The Craft of Writing
Sep 12, 2022

What is the Five Act Story Structure?

Learn about the Five Act Structure and how to use it to shape your stories.

T L Murchison
T L Murchison
Person about to start running

Before sitting down to write your book, consider your story structure or the beats that will mark the key moments in your narrative. The Five Act Structure is a classic dramatic structure, similar to the more popular Three Act Structure, and lends itself well to tragedies and comedies. William Shakespeare was the master of this plot structure, but Hollywood screenwriters frequently make use of it too, as seen in blockbuster films and tv shows such as The Godfather, Breaking Bad and Grey’s Anatomy.  

As plots get more nuanced, the extra acts in five act stories can help you organize your actions and events into a deeper, richer tale. This template shapes the hero’s journey and character development. Throughout this article, I’ll be illustrating how this structure works with Romeo & Juliet, and The Godfather, both frequently cited as good examples of the five act structure in action. 

The Basics

Aristotle’s Poetics developed a model for tragedies based on these core principles:

  • A complete mimesis in which there is an obvious structure to the plot 
  • A central conflict connects the plot points
  • There is a universal magnitude to which the audience can relate
  • Speak to the audience to stir the emotion of fear or pity
  • Evoke a sense of catharsis in the audience

The first point is the key. The framework on which the other points are built upon. This drives how the story is told. 

German playwright Gustav Freytag introduced a visual representation of the five act structure in his book Technique of the Drama (1863). After an analysis of multiple ancient Greek and Shakespearean works, he introduced Freytag’s Pyramid, a standard five-act structure used by many filmmakers. Freytag described the framework as a pyramid where the introduction and rising movement are the left hand rising line of a pyramid. The climax is at the top of the triangle. The fall and resolution is the right-hand declining line of the pyramid.

A five act structure, as you can predict, is split into five distinct story parts:

  1. Introduction/ Exposition
  2. Rising Action
  3. Climax
  4. Falling Action
  5. Catastrophe/Resolution

Three Act Structure vs Five Act Structure— What’s the difference?

Essentially, it comes down to focus or balance between the acts. Whereas a three act structure consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, with the bulk of the story told in the middle, a five act structure shifts focus. Not in opposition to the three act structure; a five act structure is a refinement of the other. The length of each act pushes the story in different ways. 

Three act structure breakdown:

Act 1: 25%

Act 2: 50%

Act 3: 25%

Five act structure breakdown:

Act 1: 10%

Act 2: 45%

Act 3: 5%

Act 4: 35%

Act 5: 5%

ChartDescription automatically generated

It’s easy to spot how these two have similarities and differences. Both have the majority of the book in the middle. However, the five act structure provides a longer introduction and resolution. The climax or moment where everything changes is carved out specifically. It is also no longer in the last act, but separated from it as it may not be the most dramatic portion of the story, but instead simply the moment where everything changes. Positioning the climax at this point makes this framework very popular to plays and movies, where things build to that climax and then the characters deal with the impact in the aftermath. 

What is an act?

An act is a set of scenes linked together by a theme. A scene is an event where the main characters are forced to act, altering them in some form. At the beginning of a scene, a character is found in a certain state of being. For example, the character may be happy because they have just received news that they have been offered a job they’ve desired, and it is the first day of the new role. 

For a scene to be complete, an event has to take place that forces the character to react. Perhaps they are introduced to their new co-worker, who they need to coordinate with on their first big project, and it turns out that co-worker is an old high school nemesis who they never got along with. Therefore the character's state has transformed from happy about the new job to unhappy about the role. How they react to meeting the new co-worker moves the story forward. 

Why use a 5 Act Structure

Breaking your book into more defined acts gives you more control and confidence in your plot. A five act framework can help with pacing as the act breaks give you built in turning points that have the power to increase your narrative tension. 

This framework is character-dependent and those that enjoy character driven plots will appreciate the building blocks of this structure. It gives the reader or audience insight into the character and has them connected to the decisions characters make, wanting to know why and understanding, in the end, the reasons behind the choices they make. With this framework, a tale of morality can be woven and the final outcome can play with the concepts of redemption, making for a satisfying ending for readers. 

Breaking down the acts.

Act I: Introduction/Exposition

Comprising about 10% of the story, the first act includes the setup for the story, and includes the inciting incident. This is the spot where main characters are introduced and backstory elements are provided, setting the stage for the story.

Pro-tip: Not every ounce of background is necessary to show here. Rather focus on the key points that will define the narrative arc and incite the story to push forward. Remember, Act One is a short portion of the story. 

Example: Romeo & Juliet

In the first few scenes of Shakespeare’s play, we are introduced to two warring households, the Capulets and the Montagues. Romeo, a Montague, is desperate to go to the rival Capulet ball to see the woman he is madly in love with, Rosaline. While there, he meets Juliet instead.

Background: Romeo is a young man who falls in love easily. 

Inciting incident: Romeo and Juliet meet. It’s love at first sight.

Example: The Godfather

The film opens with a wedding, introducing the members of the Corleone family, an American crime family. 

Background: We meet Michael Corleone, the youngest son of the Mafia boss

Inciting Incident: Michael makes it clear he wants nothing to do with the family business, but upon hearing of an attempt on his father’s life, he rushed home to the family. 

Act II: The Rising Action

With a baseline set, the story now dives into the action, demonstrating how the elements set up in the introduction impact the characters and their arc. The main character finds themselves in a new situation as a result of the inciting incident. They need to learn about and adapt to their new surroundings, often overcoming obstacles put in the protagonist’s way as they try to solve the inciting incident. 

Additional plot twists and side characters are introduced. Things most likely get worse for the main character or the hero’s journey gets more complicated.

In a tragedy, everything most likely seems to be going well. They are getting everything they want. Celebrating their highs and feeling confident about the future with every win they achieve. However, the first strings of the inciting incident begin to pull and tear. 

In a comedy, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, in a most hilarious way. What the hero or heroine wants will seem further and further away with every action they take. As they struggle through these conflicts, the audience begins to believe the expected happy ending is almost impossible to achieve. 

Because this is the setup for the upcoming climax, the second act is the longest portion of your story, approximately 45%. There’s plenty of time for fun and games and exploration of your character’s flaws, ego, and strengths. The build-up of the conflict might not come from within the characters themselves, but more likely outside influences, forcing the character to act. 

Here, the characters’ worlds are expanded, often with them going off to different worlds or dealing with unfamiliar experiences.  

Pro-tip: By the end of Act Two, all the main characters must be introduced, either on or off the page. 

Example: Romeo & Juliet

This section contains all of the couple’s romance, from the balcony scene to their wedding. To the audience, Romeo and Juliet’s tender love blooms in the rush of excitement. Romeo is fortunate enough that Juliet comes out onto the balcony and they express their feelings. The outside conflict is the way they have to hide their love. Still, the audience, albeit naively, wants to believe these two are right to marry and can live happily ever after. With the death of Tybalt, the climax is on the horizon.

Example: The Godfather

In the slow build to the climax, the Corleone family experiences multiple acts of violence threatening their control. Without these outside influences, if the leadership of the family had never been challenged, Michael never would have been forced to engage to protect his family. This engagement draws him in and in the end, he plots revenge with his brother Sonny.

Act III: Climax

The third act is the story’s turning point, the division point between the first half of the story and the second half. The moment when the characters make decisions that alter their way of life. However, this is not necessarily the exact midpoint of the book. It is simply the twist where a transformation takes place. From this moment on, the action begins to fall, with resolutions and consequences being felt by the characters. 

Act Three can be quite a short sequence. Although important, it does not have to be the greatest action scene in a story. The point is, it must stand out. 

Pro-tip: For an impactful climax, the main character should make a choice. One readers either agree or disagree with. Either way, the decision impacts their future and the character has to live with the consequences. 

Example: Romeo & Juliet

Romeo, mourning the death of his cousin, decides to run away. 

Example: The Godfather

Although Michael insists he wants peace, he chooses an act of violence in the name of vengeance. He executes two family rivals.

Act IV: Falling Action

This is the second half of the book, where the impact of the climax is felt. In a classical tragedy, everything was going well until the climax and now events reverse. The hero or heroine is on a decline and outside events pivot towards catastrophe. In a comedy, this is the opposite. The climax most likely included a heart to heart which has caused a shift between characters. Now the circumstances that have been blocking the hero or heroine from achieving their happy ending are removed and things start to look up.

The fourth act sets up the final suspense or the last scene where the inciting incident plays out its fate. To build a great final act, the reader or audience should be on the edge of their seats, wondering and theorizing as to what the characters will do with the final piece of information they have received at the end of Act Four. 

Example: Romeo & Juliet

The bloom of romance turns to the thorns of deception as Juliet and the Friar plan their deception. Juliet drinks a potion that convinces her family she is dead. Unfortunately, she also convinces Romeo who ends up killing more people.

Example: The Godfather

After Micheal’s decision to choose violence, he is forced to leave his family and flee the country. Because the rivals can’t, at first, find Michael, they kill Sonny and his wife. Michael finds love in Sicily, but she is assassinated, as vengeance has long- reaching tendrils.

Act V: Catastrophe/Resolution

As the name indicates, everything is brought together here as the loose ends all get resolved. Often referred to as the denouement, the fifth act is the point where everyone dies in a tragedy. In a comedy  everyone lives happily ever after. 

Readers have all the information they need now and the scenes can quickly wrap up the story. The theme of the story is supported by moments that tie everything together in Act Five. 

Example: Romeo & Juliet

Like a genuine tragedy, Romeo decides he can’t live without Juliet and commits suicide, just as she is waking up or coming back to life. Juliet, in turn, at realizing Romeo has died a moment ago, kills herself. The two warring households are left without heirs to carry on the name and decide enough is enough. A truce is declared and peace is returned to the city. This is the opposite state of the opening, when conflict is around every corner.  

Example: The Godfather

Resolute in what he has to do, Michael returns to America, eradicating his enemies in a bloodbath that deters anyone from doubting the Corleone’s as the leaders of the Mafia. With this irrevocable act, Michael replaces his father and firmly takes control as the head of the Corleone family. Michael has become the one thing he swore he’d never be at the beginning of the story. 

Is a five-act structure for you?

As you can see, a five act structure guides how your story can be told. With a focus on the climax as a key turning point and more time spent in the rising action section of your book, this framework can help you create a deeper, more complex story.

Compared to a more simple three act structure, the time allowed in a five act structure offers you the opportunity to focus on character development. You get to use the traits of your hero and heroine as defining elements. If your book is a tragedy or comedy, romantic or otherwise, the framework a five-act structure offers might give you a chance to explore the concepts of redemption and morality within your story. 

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