Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor

Website Review:
Nine-Act Structure Home Page 

Gerri Baker
2003, Gerri Baker

lot. What a dreaded word for many writers. Every story needs one, but building that perfect plot can be tricky. Theories abound about how to combine elements to make the ideal plot, and opinions fly in every direction regarding how many plot types exist. But articles often focus on content of plot issues and rarely delve into a discussion of how the plot flows from beginning to end. The Nine-Act Structure Home Page by David Siegel ( fills this gap by discussing a plot pacing technique that keeps the pressure on throughout the entire story.

Siegel developed this theory for screenplay writers. However, what he developed is a universal plot pacing technique that will help any story keep the pressure on the characters from beginning to end of the story.

In his "Caveat Scriptor" section, Siegel makes it clear that to understand his theories, a firm grounding in the basic ideas of storytelling is necessary. He makes specific reference to Syd Field's three act structure format, which, in essence, says that every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. The theory is a bit more complicated than that because Field does things like dictate during what script pages the beginning switches to the middle, and the middle to the end. But Siegel wants his readers to go beyond Field's basics and examine the deeper aspects of good plotting.

In "Anatomy of a Screenplay," the basics of story come out in the form of three P's: Plot, the action; Premise, the concept; and People, the characters. Siegel suggests that a good balance between these three things will make stories fuller, while separating them as much as possible will simplify the story and allow easier manipulating of each component.

Siegel explains one more key concept before diving into the meat of his idea: the "Two Goal Structure." While many stories are set up with one goal in mind, linked linearly from beginning to end, he points out that this set-up rarely makes the story large enough to become popular. The Two-Goal Structure, he claims, is more exciting because of the reversal in the plot. In the beginning of a story, the characters aim for a major goal, but by the middle or towards the end of the story, they realize they've got the wrong goal. Suddenly, the characters are forced to change what they're doing in order to go in this new, more accurate direction. This idea is the heart of the Nine Act Structure.

The body of Siegel's theory is in the nine acts that make up a story.

Act Zero does not directly appear in the story except in flashback and explanations to show backstory. Here, writers need to set up the disaster that is coming in the story. Forces need to already be in motion before the story begins in order to create conflict for the characters. Usually the emphasis for the backstory will be on the antagonist or villain, but even protagonists carry baggage into the story. He even goes as far as to suggest ten years of planning coming into a collision course in the story.

Act One is used to establish the physical location and time period of the story. This particular act is peculiar to script writing, although other writers should be aware of the need for a powerful beginning to any story.

Act Two is an immediate hook into the story. Something bad has to happen, and happen fast, in order to move things from act zero into the main story. The conflict starts, and the rest of the story follows.

Act Three introduces the cast of characters, including the protagonist and his or her cadre, as well as establishing the villain and his or her allies and flunkies. Character development during Act Three is critical for connecting with the audience. While the development happens, events propel the characters towards the next act.

Act Four involves the protagonist committing to the first goal. He may go willingly into the situation because the alternative is worse, or to help an apparent victim. Under involuntary conditions, someone may push the protagonist into the situation, either for malicious reasons or for the character's own good.

Act Five finds the protagonist pursuing the wrong goal. This act, the longest of the group, is where the complications of the plot pile up. Backstory issues, mysterious strangers, and events; all point out that the protagonist is on the wrong track, and the villain is winning. This act ends when the protagonist realizes he is going after the wrong goal, usually at the villain's peak in the story.

Act Six is the pivotal point when characters will go after the new, accurate goal. The characters get that final clue, the missing piece to the puzzle, which allows them to make the necessary changes to successfully complete the plotline.

Act Seven doesn't go well even though the new goal is the correct one. While the protagonist will usually win out over the villain by the end of this act, the victory comes at a price. Nothing is free.

Act Eight wraps everything up, ties up loose ends, and sends audience members on their way with the emotions the writer wants them to feel. This act is short, sweet, and to the point.

With some work and a little flexibility, the Two Goal and the Nine Act structures can translate from film into the print medium, making a novel plot tighter and more energetic. The pacing he recommends for each act will have to be modified for novel writing. Also, prose allows for more intermingling of acts than Siegel uses.

The Nine Act Structure pages are the majority of the website. The rest of the links are to minor articles, bibliographies, and his own consulting services.

One concern: this site has not been updated in several years. The examples he uses for his points are useful, but out of date.

Overall, Siegel's Nine Act Structure is a powerful tool for plotting a focused, active story. Most plot types can fit into this pacing; he merely gives the timing of each stage. Plug and play; see what comes out the other end.

The Nine-Act Structure Home Page by David Siegel