Plot Mash Up: The Four Act Structure, The Twelve Point Outline & the Quest

Plot Mash Up: The Four Act Structure, The Twelve Point Outline & the Quest

During a discussion with a client, I decided to take a stand and say something that might be unpopular.

Do not use a screenplay formula to write a novel unless you account for the difference in medium.

While the general plot points of a screenplay are extremely useful, the page numbers and pacing of a movie are inherently different than a novel.

Take a moment and think about the old adage: A picture is worth a thousand words. And moving pictures have so much more advantage than a single photo. Novelists must use their words to build entire worlds, discuss emotion, action, setting, literally everything the reader experiences. That can’t be paced the exact same way as a movie. It won’t work.

There is a wonderful twelve point plot structure that has come from screenwriting that I do love. I’m going to mash it up with the four-act structure as well as the archetypal quest just for fun, but mostly so you can see that they’re basically the same thing. The difference is, the four act structure will give you the time you need to set things up.

Find my original post on the Four Act Structure here.

These basic outlines are conglomerations of posts, books, and classes I’ve taken over many years.

I hope this helps when you’re plotting…






The Hook & The Beginning

The Ordinary World

Introduce main character, their main flaw, the enabling circumstances, the opponent. The hero must be an ordinary person in this world who shows hero potential.

The Hook will be built in, close to the beginning, and include the conflict, theme, attitude and unique perspective your character has on their world.

This section will also set up the inciting incident and the dominoes that will fall as a result, building suspense for the reader.

In order to see any character arc, you have to know the normal everyday perspectives, flaws, and strengths a character has in order to see them change. The flaws are what they must overcome and the strengths help us believe they can be the hero of their story or, at the very least, that they’re redeemable. We have to know the status quo before it’s unbalanced, or we can’t perceive the change.


Introduction to the hero, their life, the world conflict, their needs and wants, and why they’re the best person for the job. Usually the hero is a normal person in a mundane world that will contrast the world they’re about to adventure out into.


The Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident

Call to Adventure

This is the catalyst for change in the main character’s life. It upsets the balance and causes the main character to react, trying to reestablish the status quo.


The inciting incident causes an irreversible change.


The hero is called to the quest. This also establishes the stakes of the quest, what will happen if they triumph or fail.


The Key Incident

The First Turning Point

The Refusal to the Call

This is the lock in or something terrible that ups the stakes just before Act 2.



From the Inciting Incident to this point, the MC is reacting, something happens which makes it worse, then another reaction, then it’s worse, but they’re always trying to get back to before the inciting incident.

Related to the Inciting Incident, the First Turning Point always hits the main character in an emotionally devastating, personal way. It’s more life-changing and must force the protagonist to accept their destiny. This is what keeps the MC moving forward, gives them a goal for the rest of the novel.


They don’t think they’re worthy, think they’re capable, or have a desire to complete the quest. Usually. If they go on the quest willingly, then some bad stuff needs to happen sooner than later to deter them or make it more difficult to get on their way. In any case, there’s resistance, and this section is generally dominated by fear: insecurities, the unknown, or a known enemy.



Act II to the Middle – (Confronting the Antagonist Forces)

The Mentor

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.


Now that the protagonist has a goal, they will begin moving toward it.

This is a plot point or series of plot points that take your protagonist toward their goal. They aren’t yet experienced or knowledgeable enough to get there, or accomplish what they want to, but they’re trying. It’ll be these mistakes that will teach them and show us (and them) their heroic nature–that they keep trying. Things will continue to get better or worse depending on what kind of story you’re telling.

In general, there are mishaps and successes in this section.

This is a relationship that is a metaphor for a parent and child, God and man, teacher and student, etc. They guide the hero with advice and prepare the hero for the unknown. (Or what they know.) There is also often a bestowal of a magical or powerful device that will help the hero on their quest.


The Plan

The First Pinch Point

Crossing the First Threshold

They make a plan, usu the main character’s not-so-great plan that sounds amazing 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.
This is where the primary antagonist puts pressure on the protagonist to force a reaction. They’re picking a fight. From the author’s perspective, this will be a display of the antagonists power and capabilities. The protagonist will see what they’re up against, but whatever happens here will also propel them to either not care or not have a choice to react.

This will also show how unfit the protagonist is, how incapable they are, and will also force the hero to face that what their ally has been saying about them is true and they need to change. But it’s critical that they can see here how that change will help them succeed. The change will include either a characteristic about themselves or an untrue worldview or both.

The hero leaves on the quest, fully committed. This is usually propelled by the antagonist’s first bold move. It gives the hero the incentive they need to finally choose to fulfill their destiny and go on the quest.


The Midpoint

The Midpoint

Tests of the Journey

MIDPOINT—The MC and ally must have a confrontation that helps/forces the MC to recognize their main flaw. This is sometimes referred to as the the Moral Premise, where the protagonist stops working from a false moral premise and starts working from a true moral premise.


A reaction to the First Pinch Point.

The protagonist will confront the antagonist and fail.


The hero faces obstacles that continue to thwart their goal–the quest objective. They’re getting to know the new world and how to cope with the environment, the inhabitants, the laws, etc. These begin to give us more of a sense of the hero’s morals, values, and the limits of their integrity.

He’s also gained help in one of several ways…
1) The Sidekick, usually shows an opposite nature to the hero
2) The Group of Misfits, generally a bunch of disposable people the hero cares about
3) The Hero’s Support Group, basically one emotional, one mental, and one physical supporting character who count the hero as the leader of their group because he embodies at least part of all three.
4) The Friend, someone along for the ride who would do anything for the hero.



The Disaster

Approach to the Inmost Cave

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.


The protagonist tries to deal with the failure. Their decisions will be reactive, usually poor choices, or possibly self-destructive.

They’ve been demoralized and must face their failure.


In the true archetypal story, this is where the hero encounters the underworld, either figuratively or literally. It’s the edge, the precipice, of where the quest’s goal can be found. It might be the object or the person or the emotion they’re seeking.

As soon as they enter, they’ve crossed the second threshold, but this is where they pause before entering so they can make a plan, prepare to overcome the antagonist, figure out how to get whatever it is they’re after. It also includes them confronting the realities of the quest’s cost and hesitating. (Death, danger, personal damage, what they’ll likely lose.) Because it’s scary!

Failure Inevitable

The Second Pinch Point

The Supreme Ordeal/The Belly of the Whale

The antagonist continues to ramp up the conflict. By the end of this section, it appears that failure is inevitable.


This is one of the few places in the novel where the antagonist takes the stage. They’re front and center, while the hero is still down and out. This will showcase the power of the antagonist but also force the protagonist to action.

Whatever the antagonist does here, the protagonist will use their crushed soul, their lowest point, to realize they have to try. It could be in the form of, “I’ve got nothing else to lose,” or “My life is worthless anyway.” Or they may care so much for those being threatened that they realize it’s not about them anymore. Whatever the case, they move past the failure and begin to climb back out.

This is the face-off with the hero’s greatest fear. They are brought to the breaking point, past the breaking point, and often realize they can endure more than they ever thought possible. They face ultimate failure in whatever form coincides with the quest. Often this is where the hero dies, again figuratively or literally, so they can be reborn a new person later (in the Resurrection stage).

This is often referred to as the “Dark Night of the Soul” or the “Black Moment.” The reader doesn’t know if the hero will live or die, and it needs to be convincing. This section should resonate emotionally with the reader.

Resolution of Flaw

The Second Turning Point

Seizing the Sword–the Reward

By 75%, the protagonist has worked hard to eliminate their main flaw. With this resolution, they can now enter the conflict unencumbered and with the tools they need to defeat the primary antagonist.


This point provides a catalyst to the climb out of the darkness.

Similar to the Second Pinch Point, this step can be almost anything that emotionally drives the protagonist to succeed, to make a difference, and helps them see their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. This is personal.

This step will afford the protagonist significant personal growth.

Somehow the hero survives or there is a mechanism previously put in place by the now-dead hero that gives us hope of finishing the quest. The hero lived through it, bested the dragon, recovered the object, and there’s a chance to celebrate! In possession of the quest’s goal, object, etc., they now proceed to go get the reward of the quest. (Think back to the early consequences of the quest, the stakes.)

This can be magical, a curse that’s lifted if the hero claims it or uses the object to heal the land, hand over the immunizations, give the intel to the good guys so the world can be saved.


Act III to the End – (Resolving the Conflict)

The Road Back

Hero, now completely unencumbered by flaw, literally or metaphorically battles the opponent to overcome and triumph. The protagonist rises to the challenge. They now have a reason and a full tank of fuel to get them through the upcoming battle.

This section is a result of self-discovery and the protagonist is realizing they might actually be able to pull this off.

It’s not over yet!

The antagonist rises to the challenge. He’s not letting his beloved object get away that easily! So he sends in his minions, hirelings, whatever bad dudes he can wrangle up to stop the hero and whoever is left at this point from getting the prize to its destination.

At the same time, the hero is usually reeling from the ordeal of the Dark Night he’s endured. Occasionally, the hero must be forced back into the game, because they’re so beyond tired or hurt or both and it’s just one thing after another and it’s too hard! Some expletives would be appropriate in the mind of the hero here.

The hero might have to escape, and even have help. But they realize that the ordinary world is worth it. Somehow.

New Equilibrium

The Climax


Return to new equilibrium with better hero. (around 90%)


Sombody wins. It might not be who you think. But here, the main plot is concluded. The fight between the antagonist and protagonist is resolved.

If you plan on a sequel, you must finish out this plot line. This novel has to be satisfying to the reader, and if it’s not concluded here, then you’re not going to get them to read the second one.

This is the final trial, the cleansing, that leads to the rebirth of a new and more powerful hero. It might be a second life-or-death situation where the antagonist takes his final, last shot at defeating the hero.

The hero gathers everything they’ve learned, all their resources, strength, wits, etc. to overcome the final obstacle. This is the final proof that they are the hero, worthy of the prize, wisdom, whatever, and they cross the third threshold and defeat the antagonist.

The hero has a new identity. If not to the world, than to themselves. They’ve been reborn into something stronger, wiser, more powerful, etc. They know their purpose.

The End & HEA

The Epilogue

Return with the Prize (Elixir)

And because I’m a hopeless romantic, hopefully they get their happily ever after as well. (100%) First: This can be called Chapter [Whatever Number Comes Next]

Just because this plot outline calls this an epilogue, it doesn’t have to be called that in your novel, and is often not really a true epilogue but in reality is the denouement of the story.

This takes us back to a comparison of the protagonist, how they’ve been changed by their journey A new balance is established and the story ends.

Prize in hand, the hero goes back to the ordinary world.

This section is emotionally dominated by a freedom from fear and their old self and life.

Mystery Plots

If you’re writing a mystery, the structure would use the four-act plot outline.

There’s a ‘crime scene’ or incident, and then the protagonist takes it upon themselves to solve the mystery of why/who/how, etc.  The mystery uses the (three or) four-act structure but adds in plot twists at key locations throughout the novel. One at the key incident, one at the midpoint, one at the climax. The dramatic opening usually begins with the crime scene and ends with the resolution or solving of the crime near the end and then the return to normal.

The stakes need to increase consistently throughout the novel.

Usually the first and third twists make all previous evidence appear irrelevant, essentially taking the investigation back to the beginning.

A good resource is this article by Hallie Ephron.

Scrivener has a free Murder Mystery Template you can download as well.

The Novel Factory has a cheat sheet for mysteries here.


If you’re still with me, thank you for reading! I’d love to hear what you have to add, say, or share about what you’ve learned over your writing journey.


Join the Conversation

  1. Wow, Heather! Thank you so much for putting this together! It’s a great resource.

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