Do you want to know How to Write Five-Act Structures? If your answer is yes then this blog provides you all information regarding this.
What Is a Five-Act Structure?
The five-act structure is a storytelling framework that splits a story into five discrete portions, or “acts.” The exposition, rising action, climax, declining action, and conclusion or disaster are all examples of these elements.
The Five-Act Dramatic Structure, as well as the Beginnings of the Dramatic Structure
Many people believe that Aristotle and his treatise Poetics were the first to come up with the concept of a five-act dramatic structure, however, anyone who believes this hasn’t read Poetics (you can, though, right here). It makes a passing mention of the concept that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end, but it doesn’t go into much into an about dramatic structure (and even less that makes sense for modern storytelling). That’s OK. Aristotle was a bright man, but that does not necessarily imply that he had a strong grasp of story structure.
Some people claim that William Shakespeare was the first to employ a five-act drama framework. Despite the fact that Shakespearean dramas are divided into five acts, the act and scene breaks were not written by Shakespeare; rather, they were inserted after the fact in 1709 by Shakespeare’s first editor.
It’s probable that Horace, a Roman writer, was the first to argue for plays with five acts. “Let a play that would be asked after, and though seen, given anew, be neither shorter nor longer than the fifth act,” he stated in his treatise on theatre titled “Ars Poetic,” which he authored in the year 19 BC. However, he advocates using deus ex machina and a cast of no more than three individuals in the same line, so I’m not sure he’s the best person to look up to in terms of writing.
Freytag’s Pyramid is credited to Gustav Freytag, a German playwright, and author who flourished in the mid-nineteenth century. In modern history, Freytag was the most important proponent of the five-act structure.
Freytag’s Technique of the Drama, first published in 1863, contains the following illustration:
This is now known as Freytag’s Pyramid, and it is the most commonly taught story structure framework in the world. Furthermore, I feel it is one of the most misunderstood concepts. If you read Freytag, you’ll see that his understanding of story structure differs dramatically from how it is taught now. When you compare the two, you can notice the difference.
For your reading pleasure, we’ve put together a full analysis of Freytag’s Pyramid.
What are the five acts, according to Freytag, and what does it mean for each act to fulfill its function?
A Five-Act Organization’s Components
Each of the five actions, according to Freytag and his supporters, serves a distinct purpose, which I shall detail in the following paragraphs.
Please note that in this post, I will mostly explore how Freytag intended the five acts to function; I will not examine how current story educators have reinterpreted the five act structure.
Act One: The First Scene
The introduction includes both the “exciting force,” which is akin to the inciting occurrence, and the “setup for the story,” which includes the exposition. There are two parts to the introduction.
Exposition, as one might expect, aims to familiarise the viewer with the story’s universe and characters, as well as provide any required background information and set up all of the plot elements that will be triggered during the story.
The opening, however, also provides the basis for the thrilling energy, which Freytag refers to as the “complication.” The impetus moment occurs when the protagonist is driven to take action, either by their own will or by circumstances imposed from without.
To put it another way, the first chapter not only sets the tone for the rest of the novel, but also gets things started.
The First Act’s Runtime
According to Freytag, the first act makes up about 10% of the whole story.
Act 2: The Rising Movement (not the Rising Action)
To begin, I’d like to point out that, despite the fact that a number of interpreters refer to act two as the “rising action,” Freytag himself referred to it as the “rising movement.”
Throughout the second act of the play, the action of the story should be carried forward in the direction of the climax. The climax is not included in the building action, but it is used to prepare the audience for it.
The rising movement scenes must be entertaining above all else because they are responsible for increasing the story’s difficulty while also expanding its breadth.
All of the characters must be introduced to the audience by the end of the act, according to Freytag.
Act 2 lasts for two hours.
Act two is usually the longest, accounting for 35–45 percent of the overall plot length. The happenings in this act are usually more dramatic.
Act 3: The Finale
The story’s climax, according to Freytag’s model, occurs sometime in the middle of the action, or at the absolute least, just after the halfway.
The climax, according to Fretyag, is not a point of maximum drama, but rather a point of reflection on the path that has led up to this point. If the protagonist’s life has been going well up to this point, the climax is when things start to go tragically wrong for them.
Or, in a comedy, if things have been going terribly for the protagonist, things improve as the story unfolds.
Play and Counterplay Are Important
Well-crafted stories, according to Freytag, are divided into two equal parts: the play and the counter-play. The climax is when the play and counter-play switch roles.
Freytag’s Pyramid has a direct tie to the Icarus story arc, and he spent almost no time analyzing stories with happy ends, suggesting that his obsession with tragedy informed his thinking about story structures. He was also almost exclusively focused in tragedies, spending little time analyzing happy-ending stories.
The climax, according to Freytag, is also the scene or series of events in which the protagonist’s complete vitality is depicted, whether for good or bad, pathos or pride. This could happen at any moment during the story.
After the climax, the protagonist’s aim is turned against him, and she receives the atonement she earned for the pain she endured. To put it another way, the second half of the story is an inversion and denial of the first half’s energy, values, and ideas.
“This midsection, the play’s climax, is the most significant area of the structure,” he says, paraphrasing. “The action rises to this; the action falls away from this.”
We’ll discuss whether or not the same level of relevance is borne out in practice later on.
The length of Act 3
Because the climax usually consists of only one scene, it is one of the shortest acts in the entire structure.
Act 4 is called Falling Action.
The falling action is made up of all the scenes that occur between the climax act and the catastrophe, which is the last act.
In the case that the story is a tragedy, everything that was going well for the protagonist at the beginning of the story starts to go wrong throughout the falling action. Or, in the case of a comedy, the polar opposite of what was going wrong begins to go right.
This is the counter-play, and its function is to serve as a reflection of the events of the play.
Because Freytag offered so little information about the falling action, to the point where he didn’t even include a section on it (unlike every other act), it indicates that he believes this is the part of your story that will come the easiest (although anyone who has written a novel, film, or tv show can tell you the last half of the middle can be some of the hardest writing).
Nonetheless, there was one aspect of the falling action that Freytag was particularly drawn to the climactic tension.
The intensity of the climactic tension, which happens immediately before the tragedy in act five, is intended to leave the audience with one final moment of doubt about the outcome.
“It is generally established that the audience must not be completely taken aback by the calamity,” Freytag stated when asked to explain the significance of the last suspense.
This is a tense time since the situation could alter at any moment, yet that possibility is never realized. It might be the point at which the villain appears to be about to flee, the couple appears to be about to break up, or the good guys appear to be about to be apprehended by the authorities. However, it’s all a performance.
The length of Act 4
Act four, like act two, the rising movement, contains a large amount of the story, ranging from twenty-five to thirty percent of the overall story. It must be shorter than act two because Freytag’s pyramid is somewhat right-leaning, yet it is still longer than any other element of the story except the second act. This is due to Freytag’s pyramid sloping slightly to the right.
The Fifth Act of Catastrophe
The plot comes to a satisfactory climax in the fifth and final act of the play, when all of the events that have been building up to this point finally happen all at once.
This is where all of the characters in a tragic story meet their end. Alternatively, it might be a comedy’s grand wedding. An action movie’s climax combat sequence, for example.
As previously said, tragedy was Freytag’s primary concern, and the name chosen to act five reflects this worry. Although Freytag did not use these terms, it is commonly referred to as the resolution or, more accurately, the denouement, which literally means “tying loose ends.” These terms were not used by Freytag.
The length of Act 5
Act five is usually the shortest of the acts, with only two or three scenes, and sometimes even only one. It will usually account for less than 10 percent of the whole plot.
Structure in Five Acts Takes “Romeo and Juliet,” for example.
I’ve developed an annotated version of Romeo and Juliet in order to gain a better understanding of the five-act framework.
With a few mouse clicks, you’ll be able to explore this document’s table of contents, allowing you to investigate each act and identify where one act ends and the next begins. You’ll also be able to distinguish between the force of exhilaration and the force of climactic tension.
Explore Romeo and Juliet with an act-by-act breakdown of the play’s structure here »
Following that, in the following section, we’ll go through how this five-act structure works in more detail.
One thing to keep in mind right away is that the act labels in the play do not correspond to the specified five-act framework. These edits were made in 1709 by Shakespeare’s first editor, Nicholas Rowe, to make the text more readable after it had already been published.
The first act of the play begins with the play’s first two acts, including the dramatic action scene. The primary incident, according to Freytag, occurs when Romeo agrees to attend the Capulet’s ball with Benvolio and his other friends in order to discover Rosaline, the woman for whom he pines and who has rejected him. Tybalt and Mercutio are among Benvolio and Romeo’s other buddies. Naturally, he misses Rosalyn and instead falls head over heels in love with Juliet from the moment he sees her.
Act two is by far the longest, and it covers almost the whole romance of Romeo and Juliet. This includes everything from their first meeting at the Capulets’ ball, to their scene in the garden, their wedding, and even their fight with Tybalt and his eventual death.
Act two covers a lot of territories, to the point where you question why the story is divided into five acts since one of them contains more than half of the storyline! The second act covers a lot of ground.
Act Three, sometimes known as the Climax, on the other hand, is not very long in this depiction. It begins shortly after Tybalt’s death, while Romeo is still lamenting the loss of his cousin-by-marriage, and ends when Romeo bids Juliet farewell.
You have every cause to be perplexed as to why Freytag chose this clip as the climax since it doesn’t feel like it belongs there. According to Freytag, the climax is not always the most dramatic moment, but rather the turning point and start of the counter-play. The young couple’s life had been filled with nothing but happiness and prosperity up until this point. Things are about to take a turn for the worst.
Act Four, often known as the Falling Action, contains the majority of the play’s second half. This contains Romeo’s exile, Juliet’s attempt to avoid her marriage to Paris by faking her death, Romeo’s discovery of Juliet’s “death” and purchase of his own life-ending elixir, and Romeo’s approach to the Capulet tomb, where Juliet’s body is buried. The final scene of Act 4 is Romeo’s confrontation with Paris, who is mourning his fiancee and has decided to confront Romeo.
Act five is only two acts long and involves Romeo’s discovery of Juliet, his suicide, Juliet’s awakening to find Romeo dead, and Juliet’s own death. Act five is the play’s shortest act. The lovers are discovered first by Friar Lawrence, then by the two fighting families, and lastly by the Prince, who mediates their reconciliation in the closing scene.
Concerns about the Five-Act Structure in Light of This Example
The problem with Freytag’s interpretation of Romeo and Juliet, as well as the five-act structure in general, is that no modern reader would regard the scene in which Romeo bids Juliet farewell to be the story’s climax.
You may argue that the battle with Tybalt and his death was the story’s climax, but what about the couple’s breakup? I can certainly claim that scene does not qualify as the climax after spending more than a decade learning about story form from theorists like as Robert McKee, Shawn Coyne, Blake Snyder, and Joseph Cambell, among others. They may call it the “dark night of the soul,” the halfway point, or the turning point, but not the climax.
In fact, practically everyone believes that the climax happens in the penultimate scene, which depicts the young couple committing suicide jointly and is dubbed “the disaster” by Freytag. Why? Because that is the scene preceding the climax! It is the period when the most are on the line, when the contrast between love and hate, between life and death, is at its sharpest.
Romeo’s decision to attend the Capulets’ ball is not considered an exciting force or an inciting incident by the majority of contemporary frameworks for analyzing story structure. This comes on top of the climax.
Instead, the young couple’s “meet-cute,” or the first time they see each other and fall in love, would be the catalyst. It would be their first time seeing each other.
Is it true that if you get two of the most critical building blocks wrong, the rest of the story will fall apart? And how does the five-act structure compare to the three-act structure?
Let’s take a look at both of those questions, starting with the second.
Three-act vs. five-act structure
What are the main distinctions between a three-act structure and a five-act structure? Is there an obvious winner in this contest?
The three-act structure is a narrative structure that splits a story into three different portions called acts. Aristotle recommended this framework in his writings, stating that stories should have a “beginning, middle, and end.” However, it was not implemented until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The simplest approach to thinking about the three-act structure is to consider the following piece of literary advice from the turn of the century:
Have your protagonist climb a tree at the start of the play. During the second act, rocks should be thrown at them. In the third act, bring them to their knees.
Each of the five acts, like the five-act structure, has a particular function:
Act One: Setup The inciting incident also occurs during the setup, when the reader is introduced to the characters and scene of the novel.
• Establish in Act 2. The tension grows during the build; a secondary storyline usually begins; the protagonist overcomes trials, achieves some amount of achievement, and suffers at least one substantial setback; and they reach a breaking point of some sort.
Act Three: The Reward The protagonist confronts their earlier failure and makes one final attempt to resolve their problem, leading to the finale. The protagonist may or may not succeed in this final attempt, depending on the story’s style. The plot reaches a point where everything is made obvious.
This structure is comparable to the five-act structure in that it includes all of the same elements, most notably the inciting incident and the climax, but it does it in a more obvious and less arbitrary manner. It also works well with other narrative structures, such as the “Hero’s Journey.”
Because of the five-act structure, the length of each act appears arbitrary and inconsistent:
This structure is made up of about five acts.
Act 1 (ten percent)
• 45 percent in Act 2
• Act 3: 5% of the total
35 percent in Act 4
• Act 5: 5% of the total
Isn’t it strange? The three-act framework makes it much easier to comprehend:
Structure of Three Acts How long does each act last on average?
• Act 1: 25% of the total
Act 2: fifty percent
• Act 3: 25% of the total
All of these are estimates, and they differ from story to story, but the vast majority of good stories fall within these broad bounds. Isn’t that better?
Aside from that, the three-act structure is flexible. The five-act structure was created specifically to show V-shaped tragedies (and occasionally comedies, though Freytag was not particularly fond of either), and it was named after this feature.
Stories, on the other hand, can take many different forms. The greatest six plot diagrams can be found in our narrative arcs guide.
Despite the fact that Freytag focused on a single story arc, the three-act structure is malleable enough to work in a variety of story forms, from Hollywood blockbusters to literary novels and even short pieces. Even extremely short stories can benefit from it.
You may even layer three acts together to create nine-act narratives, giving you far more flexibility than the prior architecture.
Is it necessary to tell your story in five acts, and how should you structure your story?
One of the most crucial questions I had when I originally started writing this essay was, “Is the five-act structure effective?” Is it clear to the readers how the story should be interpreted? How effectively does it serve as a framework for writing one’s own books and scripts, particularly for novelists and screenwriters?
I’ve come to a decision after reading Freytag’s Art of the Technique and dozens of other articles and books on Freytag’s Pyramid and the five-act structure.
The five-act format doesn’t work, at least not in the sense Freytag intended. It’s a problematic paradigm that starts with improper labeling of the inciting incident, gets more complicated by labeling the climax incorrectly, and then fails to accurately identify the resolution.
However, since the publication of Freytag’s Technique in the 1800s, his ideas have been completely rethought and misconstrued to a considerable extent. However, it is to their favor in certain ways that they are misunderstood! Freytag’s pyramid has gone through several alterations, from a traditional pyramid to a hat to something that looks like a reversed checkmark.
All of this is progress, but it is progress built on a foundation that is both damaged and poorly understood.
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