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5 Act Structure: The Anatomy of Powerful Storytelling

by Clarke Scott | Last Updated: September 1, 2021

What is the 5 act structure? This is a question that many people ask. The five act structure, also known as Freytag’s pyramid, was developed by Gustav Freytag in 1874. It provides a framework to help authors write compelling stories with an emotional arc and satisfying resolution. This blog post will explore the five act structure and give you tips on how to use it to develop your own story!

The five-act structure, according to some experts, is the key to creating an hour-long television program. But how can you use this form of writing if you don’t know what you’re doing?

In this post, we’ll look at the origins of the five-act structure, examine some samples, and discuss whether it’s really worth using as a story structure model for filmmakers and screenwriters.

Why Use a 5 Act Structure

The five-act structure is used extensively by screenwriters creating films that are designed for mass consumption. It’s also used by authors who write novels where each chapter represents one Act within an overall book. The five act narrative provides an excellent outline or guidebook, so writers know exactly where they want stories to go and how much room they need to get there.

The “set up” section is where screenwriters set the scene and introduce all of their characters so that readers or viewers can identify with them. This part establishes “worlds’ whether it’s in a sci-fi film, period piece drama, fantasy adventure movie or other types of narratives . If you have fantastic elements, then this first Act will even further establish how “realistic” these fantastical worlds are going to appear onscreen for audiences who may not be familiar with them before they go into each story journey.

After things really start getting interesting towards the end of the conflict, stories often peak at some sort of climax, which throws huge obstacles in front of your protagonist(s). It might be something as “small” (but deadly) as the “little boy who lived!”

This is a good point to “peek ahead” from your outline and see how many pages you have left or chapters in a novel. That’s probably where you’ll need to start wrapping things up so that people are satisfied with the ending but not too tired of reading it! The resolution stage at this point may be very short.

The five-act structure can help writers keep their audiences interested by never knowing what might happen next because they’re immersed entirely in worlds that feel real enough for them to suspend disbelief about anything else happening onscreen or between book covers. It also allows readers/viewers to breaks when needed without having finished a story “in one sitting.”

What is a Five Act Structure?

A five-act structure is a story structure model that divides a narrative up into five parts called acts.

These are:

  1. The introduction or exposition,
  2. Rising movement,
  3. Climax,
  4. Falling action,
  5. and dénouement or resolution.

The structure marks a rhythm or moment in a scene on TV or in a movie that moves along the narrative. The structure itself follows from Aristotle’s poems. Aristotle wrote in 350 BC that the plot structure in any drama forms a simple triangle.

Many people credit Aristotle with developing the five-act dramatic structure, but that is not correct. It emphasizes the importance of a story’s beginning, middle, and conclusion but offers no additional information regarding dramatic structure and even less that makes sense for modern storytelling.

Gustav Freytag, a German playwright and author from the mid-nineteenth century, is credited with inventing the five-act structure. Fréytags pyramid is a five-act play structure that is generally known as the Fréytags pyramid. The structure is called the rhetorical triangle and is now known as the ‘Freytag pyramid.’ Gustav Freytag wrote a book called Die Technik des Dramas.

The beats or events in a play, television program, or film that move the story are known as narrative structure. The method of building a trilogía is based on Aristotle’s Poetics. In 350 BCE, Aristotle defined Poetics as “the study of tragedy in its most general terms.”

In Aristotle’s Poetics, he describes several theories of how you build a tragedy. He also discusses the importance of each element in every play and, more importantly, its impact on the public.

3 Act Structure vs. 5 Act Structure

What’s the difference between three acts and five acts in story structure? Is one better than the other? Three act structure is a story structure framework that divides a story into three separate pieces. Originally postulated by Aristotle, who wrote that stories should have a “beginning, a middle, and an end,” this framework was established in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

The simplest way to think about the three act structure is the following century-old writing advice: In the first Act, put your character up a tree. In the second Act, throw rocks at them. In the third Act, bring them down.

Like the five act structure, each Act has a purpose:

Act 1: Setup. The setup introduces the characters, the world of the story and kicks off the action with the inciting incident.

Act 2: Build. In the build, tension increases; a subplot often begins; the protagonist experiences obstacles, success, and at least one major of failure, and they reach some kind of breaking point.

Act 3:Payoff. Tension rises to a peak as the protagonist confronts their failure and makes a final attempt at solving their problem, leading to the climax, succeeding or failing based on the story type. The story ends with a moment of resolution.

This structure contains all the same pieces as the five act structure, notably the inciting incident and climax, but does so in a simplified, less arbitrary way. It also fits better with other plot structures, including the Hero’s Journey.

In the five act structure, the length of each Act feels random and uneven:

Five Act Structure Approximate Act Length:

In the three act structure, it’s much simpler:

Three Act Structure Approximate Act Length

All of these are estimates, changing from story to story, but most stories that work wind up in these approximate boundaries. Better, right? Moreover, three act structure is flexible. Five act structure was designed specifically to describe V-shaped tragedies (and sometimes comedies, although Freytag wasn’t very interested in those).

But stories come in many different shapes. See our narrative arc guide for the top six plot diagrams. The three act structure is flexible enough to work for any story shape, from Hollywood blockbusters to literary novels and even to short stories, not just one specific story arc, like Freytag was focused on. You can even layer three act stories, creating nine act structures that give you even more flexibility.

What are the 5 Acts

The five-act structure is broken down into four stages which are set up as two acts with an Act III that has three parts to it. It follows this pattern: Set Up > Conflict/Complication > Climax > Resolution . This is one way that television shows create drama in their programs for a long period of time without having to use much filler material or “fluff.” The “climax” section (the last third) contains the most action when events happen quickly, and there’s no room for error by anyone involved.

Act 1 – Introduction

The setup for the narrative is broken down into two parts in the introduction: the exposition and the “thrilling force'” (equivalent to the inciting incident). The setup is one of the most important parts. It’s going to set up your characters and give you a chance to introduce all their layers before things get really hairy for them! This “setup” part can be anywhere from ten pages (a screenplay) or three chapters (in a book).

The primary goal of the exposition is to introduce the tale’s world and characters, as well as any relevant backstory, while also establishing all of the plot elements that will be triggered throughout the narrative. The opening, on the other hand, establishes the exciting force, which Freytag terms “complication.” This is when a protagonist’s internal or external drive causes him to move forward.

The introduction both sets up the story as a whole and also gets it moving. In a book, this “thrilling force” is the inciting incident.

Act 2 – Rising Action

Freytag’s “rising action” can be thought of as “conflict.” The protagonist begins to move in opposition to either an outside source or inner conflict and encounters problems that create tension for them (and thus for the reader). “Conflict” happens when the protagonist finally has to face something or someone that he doesn’t want to.

This section is important because it’s where your main character changes over time, often in response to being placed in a tough situation and having no other choice but to grow stronger (or weaker) by what they have experienced here. “Conflict” also causes the “ticking clock.”

Please note that while many interpreters refer to the “rising action” in Act two, Freytag himself referred to act two as the rising movement. The second Act serves to continue the narrative’s progression toward its finale. The Rising prepares the climactic movement of

Most of all, the scenes in the rising movement must be interesting, both deepening the complications of the story and enlarging the plot. In addition, all characters must be introduced by the end of the Act, according to Freytag.

Act two is the longest section of the drama, accounting for roughly 35 to 45 percent of the tale’s narrative.

Act 3 – Climax

The third Act is all about “climax,” which can be thought of as “the point of no return.” This is where everything comes to a head, and you find out what will happen next. A lot of really cool things start happening during the “climax,” and the stakes are raised as the protagonist finds that he can’t go back to where he was before, even if it’s what probably should have happened.

The climax or turning point of a 5 act structure narrative occurs in the middle of the story, usually somewhere between the 4th and 5th acts. At the conclusion, he views it less as the point of maximum action and more as a reflection spot. The protagonist starts to unravel horribly at the climax if things have gone well for him in the story.

In a drama, things start to get better for the protagonist when something good happens. Well-written novels, according to Freytag, have two equal components: A play and a counter-play are two halves of the game, with the end result being when they reverse roles.

He was also almost entirely preoccupied with tragedy, spending little time reviewing stories with good endings, and it appears that his focus on tragedy had an impact on his thinking about the shape of the narrative. The climax is the scene or sequence of scenes in which the protagonist’s most intense energy is shown, whether for good or ill, pathos or pride.

In the end, the person’s ambition turns against them, and they feel bad. But then they are happy because she was suffering before, but it now feels better. In other words, what happens in the first half of the story is different from what happens in the second half. In the first half, there is a lot of energy and values that are shown. In the second half, they are all changed to something that no longer has those same things.

The midpoint, which is the movie’s most crucial location, is where the action rises; this is when the action reaches its apex. It is one of the shortest acts in this structure, especially since it is usually just a single scene in length. The high point of the story is when all of your effort throughout the tale comes together in a spectacular way. It’s this part that draws people back for more.

At the “climax,” most plots have a battle of some kind, and characters will often face their final “boss.” The “rising movement” is finished in this section, and things come to an end quickly. There might also be a death or tragedy here–and even if there isn’t, it’s still going to be “the end” for many of your characters.

In “The Wizard of Oz,” the “climax” comes when Dorothy is captured by the Wicked Witch, and her friends finally “come to their senses.” In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it comes right after Hamlet has killed Claudius (in Act Four).

It’s usually best if each episode has its own “climax,” with events happening quickly so that there isn’t much time wasted on fluff material towards the end. Recap sections are good places for exposition in television shows because it allows writers to fill viewers in about what they may have missed recently without having long expository scenes like “the talk” between parents and children often take place at some point during “the resolution” section.

Act 4 – Falling Action

The falling Act is everything that happens after the climax. This includes all of the scenes until the final Act and how it ends. In the falling action, it is assumed that everything that was going well for the protagonist starts to go badly. This happens in a tragedy. Everything that was going badly begins to go well in the case of a comedy. The counter-play is the opposite of the play.

Anyone who has ever written a screenplay for film or tv can tell you the last half of the middle section is the hardest to writing.

The epilogue, which occurs after the catastrophe in Act five, serves to provide the audience with a final moment of uncertainty before the conclusion. In this situation, the protagonist is in a delicate position of suspense, with a remote chance of recovery suggested but never realized. The denouement may be the point at which the antagonist appears to be escaping, or when the couple seems like they might stay broken up, or when the good thieves appear to be about to get discovered by law enforcement.

The “falling action” is when things begin to die down, and the loose ends are wrapped up. The “ticking clock” slows down or stops altogether–giving you a chance to breathe before the “denouement.” This section usually takes very little time in screenplays (a few pages) but can be much longer in books. “Falling action” is also where the “dominant impression” (which was introduced in Act one) changes or ends completely, and it’s where characters are at their lowest point–physically, emotionally, spiritually–before they start to climb back up again.

In The Wizard of Oz, after Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch, spoilers are brought to life. In The Lord of the Rings, after Frodo and Sam finally destroy the ring in Mount Doom (in Act Four), they still have a ways to go before returning home.

The fourth Act, like the second, is a tale of rising action. It comprises roughly 25 to 30 percent of the story. It is, however, shorter than Act two because Freytag intended his pyramid to be somewhat right-tilting; nevertheless, it is longer than any other portion of the tale except for the second Act.

Act 5 – Denouement

This is where “the end” really begins. “The end” is the time frame in which we see what happens “afterward,” and it’s all about tying up any loose ends left hanging. In a way, “the end” can be thought of as “act five.”

Act five shows what happens after the climax has happened and things have been wrapped up (or not). “The end” is the “happily ever after” for your characters–and it’s also usually a “time frame,” which means things will happen rapidly and in succession.

In “The Wizard of Oz,” “the end” shows Dorothy returning home to Kansas, her friends staying behind with the Munchkins, and everyone singing about “there’s no place like home.” In “The Lord of the Rings,” “the end” shows Frodo and Sam returning to The Shire, where they live out their lives as heroes.

Things get wrapped up here–and you won’t see much (if any) character development at this point unless there are sequels in your future. “The end” ends “happily ever after,” and it’s also where the “dominant impression” (which was introduced in Act one) comes full circle.

In “Titanic,” Jack dies from hypothermia when Rose makes her way onto a lifeboat but freezes to death before she can rescue him, whereas Rose lives “happily ever after” with her “true love.”

In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Sam return home, marry, have children, grow old together–and are never heard from again.

Spoilers will come to life. Characters will face their final bosses. The “rising movement” is finished, “the ticking clock” slows down (or stops), and things come to an end quickly. There might be a “death or tragedy,” but even if there isn’t–it’s still going to be “the end.”

So while in the “falling action,” “things begin to die down and the loose ends are wrapped up.” “The “ticking clock” slows down or stops altogether.” “Act five shows what happens after the climax has happened and things have been wrapped up (or not).” “Things get wrapped up here–and you won’t see much (if any) character development at this point.” “In ‘the end,'” characters will face their final bosses. “Spoilers will come to life.” “The ‘rising movement’ is finished, and things come to an end quickly.” “There might be a ‘death or tragedy,’ but even if there isn’t–it’s still going to be “the end.”

Finally, the resolution is when you have wrapped up all your loose ends and ended the story with a satisfying conclusion for readers or viewers. Your audience should feel like they’re on the right track to completing this journey that you’ve told them about in setup. This part of storytelling can often be as long as most other parts of writing because resolving everything requires time!

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