The Four Act Structure–Witches Brew or Scientific Formula?


formula1As a scientist, I became used to the idea of formulas. It was better if things didn’t die or blow up. I learned that you had to be precise, adding just the right amount of this chemical and that liquid to get the desired product. Maybe it was fake banana flavoring or the right mixture of agar to feed the sprouting plants in my Petri dishes. Once you knew the exactly correct formula to make things work a certain way, then you could “experiment” with the formula to see if you could make things better. And sometimes things died or burned me or fizzled out.

Writing books is the same. Formulas have their place. And it isn’t until we understand the formulas that work that we can tweak them, change and bend and twist them. Sometimes they snap. Sometimes they look better twisted. When writing, I probably look more like a witch at her cauldron rather than a scientist in a crisp white coat, but the end result feels remarkably similar sometimes.


So this is the formula I use. It has evolved over the years from three acts to four, I’ve added in things gleaned from books or talks or blogs. I don’t know where it all came from at this point, and if I’ve taken it from you, please let me know so I can give you credit.



Introduce main character (hero/heroine), their main flaw, the enabling circumstances, the opponent. The hero must be an ordinary person in this world who shows hero potential.
The life-changing or inciting incident near the beginning. (by 10%)
The lock in, or something terrible that ups the stakes just before Act 2.


The MC reacts to the life-changing event and seeks out an ally or is brought out by the ally. Ally must be established with a basic modus operandi that will qualify them to be the most well-suited person to help MC out of their predicament.
They make a plan, usu the MC’s not so great plan that sounds great but will ultimately fail because they think that they can remain the same and overcome their problem as they are. (We all want to be good enough now—but we aren’t.)
The MC struggles to hold onto flaw or not recognize it while still trying to react to the inciting, life-changing event. The MC and ally must have a confrontation.


MIDPOINT—MC recognizes main flaw. This is sometimes referred to as the the Moral Premise, where the protag stops working from a false moral premise and starts working from a true moral premise. Stan Williams has a book about this called The Moral Premise.

After recovering from the previous debacle, MC now fully allies with ally and prepares for the final battle/confrontation with opponent/antagonist. Of course, the opponents are rallying as well, so the stakes are increased because there are more bad guys doing more bad stuff.
By the end, it appears that failure is inevitable.


Hero, now completely unencumbered by flaw, literally or metaphorically battles the opponent to overcome and triumph. Return to new equilibrium with better hero. (around 90%)

And because I’m a hopeless romantic, hopefully they get their HEA as well. (100%)

THE END (of the book but never the story)




There are always many ways to change this, make it unique, own it.

There are an infinite number of ideas out there waiting to become books.

I’d love to hear what kind of plotting devices you use!


One of My Crit Partners is Soft (ware) . . .

But man is it hard on me!

One of my living, breathing CPs introduced me to the marvel of software designed to improve your writing. There are some caveats, I’ll admit.

~ It will never replace the creative, human editor inside you that feels what’s right to write.

~ They never catch everything.

~ Occasionally, they catch the wrong thing.

Automation issues aside, they’re still incredible tools to get the best self-edit out there. Then the human CPs can catch even more mistakes without wading through the obvious ones. (I know, I know, I have seventeen “blue”s in the first three pages.)

There are several programs out there, and each has its own set of strengths and weaknesses, but overall, they have tightened my writing tremendously. One of the great things about them–most are free for small samples. If you write novels like I do, you’ll quickly become frustrated with the limitations of the free versions, but the main benefit is that you can try it and see if it’s something you’re interested in.

My two favorites are AutoCrit and ProWritingAid.

Hope this helps!



How it works . . .

You can upload a file or cut and paste into the window, then click analyze on the report of your choice. You can run a variety of reports on the uploaded text: pacing an momentum, dialogue, strong writing, word choice, repetition.  My favorite sub-categories are overused words, cliches, passive voice, and repetition. There are so many. It’s designed by a writer for writers.

Once the analysis is done, you can go into the text and modify it, then immediately re-run the report to see the improvements.

autocrit page

What I like . . .

I love the immediate satisfaction of improvement. This can be taken too far, though. Another benefit (for those of us who tend to be obsessive–yes my had is raised) is that it gives you an average amount of “acceptable” infractions. No manuscript will be free of some passive voice, an extra “very” or “just”, but this gives a percentage per word count and even gives you a “Good job!” so you can pat yourself on the back.

I also feel like it analyzed a bit better than ProWritingAid. I haven’t been using it nearly as long though, so I’m not sure.

What I don’t like . . .

You can only use it in an online dashboard. No wifi=no AutoCrit. I like to go on retreats, so this becomes difficult for me when I’m out in the middle of the woods, writing at the beach, or at a monastery at the SCBWI Advanced Writer’s Retreat.

I also don’t like the hassle of cutting and pasting back into my manuscript. But that’s really just me whining a bit.

Cost . . .

Levels of memberships range from $5-$12/month to analyze various lengths of material at a time. The Gold, or lowest membership, allows 1,000 words at a time. The Premium, or highest membership, allows unlimited words as many times as you want.

Go To AutoCrit Now



How it works . . .

ProWritingAid is an add-on to your word program, so it works inside the file you already have. You select the text inside your file, go to the toolbar always available, and run the report. You can run all the reports together, and this feature is superior to AutoCrit. Seeing all the issues with a sentence saves you from having to fix the same sentence twice for two different mistakes.

As with AutoCrit, you can immediately re-run the report, but it takes longer if you run them all at once. (Whining again. We’re talking about fifteen to twenty seconds.)


What I like . . .

Your text is always there, ready to be analyzed as soon as you finish a chapter. No need to upload or cut and paste, and the text is always right where you left it. To stop the editor, all you have to do is click a button and it erases all the highlights and marks in the text, leaving what you’ve changed. Viola!

It has different colored highlights for the different reports, which is nice.

What I don’t like . . .

It doesn’t catch everything. I had “you’re” and “your” slip once. A couple other things. The format isn’t as pretty, but whatever.

Cost . . .

The free version allows 19 writing reports, no interactive editing, online use only, maximum 3,000 words.

Premium is $40/year and allows interactive editing, use with MS Word or Google Docs, has no word limit, and includes more reports.

Premium + is $45/year and includes all of Premium as well as 50 plagiarism checks per year.

Go To ProWritingAid Now


Stand for Something

“In this fearful age it is not enough to be happy and prosperous and secure yourselves; it is not enough to tell others: look at us, how happy we are; just copy our system, our know-how, and you will be happy yourselves. In this fearful age you must transcend your system; you must have a message to proclaim to others; you must mean something in terms of ideas and attitudes and fundamental outlook on life; and this something must vibrate with relevance to all conditions of men.”

~Charles Malik, former president of the General Assembly of the United Nations


I Just Read . . . The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

An amazing world! Leigh Bardugo has a gift for building a fascinating setting rich with myth, science, and people I deign to call characters.

Don’t read the Kirkus Review if you don’t want spoilers for the first and second books.


Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy comes to a thunderous conclusion.

If opener Shadow and Bone (2012) was a magical coming-of-age story and middle-volume Siege and Storm (2013) was a political thriller, then this third book is an epic quest. Together with faithful childhood friend and would-be lover Mal and the last few remnants of the rebellious Grisha who aided her in the failed rising against the Darkling, Alina leaves the dubious protection of the Rasputin-like Apparat and the zealots who hail her as a saint to go looking for tsarevich Nikolai and for the fabled firebird. They seek Nikolai as the last political hope for Ravka’s future and the firebird for the third amplifier that will make Sun Summoner Alina invincible against the Darkling and powerful enough to unmake the Unsea that divides Ravka in two. Neither quest is easy or obvious, as Bardugo places obstacles both physical and emotional in Alina’s path at every turn. She is most successful at delineating Alina’s internal conflict as she struggles to balance love for Mal against both pragmatism and fondness for Nikolai, desire for peace and justice against naked lust for power. Secondary characters truly come into their own here, particularly the ragtag band of Alina’s Grisha, in whose friendship she finds salvation. Every time readers may think she’s written herself into a corner, Bardugo pulls off a twist that, while surprising, will keep them turning pages furiously.

Triumphant. (Fantasy. 13 & up)

Pub Date: June 3rd, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9461-9
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online: March 31st, 2014
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2014

My thoughts . . .

The beginning of the first book is sweet and took me in because the characters are orphaned and defended one another (though it does follow the trope of orphan turned powerful because they hold the unique key to saving everyone). For the first few pages, I thought this was going to be another run of the mill Medieval retelling. Thank goodness I was wrong.With the turn of every page, the layers of this world build effortlessly for the reader. I loved the idea of “magic is science” which I identify with as a scientist. The world becomes more believable, finding parallels in later books with Saints vs. Science that exists in our real world. The characters are real to life, flawed but doing their best. Sometimes it’s enough. Sometimes it’s not.The first book has some great twists and turns, the second is good but a bit more transparent, and the third book is predictable. Not everything, not the details, but the main story. Even knowing the end, I loved the getting there!

From Leigh Bardugo’s Website  . . .

Leigh Bardugo is the #1 New York Times bestselling and USA Today bestselling author of Six of Crows (awarded starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, VOYA, SLJ, and the BCCB) and the Grisha Trilogy: Shadow and Bone,Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising. She was born in Jerusalem, grew up in Los Angeles, graduated from Yale University, and has worked in advertising, journalism, and most recently, makeup and special effects. These days, she lives and writes in Hollywood where she can occasionally be heard singing with her band.



The word DEADLINE weighs heavy on our culture.

There are at least seven novels . . .

three comics . . .

sixteen movies . . .

two radio dramas, two video games . . .

four albums, two songs, one music imprint, three bands . . .

and an online entertainment magazine with the name Deadline.

All of these images evoke anxiety for me, and perhaps that anxiety is what motivates us. During my years at the university, fear of failure redefined the idea of deadlines to me. Paying thousands of dollars to not turn in a paper or project was unacceptable. Children screaming because their diaper had reached critical mass became another type of deadline. Business demands, life demands, the desperate need for sleep and food–life is riddled with deadlines of all shapes and sizes.

There are two major definitions . . .

plural noun: deadlines
  1. 1.
    the latest time or date by which something should be completed.
    “the deadline for submissions is February 5th”
    synonyms: time limit, limit, finishing date, target date, cutoff point

    “the deadline for manuscript submissions is February 14”
  2. 2.
    a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot.

keep calm and meet deadlines

The first definition fits my lifestyle. Note the word ‘should’. It’s a loose one, weak, with low consequences.

The second definition is how (I’ve heard) most published authors feel about due dates. That pressure has one advantage, though it comes at a high price. Deadlines make us organize, have goals (even if they’re forced), and become more productive.

Theres_No-Escape_From_A_DEADLINECollege, running a business, having three children in four years, I know what we can endure. Without these deadlines, it’s a rare person who pushes themselves out of that comfort zone.

I’ve found that goals with deadlines are useful and help me stay motivated, especially when I reward myself with something I really want, like a writer’s workshop, a pedicure, or a tiny chocolate.

I hope you can find a way to stay motivated and use deadlines to your advantage. It will be good practice if you don’t already have an agent, editor, or publicity person keeping you on your toes.


Pitch Madness 2016 Mario Kart Edition!

My dear friend Brenda Drake is hosting a contest called Pitch Madness. This year’s game is Mario Kart!

This Friday, February 26th, from 12:01 AM to Midnight EST, she will have a submission window open for anyone who would like to enter.

From Brenda’s own site:

Pitch Madness is a contest to win a request from one or more of the amazing agents listed in this post.

Sixty finalists move to the agent round. Pitch Madness will accept Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, and Adult completed and polished fiction, novel length manuscripts only. No non-fiction. One entry per writer.

For details about the contest and how to enter, go to this post. Good luck!

All the twitter fun will be happening on the hashtag #PitchMadness!


I Just Read . . . The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

This book’s most impressive aspect for me was characterization. Even when I wondered here and there about certain aspects mentioned below, the characters were so compelling I couldn’t help myself. I did extra chores just so I could finish listening to the end on audible.

The Kirkus Review says . . .

The challenge? Surviving the genocide of the human race when aliens attack Earth in the not-too-distant future.

Sixteen-year-old Cassie, her brother Sam and her dad survived the first four gruesome waves of the attack. Together, the three wait out the titular fifth in a military base for survivors until school buses arrive to take all children to safety, including her brother Sam. Cassie, her dad and the rest of the adults are then divested of their weapons and marched into a bunker by their protectors. Cassie escapes, only to see her dad (and everyone else) brutally executed by their so-called protectors. She then embarks on a mission to rescue her brother. As in his previous efforts (The Monstrumologist, 2009, etc.), Yancey excels in creating an alternative world informed by just enough logic and sociology to make it feel close enough to our own. The suspension-of-disbelief Kool-Aid he serves goes down so easy that every piece of the story—no matter how outlandish—makes perfect sense. The 500-plus-page novel surges forward full throttle with an intense, alarming tone full of danger, deceit and a touch of romance. The plot flips back and forth with so much action and so many expert twists that readers will constantly question whom they can trust and whom they can’t. Best of all, everything feels totally real, and that makes it all the more riveting.

Nothing short of amazing. (Science fiction. 14 & up)

Pub Date: May 7th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-399-16241-1
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Putnam
Review Posted Online: March 6th, 2013
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2013

My thoughts . . .

From the very beginning, Yancey does an amazing job with his characters. Their decisions never felt like a plot device. Their emotions rang true.
The premise is unique in that the aliens (like The Host) look like the humans, which keeps us guessing as to who are the aliens and who are the humans, one of Cassie’s biggest problems. While the plot twists and turns were cool, I thought they were predictable. (I’ve been plotting way too much lately).
From Kirkus: “The suspension-of-disbelief Kool-Aid he serves goes down so easy that every piece of the story—no matter how outlandish—makes perfect sense.”
I did not find this true. There was a major flaw for me, which was why an alien race so advanced that they’ve been watching us for thousands of years has the capability of literally eliminating every single human, but they choose not to.
Nope. Wouldn’t happen.
Overall, this was an amazing read! I highly recommend it and hope the movie does it justice, though I keep expectations low these days.
I’ll be reading the next two in the series sometime in the near future.

From Rick Yancey’s Website . . .


Rick is the author of fifteen novels and a memoir. His books have been published in over thirty languages and have earned numerous accolades and awards from around the world. His young adult novel, The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp, was named a “Best Book of the Year” by Publishers Weekly and was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. In 2010, Rick received a Michael L. Printz Honor for The Monstrumologist. The sequel, The Curse of the Wendigo, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His latest novel, The 5th Wave, the first in an epic sci-fi trilogy, made its worldwide debut in 2013, and will soon be a major motion picture for GK Films and Sony Pictures.

There’s a lot more about Rick Yancey on his website. Click here to go take a look!


I Just Read . . . THIEF OF LIES by Brenda Drake

What a fun read! This book took me a couple of chapters to get into, but then it really pulled me in. If you like romance and a really great twist on what’s lurking in your local library, this book is a must-read.

Kirkus Review says:

A girl learns about her magical heritage and preordained fate just as an evil wizard threatens to take over an enchanted world in this YA series opener by Drake (Touching Fate, 2015).

Gia knows she loves libraries. But she doesn’t realize that she can use them as portals to other libraries around the globe until she accidentally falls into a book, taking her friends Nick and Afton with her. On the other side, they encounter a horrible creature the size of a rhino under attack by several teenagers in armor, including Arik, a dreamy warrior who shares a love of Gia’s favorite children’s book. These teens are Sentinels, protectors of the gateways between the human world and the realm of Mystiks, or magical folks. Not only does it turn out that Gia is a Sentinel herself, but she’s also the prophesied daughter of two Sentinels—an illegal union—and she may bring about the end of the world. But Gia’s not one to let prophecies and rules interfere with her dreams; she agrees to train as a Sentinel for the summer, as long as she’ll get her old life back in the fall. But as Gia becomes deeply involved in the Mystik realm, where anyone could be an agent of Conemar, the sinister wizard set on global domination, she realizes that more depends on her there than at home. This familiar-feeling novel boasts some energetic new twists. Drake’s worldbuilding is intriguing: powerful battle globes (Arik wields a fire globe; “He can manipulate the fire into a thin whip”), new races of fairy creatures who work in tandem with Sentinels and wizards, and—best of all—portals in libraries, which many readers will eagerly believe are mystical places. And while Gia possesses a clear teen voice, her romantic feelings remain inconsistent; her relationship with Arik seems on again, off again before it ever starts. Other plot points, such as the mistaken identity of a key character, remain muddled. And a late-introduced love triangle seems inserted almost haphazardly.

While suffering from too many characters and some convoluted plot elements, this novel still offers an exuberant mashup of portal fantasy and chosen-one motifs.

Pub Date: Jan. 5th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-63375-221-4
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Entangled Teen
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online: Jan. 6th, 2016

My thoughts . . .

Kirkus is tough! I think we should focus on the last phrase, “this novel still offers an exuberant mashup of portal fantasy and chosen-one motifs.” It was a great escape for a couple of cold winter nights.

From Brenda Drake’s Amazon Page:

Brenda Drake AuthorBrenda Drake grew up the youngest of three children, an Air Force brat, and the continual new kid at school. Her fondest memories growing up is of her eccentric, Irish grandmother’s animated tales, which gave her a strong love for storytelling. So it was only fitting that she would choose to write stories with a bend toward the fantastical. When she’s not writing or hanging out with her family, she haunts libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops, or reads someplace quiet and not at all exotic (much to her disappointment).

Connect with the author:   Twitter   |   Website


Upcoming Conferences for Midwest Authors

Is an illustrator at a conference a con artist?

I admit, that was bad. But whenever I think of something even minutely clever, I must share it. Mock at will.

So conferences . . .

In my opinion, they’re necessary. I’ve become a better writer, been inspired, uplifted, networked, and gained a few stories to tell in the process. Writing is such a competitive field, some agents and editors are choosing clients exclusively from writers they meet at conferences.It shows you’re committed through increasing your education and putting writing first.

Here is a small list of conferences here in the Midwest if you feel so inclined.

SCBWI Kansas Region 2016 Events

logo-scbwiSaturday, Feb. 20: LET ME SAVE YOU 20 YEARS . . . Speed Course in Children’s Writing and Publishing workshop with Lorri Cardwell-Casey, Overland Park. Registration now open.

June 3-9: CRITIQUE ACROSS KANSAS AND MISSOURI. More information to come. Watch for a March email seeking critique group hosts in locations across the two states.

FALL CONFERENCE Nov. 4-5: Overland Park. Manuscript critiques Friday night, conference all day Saturday. (I always love this conference!)

SCBWI Oklahoma Spring 2016 Conference (One day event)

April 16, 2016 Spring Conference Registration Now Open

SPEAKERS: Sara Sargent–Executive Editor with HarperCollins, Carter Hasegawa–Associate Editor at Candlewick, Karl Jones–Assistant Editor at Grosset & Dunlap, Jodell Sadler–Agent at Sadler Children’s Literary, Vicki Selvaggio–Associate Agent at Jennifer De Chiara Literary, Jason Henry, Senior Designer and illustrator at Dial Books For Young Readers

SCBWI Illinois 2016 Wild, Wild Midwest Conference

Wild Wild MidwestDate(s) – 04/29/2016 – 05/01/2016

Location: Chicago Marriott, 1801 N Naper Blvd – Naperville, Illinois 60563

REGISTRATION IS OPEN FOR MEMBERS: https://www.regonline.com/WWMW2016
• February 1: Member Early Bird Registration: $295 ( rate available through March 25th)
• February 8: Non-Member Early Bird Registration: $335 (rate available through March 25th)
• March 26: Regular Registration begins (Members $310; Non-Members $350.00)
• April 24: Registration ends

Member only add-ons, if selected, are: manuscript critiques ($45), manuscript contest ($12), 3 hour intensives ($40), portfolio reviews ($45)

Program & Faculty:

40 faculty members! Click here to view the current list.
8 different intensives
35-40 different sessions on topics related to Picture Books, Novels, Nonfiction, All-Genres, Business, Illustration, and Publishing Independently
First Pages Panels, First Looks Panels, and onsite Art Show included in registration
Written critiques; Onsite portfolio reviews; a manuscript contest (with four categories):prize–full manuscript submission!
Autograph party and Costume Party and Prize for best costume!
Bookstore:  Sponsored by Anderson’s Books. Registered attendees who are either traditionally or independently published will be able to sell one title. Faculty books will be available, too.

Midwest Writers’ Workshop (#MWW)

MWWJuly 21-23, 2016
L.A. Pittenger Student Center, 2000 W. University Avenue
Ball State University, Muncie, IN

Registration is now open. There are three options for different price packages.

The mission of MWW is to give all writers the opportunity to improve their craft, to associate with highly credentialed professionals, and to network with other writers.

We have 45+ different instructional sessions with top quality faculty during our three-day program on everything from fiction to nonfiction, marketing, and ways to get your creative juices flowing. Thursday focuses on genre-specific intensive sessions. Friday and Saturday are packed with sessions on the craft of writing and the business of writing.

Those were just a few . . .

For a more comprehensive list of conferences and workshops around the country, a great resource is the Conference and Residencies page under Tools for Writers from the amazing Poets & Writers publication.

I hope you can attend a couple conferences this year!


Thank You, Brenda Drake!

Most of the writing community is supportive, helpful, ready with advice, but few give more to our industry than Brenda Drake.  I’ve watched her help so many writers find agents, help with revising their manuscripts, and get requests for submissions. Over and over she spends her own precious time giving to the rest of us.

It is my honor to be her assistant!

If you want to improve your writing, visit her blog here and see what information you can glean from rejections, mentors, and advice.

Brenda is the author of two novels: Touching Fate and Thief of Lies. Not only is she an amazing mentor and all-around superhero, she’s a great author. Click on the link above to buy one of her books. They’re great reads!