Story Engineering Story Structure Writing

Hitting it out of the park: Understanding the four act structure using sport

by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky

Everyone loves a good sporting idiom, metaphor, or analogy – “A game of two halves”, “throwing a hail mary”, “horses for courses”, “drive for show, putt for dough”, “down for the count”, “dropping the ball”, “down to the wire”. They’re popular because sport so closely mimics the struggles and triumphs of life, elevating them and helping us makes sense of them. And these sayings are used in all sorts of strange contexts; from stock market and trading advice, politics, and pep talks in start-up businesses, to dating advice and observations of hangover struggles. They’re also great for writing advice – from general writing tips to understanding the four-act structure of storytelling.

So, dear reader, indulge me while I get this ball rolling in a no holds barred look at the four-act structure using sport. (see what I did there? *grin*. yeah, yeah. okay. back to the post…)

Act 1 – Pre-Game Context

In any story, the first act sets up the story world and the protagonist – their approach to life, their defining characteristics, their key motivations, their big desires and dreams. Act one is where the protagonist (and us, as readers) are introduced to the main story conflict, but any as an observation from afar – the protagonist doesn’t directly engage with this promised conflict until they enter the next Act.

Act 1 also gives us our first introduction to the antagonist – but, again, from afar. We rarely see the true antagonist this early, but we hear about them, or see the impacts of their actions, or the indications of their growing strength and presence.

If the first act was a sporting match, it would be everything that happens before the ref blows the whistle to signal the start of the match, or the first serve is hit, or the first ball is bowled. It’s the bus trip to the game, the pre-match locker room conversations, the warm-up, the night-before jitters. It gives the context for why this match is important and what’s at stake:

Is it the grand final after a long year of struggles? Is it a grudge match between rivals? Is it the first game playing after spending all season on the bench? Is it the first game after being crowned No. 1? Does the the key player feel – nervous? excited? confident? determined? unsettled? deflated? Are they thinking about – the crushing defeat of last year? the traces of performance enhancing drugs in their system? the prize money at the end of the match for the winner? the scouts in the crowd?

Similarly, the first act in a novel or movie is the story before the conflict. First acts begin with something impending or escalating; like a meteor falling (Melancholia), or ‘winter coming’ (Game of Thrones), or the arrival of strangers (Wheel of Time). It’s the hint of trouble or conflict, one that could engulf the main character – but not just yet. The first act is focused on introducing internal (character) conflict, not external (story) conflict.

But, players and protagonists can’t just sit around waiting for the conflict or watching as spectators. And, so, the first act ends as the players walk out on to the pitch or step on to the court. This is where the protagonist makes the decision to ‘play’ – to engage in conflict with the antagonist. And just like their sporting analogy counterparts, they step into that conflict with a goal and a plan.

Image courtesy of Pavel Anoshin via Unsplash

Act 2A – Defence! Defence!

If a sporting match followed the four act structure of storytelling, then Act 2A would be like a half of football entirely played by the defence team, or a tennis set where a player never serves but only returns, or a cricket innings where the fielding team is consistently set up to only stop boundaries.

In stories, Act 2A is where our protagonist has decided to engage with the story conflict (‘play the game’), but whose sole mission is to stop the antagonist from ‘scoring’ – only ever reacting to their moves and trying to find ways to diffuse them (or avoid them). It’s a boxing match, where the protagonist is ducking and weaving, and holding their fists up high and tight around their head, but never trying to land their own punch. In stories, this is mostly because the protagonist is out of their depth, or much weaker than the antagonist, or in a world they don’t know and don’t understand – like a bench player being unexpectedly thrown into the big leagues (just like Dorothy in Oz).

In Act 2A, the protagonist’s sole mission is to protect their weaknesses and use what little strength the have to dampen the effectiveness of their opponent’s attacks. The antagonist is in the position of power and advantage, and the protagonist is just trying to avoid getting knocked out.

Eventually, they figure out that surviving isn’t enough, they need to win. And to win, they’ll need a new plan. They need to attack.

Act 2B – Time to Attack

In Act 2B, the protagonist is done with simply reacting to the antagonist’s moves and letting their plan dictate the shape and nature of the ‘game’. During the course of the 2A, they’ve learned a little – about the antagonist’s weaknesses, and about their own strengths. Like a boxer, who learns her opponent has a tell before they throw that left hook, and figures out that they are faster on their feet than their rival.

In stories, sometimes the protagonist realises new or hidden strengths in the team of merry mischief makers they met in Act 2A, or in an object they picked up along the way, or a moment of self-discovery generated from the initial conflicts.

Either way, they now realise they have an arsenal that can be used against their opponent and they have the desire, means, and skills to unleash it. They’re no longer playing by their opponent’s terms, they’re setting their own.

Act 2B is the flipside of Act 2A. In sport, it would be a half played by an NRL team that constantly gets repeat sets of six, or a Twenty-20 innings of power plays and big hitters, or a chess game of advances only and no retreats.

In Act 2B, the protagonist’s mission is to use their newfound or newly developed strength to target the antagonist’s weaknesses. The protagonist is ascendant. They are unleashing the fire, smashing it out of the park, and they’re headed for finish line.

There’s a moment in Act 2A where the protagonist all but has it in the bag. We’ve seen it a million times in sport – the team is ahead by miles, the punches are coming thick and fast, the runs are piling on.

But, then comes the lowest point, the ‘dark night of the soul’ – the ‘all-but victory’ was a false victory. The tide is turned, and the horse gets pipped at the post, the opposing team scores the winning try after the siren, the bell sounds and the ball swishes into the hoop for a three-pointer.

All because the protagonist has underestimated their opponent’s strength. In Act 2B, the protagonist still has myopia – this time focusing too tightly on their own strengths and the antagonist’s (relative) weaknesses. They’ve lost sight of their own weaknesses and their opponent’s strength. Which is why we get the knockout punch that lays our protagonist flat.

And while they’re laying down on the mat listening to the count, or staring deflated and dejected at the scoreboard after the final whistle, they learn something. They finally get the perspective they need – they see the whole picture. And they come up with their final plan.

Act 3 – The Re-Match

The final act in the four-act structure is about resolution. Our protagonist is down, but they’re not beaten. They’ve lost, but they’re not giving up.

Act 3 is about learning from past mistakes and, finally, becoming well-rounded. Becoming the best that they can be. Not relying on their strengths to get the win, but training harder than ever to limit and eliminate their weaknesses. Pushing their skills and strength to capacity, learning about their opponent, and coming up with a plan that gives them the best opportunity for victory.

In sport, this is the re-match – the next year’s grand final where the players are in the same situation but don’t make the same mistakes, the tie-breaker where they make up for underestimating the opponent, the golden point extra time where they rely on a strong offence and defence to get the winning point.

Act 3 is all about showing character growth – it is the culmination of all the steps along the way to becoming this new person: someone who is finally capable and worthy of defeating the antagonist.

And then, after the win, we see the victory – a call back to Act 1 and the ‘inner conflict’. Has winning the battle resulted in true victory?

In sport, this is where the bigger questions are answered: Did defeating the arch rival give the player a sense of satisfaction, or have they learned to no longer see their opponent as the aggressor? Did the money they claimed from their grand final win make them happy, or have the long hours of training and tournaments isolated them from their friends and family?

It’s the same with stories – defeating the antagonist is hollow unless the character conflict is also resolved. In Wizard of Oz, defeating the Wicked Witch would mean nothing if Dorothy didn’t make it home to Kansas. Saving ET from the scientists is the win, but getting ET home is the resolution.

So, there you have it – an explanation of the four-act structure played out in all its sporting glory. Hit me up in the comments with any questions you have or let me know if this has helped you to plot or edit your story.

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