telling a well-rounded story.
Act 1: Exposition. This first act introduces the main characters and provides backstory. The first act also presents the central conflict through an inciting incident.
Act 2: Rising Action. In the second act, the conflict increases as the characters try to achieve their goals and the narrative builds toward the climax.
Act 3: Climax. The third act contains the climax, the moment where the tension reaches its peak, and it's here—at the story’s midpoint—where things really begin to change. Some writers delay the climax until later in the story—usually act four—or instead opt for a three-act structure.
Act 4: Falling Action. Act four includes the series of events that leads to the resolution. And it here where the reader really needs to feel true suspense—a moment of doubt about how the story will unfold.
Act 5: Resolution. The end, the resolution, the denouement of the story. Here, loose ends are tied up and the narrative brought to a close, with either a tragic or happy ending.
Shakespeare used the five-act structure, so you're in good company.
The five-act structure is considered to be more comprehensive and well-rounded than the three and four-act structures. It allows for more dynamic storytelling, as it allows for more time to develop plot points and characters. The five-act structure also allows for more complexity and depth in the story, as it can include more plot twists and subplots, making for a more engaging and interesting story.
The three-act structure is a widely accepted and popular way of structuring stories. It has been used by storytellers for centuries and has proven to be an effective way to create engaging and memorable stories. The structure allows for the exploration of themes in a meaningful way and provides a natural and satisfying arc that readers can follow. As such, it’s no surprise that the three-act structure has stood the test of time and remains a popular choice for both novelists and screenwriters.
The four-act structure is the perfect structure for novelists looking for a more complex story structure than the traditional three-act structure and helps the writer keep the pacing of their story in check and avoid rushing or dragging out the story. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced writer, the four-act structure is a great way to go.
The five act structure is a popular way of writing a narrative and is used in film, literature, and drama. It's more comprehensive than the three and four-act structures, as it allows for more dynamic storytelling and complexity. It also allows for more time to explore characters, plot twists, and subplots, making for a more engaging and interesting story. If you are looking for a structure for your novel, the five-act structure is a great choice.
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