Questionable: What’s the Rule on Acts?

Jeanine asked:
I’m assuming from what you’ve been doing that 1) you think your acts should all have about x number of words and/or 2) you think all acts in a book need to have about the same number of words to feel balanced. So, given that, could you, hypothetically, split act 2 into two acts and have five acts instead of four? . . . . Is there a rule of thumb about the number of acts one can have in a book like yours? I feel like I’ve seen different numbers of acts used in different literary works but perhaps I’m missing something obvious due to the fact that this is not the kind of writing I do.

There is no rule on acts.

They’re just a tool that I use to structure. So here’s my theory of acts–ust mine, nobody else’s, not a rule, merely a cheat sheet for me, the lousy plotter:
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Person of Interest: “B.S.O.D,” “SNAFU,” “Truth Be Told, ” and the Beginning of the End

So here’s the problem with last acts: You have to pick up after the splat of the crisis (“Oh, my god, we’ve lost!”) and show how the protagonist charges back into action without stopping to explain too much. My favorite solution to this is one from an old radio series (although this may be apocryphal) about Jack Armstrong who, at the crisis point, falls into a tiger pit and is surrounded by snarling cats who advance on him . . . followed by “Tune in next week!” Then the next week begins, “After Jack Armstrong got out of the tiger pit . . .”

But 2016 has a much pickier audience than the 1930s, so there’s no “after the Machine Gang escaped from the Samaritan forces,” PoI has to show how they did that, which gives us “B.S.O.D.” aka, “The Blue Screen of Death,” which is what you get when a computer (and a big plan to save the world) crashes. Continue reading

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Person of Interest: Deus Ex Machina: Act Climax As Crisis

Person of Interest Binge LogoOne of the conceits I’ve been working with here is that Person of Interest is a five-act novel, each season finale acting as a turning point, an event that swings the story in a new direction, raising the stakes, changing character, and escalating the conflict by hurtling the plot forward. If you prefer a classic screenplay structure, then Season One is Act One and the upcoming Season Five is Act Three, leaving the middle three seasons as the arcing middle act with the devastation of Carter’s death hitting at the midpoint/point of no return.

But act/turning point designations don’t have to fall into a rigid pattern. They’re there to make sure that a long-form story keeps reinventing itself, not to make a fill-in-the-blanks framework for story. So I’d argue that there are two crisis points in the Person of Interest novel: this episode which defeats the Gang, and the climax of Season Four, which defeats the Machine, a one-two punch that sets up the desperate final act, which begins next Tuesday (May 3), a shortened stretch of narrative that raises the reader/viewer’s anxiety about the story to a fever pitch before providing catharsis in a final story-changing climax.

Well, I’m worried, anyway. Those PoI writers will kill anybody. Continue reading

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