Five-act structure is a way to organize stories. I’ve already touched on seven-point structure before, and the Hollywood Formula, but both of those are based on three-act structure. So, today, let’s look at the five-act side of things.
Three, four, or five acts, who cares?
Not everybody sees the value of trying to structure of a story. Some writers see structure as a crutch or a straight jacket that they want nothing to do with. I see it more as a tool that you should have in your toolbox. And like all tools, you need to know how and when to use it.
And, yes, writers can fall into the trap of using story structure like a recipe. “Follow these steps and your story will turn out great!” That’s not how writing works, and using story structure that way is a trap. You can write terrible plots in three-act structure, like The Phantom Menace, just like you can write great novels while throwing structure overboard, like Infinite Jest. The emotional impact of the story should always come first, story structure is just a way to achieve that more easily.
So, treat story structure like tools, that you can choose to use, or choose not to use. Story structures leverage writing mechanics to create a certain effect, where that effect is usually to create a climactic ending. Some people have a natural feel for this, and scoff at structure, and sometimes you need to break the structure to make your story work, but that doesn’t mean that the mechanics don’t exist.
So, let’s dig in to the five act structure, written down in the nineteenth century by Gustav Freytag. It’s not that he invented this, of course, because stories are as old as mankind, and as a result, so are most structures. The five act structure is mostly for use in tragedies and comedies, but it might work for other stories as well.
First, a diagram overview of the five act structure, then I’ll explain each act in turn.
Act one: exposition
In this act, the characters are introduced, and the story is set in motion by something that Freytag called the ‘exciting force’ and is equivalent to ‘inciting incident’ in many other stories (the term I prefer). The idea is that you learn who you’re dealing with, and then the story is propelled into a complication, setting it on the road toward the climax.
A famous playwright who used this structure — although he wouldn’t have called it that — is William Shakespeare. So let’s use his play Hamlet as an example.
In Hamlet, the story starts by introducing Hamlet himself, his friend Horatio, Hamlet’s love interest Ophelia and her family, and Hamlet’s own family. Of course, something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, and soon Hamlet meets the ghost of his father, who tells Hamlet he was murdered by the new King Claudius. This meeting is of course the exciting force, or inciting event. It propels Hamlet into a quest that ultimately leads to his tragic death at the end of the story.
Act two: rise
In this act, the story moves inexorably toward the climax. Some call this act the ‘rising movement’ or the ‘rising action’, but both boil down to the same thing. The events of the story push the story forward. The ‘rising’ part is achieved by raising the stakes for the protagonist, and/or making their plight more dire. This is usually the longest act, and it can contain one or more turning points or plot twists.
If we look at Hamlet, in act two, Hamlet starts a battle of wits against Claudius, feigning madness. Claudius in turn enlist Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. Woven through this is the romantic exchanges between Hamlet and Ophelia. Ophelia rejects Hamlet at the behest of her father, causing Hamlet obvious distress, although it is unclear if this is his feigned madness or not.
All of this finally leads to the climax.
Act three: climax
The climax is not near the end of the story, as in three-act structure, but it’s the middle. It is the big turning point of the story, where the plot moves from rising to falling. Before the climax the story was moving ‘up’ from the inciting action toward this climax, and after it will move ‘down’ again, leading to the ultimate tragic ending. The climax is not so much a moment of great action, but a turning point; a moment of reflection where the story changes direction.
In Hamlet, the climax comes about with two important events. First, Ophelia rejects Hamlet and returns his love letters. Second, Hamlet has commissioned a play, about King Priam and Queen Hecuba, which is similar to his father’s murder. When Claudius storms out, Hamlet concludes that it was indeed Claudius who killed his father. He confronts his mother, but in his excited state, accidentally kills Ophelia’s father who is secretly following the exchange.
Act four: return/fall
In the fourth act, the protagonist slowly falls. Things start to go badly for them, driving them slowly down to the inevitable catastrophe at the end of the story. In this, the inciting action, or push down the hill, is the climax. Agency is important in this, it’s not just that bad things happen, but the protagonist has shown himself deserving of these bad things at the climax.
In Hamlet, Hamlet killed his love’s father at the climax. In act four, the plotting at the Danish court continues, with Claudius trying to send Hamlet to his death in England. Hamlet is waylaid by pirates, and meanwhile Ophelia kills herself. This all leads to a duel between Ophelia’s brother Laertes and Hamlet, at Claudius’s instigation, with the intent to ensure Hamlet’s demise by poisoning both the blade used in the duel, and the wine of the victory toast should Hamlet win.
Act five: catastrophe
Act five is the exclamation point of the story. In this act, the chickens come home to roost. Everything comes together, and the protagonist is brought low. Where a three-act structure leads to a heroic victory, the five-act tragedy leads to this tragic defeat. Then, after the tragic catastrophe, only the denouement remains; the reflection on what happened before.
In Hamlet, the duel goes wildly wrong. Hamlet’s mother accidentally drinks the wine, killing herself. Hamlet poisons Laertes with his own poisoned blade, unfortunately after being poisoned himself. The two reconcile before Laertes dies. Finally, Hamlet, in rage, skewers Claudius.
What follows is the denouement, a moment of peace, where Hamlet dies in Horatio’s arms from the poison.
Five act structure is a way to structure a tragedy or a comedy. Note that this structure doesn’t require that everybody has to die at the end, like in Hamlet. It can work with less tragic endings, like a comedy, where the protagonist might learn a lesson after the catastrophe and becomes a better person.
I hope this helps you better understand stories, or write better ones. Happy writing.