A Ballad in Four Acts

[— Karen Myers —]

Time for a Blast from the Past…

There are several ways to structure a novel — here’s one that keeps popping up in all sorts of narratives.

The structure I use is called the 4-Act Structure (here’s a diagram I use as guidance). In essence, there are 2 acts of about the same length, followed by a mid-point crisis, followed by 2 more acts. Different stories and different authors use different structures, but this is what works for me. Note that the 4th act is often a bit shorter than the other three, as all the crisis resolutions come crashing down, one after another.

I think of this design as waving my hands at my readers and saying (not necessarily out loud) “This is how it happened”, where the “it” is the final result of the story.

I don’t think of this structure for shorter works — I don’t write many of those. And there are other structures that work well for long forms, too. It’s just one good way for me to tell a long story without having it all dissolve into pudding.

For a good example of a concentrated usage of the 4-Act Structure in a context you might not expect, let’s take a look at this popular Child Ballad (#269) called “Lady Diamond”. Its roots are from the middle ages.

I learned it 50 years ago, from various singers during the so-called “Folk Revival” (British & American). Here’s a recording by Frankie Armstrong using the melody she created for the tune, and I learned that melody as well. Background on this song during the Folk Revival.

The words I learned (below) from a different singer differ only slightly from hers:

  1. There was a king, and a glorious king,
    A king of might and fame,
    And he had a daughter, only one,
    Lady Diamond was her name.
  2. He had a boy, and a kitchen boy,
    A boy of muckle scorn.
    She loved him lang, she loved him aye,
    Till the grass o’ergrew the corn.
  3. When twenty weeks were gone and past,
    Then she began to greet,
    For her petticoats hung short before,
    And her stays, they wouldn’t meet.
  4. It fell upon a winter’s night,
    The king could get no rest.
    He came unto his daughter dear
    Just like a wandering ghost.
  5. He went into her bedchamber,
    Pulled back the curtains long.
    “What ails thee, what ails thee, my daughter dear,
    For I fear that you have got wrong?”
  6. “Oh, if I have, despise me not,
    For he is all my joy.
    I will forsake both dukes and earls,
    And marry your kitchen boy.”
  7. “Go bring to me my merrie men all,
    By thirty and by three.
    Go bring to me my kitchen boy,
    We’ll murder him secretly.”
  8. “There was nae din that could be heard,
    And not a word was said,
    Till they have got him safe and sure
    Between two featherbeds.
  9. “Go cut the heart from out of his breast
    And put it in a cup of gold,
    And deliver it to my Diamond dear
    For she is both stout and bold.”
  10. They cut the heart from out of his breast
    And put it in a cup of gold,
    And delivered it to his daughter dear,
    For she was both stout and bold.
  11. “Oh, come to me, my hinny and my heart,
    Oh, come to me, my joy.
    Oh, come to me, my hinny and my heart,
    My father’s kitchen boy.”
  12. She took the cup from out of their hands,
    And put it at her bed-head.
    She’s watered it with her salt, salt, tears,
    And next morning, she was dead.
  13. “Oh, where were you, my merrie men all,
    That I give meat and wage,
    That you did not stay my cruel hand
    When I was in a rage?”
  14. “For gone is all my heart’s delight,
    Oh, gone is all my joy,
    For my dear Diamond, she is dead,
    Likewise my kitchen boy.”

The folk tradition kicked up its earliest recorded version of this story from 1823 (Cecil Sharpe) (see Child’s collection of variants), but the original goes back to Boccaccio’s Decameron (circa 1353) and its sources. John Keats riffs on it, and it features in several paintings, but that’s only the continuation of a long line of retellings of stories from the Decameron in English once parts of it were translated (1525). Chaucer and many others refer to them. Shakespeare uses parts for “All’s Well that Ends Well” and “Cymbeline”.

If you’re wondering about the featherbeds (as I did, when I first heard it)… smothering (according to Child) was the traditional punishment for a base-born lover despoiling a noble woman, as a form of lèse-majesté (and not worthy of being killed by a knightly weapon).

So, why do I call this an example of the 4-act structure?

Act 1: Verses 1-3 (Introduces the characters, the threatening backstory situation, and makes us care.)

Act 2: Verses 4-6 (Sets the scene for the current action and the conflict of the two main characters.)

Mid-point shift/pivot point: Verse 7 (The rage of the king and the action he takes.)

Act 3: Verses 8-10 (The acting out of the king’s rage.)

Plot point: Verse 11 (Sets up the daughter’s action.)

Act 4: Verses 12-14 (The death of the daughter and the regret of the king – a tragedy for both.)

This is a perfect 4-act progression, with three verses per act. Not all traditional folksongs are like this — some are lyrics, for example. And not even all ballads are like this — some are interminable tales of serial adventures. But this one nails it. Lots of the intimate conflict ballads do.

We have two primary characters whose fundamental conflict sets up the whole tragic scenario. This isn’t the daughter’s story alone; it’s also the king’s story, and the final verse reflects upon the indelible nature of his rage. We sympathize with both of them (if differently).

This sort of narrative formalism is not uncommon to traditional story or traditional song (here’s another great example, with film-like transitions). It persists in the way we tell long-form stories, like novels. It’s part of our story-telling heritage, something we are so immersed in we don’t even notice it. Whatever the process is that we call the folk tradition, it is clearly at work in the choices of thousands of story-tellers transmitting stories over time, each with his own personal preferences. Taken as a whole, it informs all our notions of well-made tales.

Boccaccio’s version of the story, the one that was so influential as an introduction, is completely different — it’s a literary treatment of an old tale, but it’s too sophisticated for anything like this 4-act structure, told partly in dialogue as a background to his framing story of aristos hiding from the plague and entertaining themselves. But once the story gets out into the wild, so to speak, and the folk process (whatever that is) works on it, we get back our habits of traditional story-telling.

And that’s one good model to follow, when you want to tell a story. It resonates.

What sorts of long-form structures work for you?

6 thoughts on “A Ballad in Four Acts

  1. The hero’s journey is useful. I don’t plan ahead, but when I get stuck I haul it out and check if I’m hitting a reasonable number of points. Or “The big W” to check that I’ve got enough high and low points.

  2. My least-unsuccessful book in terms of paid sales and pages read was Shadow Captain, which lined up fairly well with, but did not 100% follow, Jami Gold’s Master Beat Sheet templates for excel and scriv (search for Jami Gold worksheet should bring them up). I am a little annoyed by the example she uses for the one line summary (DaVinci Code w/ emphasis one Teh Evul Cathlicks) but it’s the work of a moment to replace that with Star Wars A New Hope on my local copies. The Master Beat Sheet is basically a merger of the Save the Cat and Story Engineering models; I have little familiarity with either of them outside of Gold’s worksheets.

    Shadow Captain was a much more conscious attempt to write to market than pretty much everything else I’ve ever done; usually I’m just following the implications of what the characters need to do to get to the end.

    1. The four-part structure from Story Engineering is what finally made story structure click for me. I made my own beat sheets based on it…I’ll have to check the Jami Gold worksheets out too.

      1. I really liked how if you put in your projected word count, her excel spreadsheet would calculate number of pages total, and where the storytelling milestones might hit in terms of pages/wordcount.

  3. I tend to use Swain’s W-pattern of rising and falling action. It applies to scenes as well as the entire book, with exception of the climax being off-set from the nice, tidy symmetry of the letter shape. In the current WIP I have rising tension, confrontation-of-sorts, protagonist gets a little down time of sorts, rising tension, moral crisis, final crisis, denouement. It’s close to the pattern Karen recommends, but not exactly.

  4. Jill Chaimperlain’s Nutshell method has been useful so far.

    The big insight from hers is the character must have a binary choice that reflects their temptation vs their strength. And it must be a true mutually exclusive choice.

    The other cool thing is apparently you only need one full plot arc, and it does not have to be the viewpoint character. The plot arc character does not have to be the protagonist. You can actually do a story that is a tragedy arc for the villian of the piece.

    That one totally blows my mind, that you can do a story that is focused on the good guys defeating the bad guys, but have the core narrative thrust really be about the tragedic fall into darkness of the villian. The heroes are still heroes, but the villian did not have to be one.

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