The Five Act Structure is a narrative framework. It is a common outline used in storytelling to plan scripted tales of all kinds – movie scripts, television scripts and plays.
While it is an older style, it can still be used frequently for certain genres and story types, such as tragedies and classical comedies.
- What the five act structure is
- The 3 Act Structure vs 5 Act Structure
- A detailed breakdown of the 5 Act Structure
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What is the Five Act Structure?
The 5 act structure divides a story into five parts:
- Introduction/ Exposition
- Rising Movement
- Falling Action
The five act structure is utilized in Shakespearean plays, and is commonly seen in other classic works as well. It remained highly popular until roughly the rise of film and television.
The dramatist responsible for promoting the five act structure is German playwright Gustav Freytag, who made a diagram of it called Freytag's Pyramid in 1863.
The 3 Act Structure Vs. 5 Act Structure
No modern day plot structure is chiseled in stone, but both the 3 act structure and the 5 act structure still dominate the world of script writing, playwriting and novel plotting.
The main difference between the two dramatic structures is that the Three Act is more balanced and simple then the Five Act Structure, making it more ideal for film, television, and short novels.
When you break down the length of the three act structure within the entire story arc it looks like this:
- Act 1: 25%
- Act 2: 50%
- Act 3: 25%
Diagrammatically, this forms a perfect pyramid with three plot points.
By contrast the five act structure looks more like this:
- Act 1: 10%
- Act 2: 45%
- Act 3: 5%
- Act 4: 35%
- Act 5: 5%
This diagrammatically becomes a more perfect story structure pyramid.
Another thing to note about the two different structures is that the five act structure leans towards tragedy, which was considered the higher form of storytelling in past centuries. But you can also find the same structure in classical comedies as well.
The Elements of Five Act Structure
Here are the elements of the five act structure as defined by Freytag and that are still in use by playwrights and filmmakers today.
Act 1: The Introduction
Act 1 consists of two parts:
- The story is set up, including the exposition.
- The complication, also known as the inciting incident or the “exciting force.”
Act 1 should comprise about 10% of the entire story.
The exposition provides the audience with all of the backstory it needs to know about the characters, and their world.
It is also called an Introduction because it establishes all the points that will trigger the story to move forward through the entire narrative arc.
The complication is an inciting incident or exciting force that propels the story forward.
An inciting incident is an unexpected event in a story that provides the main character with a problem. The exciting force could be some sort of challenge, adventure or quest.
Either initiates the story’s movement, and is the exciting force that culminates in the climax.
Act 2: The Rising Movement
Although sometimes called the Rising Action, Freytag's pyramid refers to Act 2 as the Rising Movement.
Scenes in Act 2 delves into more detail about the complication introduced in Act 1, adding additional plot twists and character development.
Most importantly all of the characters in the play must be introduced by the end of Act 2.
This act does not contain the climactic moment, but sets it up for Act 3. It is the longest part of the five act structure containing thirty-five to forty percent of the story content.
Act 3: Climax
In Freytag's pyramid the climax of the story occurs at the midpoint of the narrative arc or just after. It is the story's turning point. The third act is the briefest act in the Freytag 5 act structure, and usually consists of only one scene.
The climax of the story is misperceived as dramatic, when really it is a point where the characters reflect on their choices or fate and then act, for either better or worse.
The climax belongs to the protagonist, according to Freytag, who compares the the main character’s journey to the myth of Icarus.
In the myth of Icarus, the exciting force in the first act is when a man expresses a desire to fly. In the rising act makes himself a pair of wings and flies to the sun. The climax of the action is when the sun melts the wax on his wings, and the final two acts describe his tragic fall from grace.
Play and Counter Play
The climax is the division point between the first half of the play and the second half. The first half is known as Play and the second half as Counter Play.
The action rises to this point during the first half of them and then the action falls away from it for the second part. For example, in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the rising action consists of the exposition, detailing the feud between two families.
The inciting incident occurs shortly after Romeo and Juliet fall in love at a masquerade ball, when he discovers her family is locked in a rivalry with hers. The action continues to rise when the doomed couple meet secretly later that night and then marry each other the next day.
The story escalates to the midpoints Romeo kills Juliet's cousin, but the actual midpoint of the story is when Romeo discovers the body of Juliet, who has faked her death to avoid marrying another man and must ruminate on the meaning of all he has done.
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Act 4: Falling Action
The falling action are scenes that take place between the act, and the final act. The second half of the entire play beyond the midpoint is known as the counterplay.
Act 4 initiates the falling action in the plot structure. In a tragedy, if all goes well for the protagonist, the plot pivots to a catastrophe. In a comedy, everything that was going badly turns around and goes well for the protagonist.
The Final Suspense
The fourth act prepares the audience for the catastrophe that is likely to happen in Act 5. For instance, in Romeo and Juliet, Romeo discovers Juliet's body and thinks she is dead.
During this scene, the audience has a moment of doubt about what could possibly happen next, as Juliet could wake up and the whole tale could have a happy ending.
Of course this does not happen, and instead Romeo kills himself. The final act catastrophe is when Juliet wakes up and discovers he is dead, and then kills herself.
Act 4 is a mirror to Act 2, in terms of length, with it comprising a large part of the narrative. It is often slightly shorter than Act 2, consisting of twenty-five to thirty percent of the story.
Act 5: The Catastrophe
Act five brings all things together that have been introduced in the plot so far. This is known as the denouement.
If the story is a tragedy, then someone, or everyone dies. If it is a comedy, the protagonist lives happily ever after.
The final act tends to be short, with one to three scenes, and will comprise less than ten percent of the story.
The Five Act Structure of Macbeth
One of the most commonly analyzed and taught Shakespearean dramas is Macbeth, as it is such a perfect example of the five act structure. The story is not complicated by a subplot, and fits perfectly into the tragic 5 act pyramid as Freytag originally intended.
Here is a breakdown of the five act structure of Macbeth.
Act 1: Prologue or Exposition
A war is ending in Scotland, and General Macbeth and his loyal friend Banquo are victorious.
However, three witches cast a spell on Macbeth, instilling him with a lust for power. They meet him and tell him he must kill the current reigning monarch to become “Thane and King!”
Act 2: Rising Action
Macbeth and his wife, Lady Macbeth murder King Duncan and take the throne, killing all who oppose them.
Lady Macbeth has Banquo killed to prevent him from dissuading MacBeth from his ambitions.
Act 3: The Climax
Macbeth holds a banquest and the ghost of the murdered Banquo appears. Lady Macbeth becomes paranoid and hallucinates, as the couple reflects on what they have done.
Act 4: Falling Action
General Macduff instigates a plan to kill Macbeth and restore the rightful heir to the throne.
Macbeth meets with the three witches, who lie and tell him that he will survive any plot against him.
Act 5: The Catastrophe
The castle is stormed and Macbeth is killed. Filled with remorse, Lady Macbeth dies by committing suicide.
The Five Act Structure of The Godfather
The five part structure of playwriting also applies to film scripts. Most films have a five act structure, with the adaptation of Mario Puzo's The Godfather being a good example.
Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, the film script for this blockbuster film about protagonist Michael Corleone and the Mafia is the perfect example of Freytag's story shape – the 5 act pyramid.
Act 1: The Exposition
Protagonist Michael Corleone, a war veteran, hears of an attempt on his father's life, and rushes to his mafia family's side.
Act 2: The Rising Action
Michael and his brother Sonny formulate a revenge plan to kill the rival Mafia family.
Act 3: The Climax (Midpoint)
Michael executes two family rivals, Sollozo and McCluskey and flees to Sicily. Sonny and his first wife are killed.
Act 4: The Falling Action (Crisis)
To please his second wife, Michael vows to quit the mafia. His family begs him to return to the fold.
His father dies after being warned of a traitor within the family.
Act 5: Catastrophe (Denouement)
Micheal learns that the traitor Tessio is in his own family. He kills everyone and becomes the new head of the family. He lies to Kay about his new status.
Should You Use the Five Act Structure?
There are some good reasons why the 5 act story is the one of the most popular dramatic structures, especially before the more modern rise of the three act structure.
First of all, audiences like character-driven plots and that is the focus os Freytag 5 act structure, right from the Act I, where the character's world is introduced, through the rising action to Act III, where the character reflects on choices made to Act V, where the choices have consequences.
The five act structure suits many narrative forms, and has more depth and complexity then the three act structure.
Aside from plays, TV scripts and film scripts, many successful novels use the five point structure as the building blocks of narrative.
In fact, many novels nowadays are written like treatments with a five parts structure, and many are also movies.
Good examples of novels with these story structures are Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl , Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis and The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.
The five parts of the Freytag pyramid are more suited to dramas and Shakespearean plays, where the final outcome has little redemption, and the tinge of a morality tale.
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