3 Act vs. 4 Act Structure

The following is a transcript from an online class on the Dramatica theory of story hosted by its co-creator, Melanie Anne Phillips signed on as Dramatica:

William S1 : After working so long in 3-act structure, I’m unclear on Dramatica’s four-act structure.

Dramatica : Okay, let’s address that question… Dramatica sees both a structural and a dynamic view of “acts”… In the dynamic view, we “feel” the progression of a story as falling into three distinct phases. These are the same “movements” that Aristotle saw when he talked about a beginning, a middle, and an end.

An alternative is a structural view. Imagine for a moment, four signposts, along a path. One marks where you start, two in the middle, and one at the end. If you start at the first one, there are three journeys to make.

William S1 : Is act I (set up), act II (confrontation/obstacles) and act III (resolution) applicable?

Dramatica : William, yes, in the traditional understanding of story. There’s a bit more to it in Dramatica. When you move between the four signposts you take three journeys.

William S1 : Why make storytelling more complicated than it is?

Dramatica : Why make it less complicated than it is? When you look at a story as a “done deal”, when you see all the dramatic potentials, rather than concentrating on the events. That is where you see the meaning. Its kind of like scanning out lines on a TV picture. Scene by scene, act by act, you create drama that flows from one point to another. But in the end, you want to be able to connect all the points, and see what kind of picture you have created. By using both a 3 and four act structure and dynamics, Dramatica allows an author to approach a story either through the progression of events or the meaning they want to end up with.

The software has an “engine” that keeps the two compatible, so when you make decisions or changes in one, the effects on the other are shown.

William S1 : What is the 4th act?

Dramatica : The fourth act is the ending, which is the same as the denoument or author’s proof. Any other questions before we continue?

DC Finley : So, the traditional second act is now the second and third acts, right?

Dan Steele : So the event sequence is managed separately from the psychological chain of motivations?

William S1 : Then what is the dramatic purpose of the traditional third act?

Dramatica : Dan, they are managed separately, but intimately tied together. They affect one another.

Dan Steele : Yes.

Dramatica : DC, and William, here’s an answer to you both…If we look at a story as having a beginning, middle and end, then the beginning is static.. it is really the sign post where everything begins. The end is also static, the destination. But the “middle” is seen as the whole development of the story from that starting point to ending point. Now, that is really “blending” half dynamics and half structure. Two points and a string between them.

William S1 : But the beginning is NOT static.. the story usually enters in the middle of a life, event or sequence of events.

Dramatica : Yes, it enters in the middle of a life, but is thought of as the set of potentials that are already wound up that will evolve into the story line.

William S1 : Okay.

Dramatica : Dramatica sees the first act as MUCH more dynamic than that! In fact, we have 7 things to think about!

William S1 : Bring it on.

Dramatica : Let’s label the four structural acts as A,B,C,D. The familiar dynamic acts are 1,2,3. The beginning point is A then we move through 1 to get to B then we move through 2 to get to C. Then we move through 3 to get to D. Now, A,B,C,D and 1,2,3 all have to be there, in order to tell the whole tale.

DC Finley : Je comprende.

Dramatica : Any other questions about this.. oh, just a point. TV often looks at a five act structure. What they are really seeing, is point A followed by 1,2,3 and ending with D. It is not that B, and C are not there, but the commercial breaks emphasize those five and downplay the others. That’s why writing for TV is significantly different than writing for film. And BOTH are a lot different than writing prose. Okay, shall we move on?

DC Finley : Yes.

From the Dramatica Class Transcripts