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4-Act Structure, Ballad-style

Posted in Plot

There are several ways to structure a novel, and I won't be going into them all.

The structure I use is called the 4-Act Structure (you can see more about it here (scroll down at the link — there's a helpful diagram). 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.

I don't think of this for shorter works, since I don't write many, but other people do. It's just a good way to tell a story.

For a good example, take a look at this popular Child Ballad (#269) called “Lady Diamond”.

I learned it almost 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… according to Child smothering was the traditional punishment for a base-born lover despoiling a noble woman, as a form of lèse-majesté.

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 ones 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 song or traditional story. 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 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 a good model to follow, when you want to tell a story.

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