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Learning to Love Shakespeare's Five Act Structure

I enjoy films, television, and music. I also write about them.

The Bard

The Bard

The More Things Change

If you have spent any time at all learning about the art of writing, especially creative writing, then you have no doubt heard about "the 3 Act Structure." Act I introduces the characters, world, and plot. In Act II, the action "rises" until we reach the climax. Finally, in Act III, the story is completely resolved.

Unfortunately, this formula is egregiously simplified, leaving far too much to the imagination. Act I and Act III are obvious in their purpose, and the easiest parts of the story to write, but the crafting and execution of the gaping hole known as "Act II" is wholly crucial to your story's success.

Think back: how many times have you lost interest in a film before the 60-minute mark? Odds are, that film doesn't follow Shakespeare's 5 Act Structure.

Act I: Exposition or Introduction

In classical music, the Exposition is the part of the movement in which the principal themes are introduced. The same can be said for your script or screenplay.

Not only are you introducing your main character in Act I, and establishing the world in which the action takes place, but you must introduce any/all thematic elements that are going to resonate throughout the story, and any problems or goals your protagonist is facing, i.e. the conflict.

The trappings of power, the futility of vengeance, and the fickle nature of love are all classic examples of popular conflicts and themes and must be established in some capacity before the action takes off.

Act II: Rising Action

During the Rising Action, the basic conflict introduced in Act I is complicated by secondary conflicts and obstacles designed to keep our protagonist from reaching his or her goal, including lesser antagonists that can work together with or without the main antagonist.

You may already know that your main character is going to live happily ever after, but they have to work for it and this is where it starts.

Don't forget: an antagonist is not always a living being. Substance abuse, hunger, disease, and flaming space rocks are all examples of antagonists that can shape your character along his journey.

Act III: Climax

Also known as the "turning point," the Climax marks a notable change, for better or worse, in the protagonist's journey towards their goal. This point begins Act III, accelerating the roller coaster ride of events your character must experience before her story is resolved.

With tragedy, the protagonist begins the story on top of the world before everything begins to unravel, while comedies generally do the opposite.

Quite simply, this is where the bulk of the drama or action takes place.

Act IV: Falling Action

During the Falling Action, the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist finally comes to a head, and a clear winner and loser are determined.

The main character often experiences a 'False Victory' or 'False Defeat'. As you may have deduced, a 'False Victory' is punished with a final defeat, while the 'False Defeat' is rewarded with a true victory. This is readily apparent in tragedies, action, horror, and romantic films.

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This Falling Action may also contain a final moment of suspense, in which one or more possible outcomes are in doubt until the Resolution.

Act V: Dénoument or Resolution

The Dénoument or Resolution ties up all loose ends and concludes the story. All of the conflicts are resolved, the characters return to normalcy, and the viewer experiences an emotional release (catharsis).

In traditional comedies, the Dénoument leaves the main character better off than she started, while traditional tragedies end in a catastrophe that leaves the protagonist a shell of his former self.

Much like life, your story must be a roller coaster ride of action and emotion. A good rule of thumb is that every positive event your protagonist experiences must immediately be followed up by a negative event. This dissonance must begin in Act II and reach a crescendo in Act III, before the Falling Action and Dénoument resolve your story and restore order to the world.


Ofer Sheinberg on November 17, 2017:

This is a very good simplified explanation of the Five-Act-structure and the logic behind it; however it might benefit from noting that such a structure was actually imposed on Shakespeare’s plays only posthumously, and that in the editions published during Shakespeare’s lifetime (although with little to no involvement on his side) there is no division, neither to Acts nor Scenes.

Both of these division are later editorial attempts to organize the plays into certain technical structures: The division into scenes is simply done whenever all characters on stage go out and clear the stage for new characters to come in (which usually also allows for a change of place and/or time), while the division into acts was analyzed to somewhat-portray such a structure as described in this article.

However it is utterly important to understand that such a structure is the _result_ of such an analysis, and is being somewhat imposed on the already-given text: Shakespeare did not use such a structure upon (well...) structuring the plays, nor was it set out in such terms for him to follow. As many terms and definitions in arts happen, the works and conventions usually predates the analysis and explanatory reasoning that describe them.

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on November 18, 2014:

@app4dstn We are more than happy to help you and so many others appreciate the ancient art of storytelling!

app4dstn on January 16, 2014:

hey, nice stuff, even though i have but only a tiny iota of exposure to Shakespeare. i came upon this from a Google search after having just completed watching the TV series Breaking Bad. guys like you help guys like me enjoy our world that much more. rock on!

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on November 11, 2013:

Au fait - Thanks so much - you're the best!

C E Clark from North Texas on November 09, 2013:

This looks like very good information for fiction writers. I've never studied creative writing, only writing for research and analysis. Excellent article!

Also pinned this to my board "All About Writing." Also voted up, awesome, and will share.

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on October 22, 2013:

cam8510 - Good luck with your writing - I'm glad I was able to help!

Chris Mills from Traverse City, MI on October 21, 2013:

I have been writing flash fiction and short stories for a while, but have never studied creative writing. It will be interesting to take this information and apply it to the ff format. Thanks for all the great information. Up and useful.

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on October 01, 2013:

WilliamSN - thanks for stopping by. You are absolutely right, knowing where the breaks occur and their purpose is crucial to writing for the screen.

WilliamSn on October 01, 2013:

5 act story structure is 3 act structure split like this:

All structures are basically divisions of three acts. The helpful bit though, is knowing where the breaks occur and why.

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on September 25, 2013:

Frank - thanks for the reply! But, don't forget - this is the application of the 5 Act Structure to the world of film, and none of these rules are set in stone. Many films and TV shows deviate from these guidelines and still manage to be widely accepted and successful.

Frank on July 28, 2013:

Great article, it's good for people to find out that the 5 Act structure exists so they can go learn how to do it. However, I did want to say there's a bit of an error when you describe the fourth act: the final confrontation should come in the fifth act, the fourth act is used to resolve lesser plots, set up the circumstances of the ending, and, perhaps most importantly, to get the lead off the stage so he or she can take a break for a few scenes.

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on August 12, 2012:

Christy, I was the same way... I felt like the only kid in class who was in to reading Julius Caesar. Thanks for stopping by!

Christy Birmingham from British Columbia, Canada on August 11, 2012:

You have really outlined the Acts well. I loved reading Shakespeare in high school, though many of my friends did not share that love. Nice to be connected with other literary types now!

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on August 11, 2012:

formosangirl - Thanks for stopping by and commenting - I'm glad I was able to help! I suggest King Lear if you haven't read it yet... it's one of my favorite tragedies.

formosangirl from Los Angeles on August 11, 2012:

Thanks for the explanation. Now I have an urge to read one of his works that I have not read. Voted up.

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on August 07, 2012:

LetitiaFT, I'm so glad I could help - good luck with your book!

LetitiaFT from Paris via California on August 07, 2012:

I'm tickled to read this because it confirms something I felt instinctively as I work on my first narrative book, a biography...

Originally I had 3 chapters in each of 3 distinct parts. Then I realized the story worked better if I broke it into 15 chapters instead of 9. I'm now working with multiples of both 3 and 5!

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on August 02, 2012:

@wrenfrost56 - Thanks for stopping by, and I'm glad you enjoyed it!

wrenfrost56 from U.K. on August 02, 2012:

Great hub, really useful. I love shakespeare and his work, this was a great explanation of the 5 act structure, thanks for sharing. :)

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on August 01, 2012:

@alocsin - Thanks for the feedback! I'm so glad you found the information useful, and I hope it enriches your viewing experiences.

@dwachira - I know it's such a cliché, but Shakespeare truly is one of the greatest. He perfected the storytelling technique that is alive and well today!

@lord de cross - Thanks - I hope I have managed to help others on their quest to master the art of storytelling!

Joseph De Cross from New York on August 01, 2012:

Good structure for a script! Nice Job Brother! Strong and decisive writing tips!

Danson Wachira from Nairobi, Kenya on July 31, 2012:

I did Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in high school as the set play book and i was amazed on how talented Shakespeare was in play writing. Thanks that you shared this one here. Voted up and useful.

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on July 31, 2012:

As much as I enjoy Shakespeare, I never realized the five-act structure until you pointed it out. Voting this Up and Useful.

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on July 30, 2012:

@whalefeather2 - Thanks for commenting! I loved reading Shakespeare in high school, and I felt like I was one of the few students in class who actually enjoyed it. I can definitely credit him (as most writers do) as a huge source of inspiration.

whalefeather2 on July 30, 2012:

Shakespeare is addicting. I started reading it in High School (back in the dinosaur age :-) ) and have enjoyed it ever since. ONE of my favorite all time movies is Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew with Liz Tayor. I have watched it at least 25 times. I never tire of it.

Shakespeare makes you have to listen or think to understand what the plays are all about.

Good look with your chosen career. Films are so influencial in our lives and with making them goes a hugh responsibility.

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on July 24, 2012:

I greatly enjoyed reading Julius Caesar, as well - 10th grade, I believe. Speaking of, HBO's Rome is also phenomenal, and worth giving a try ( The entire first season is about Caesar!

Patty Kenyon from Ledyard, Connecticut on July 24, 2012:

I love reading Shakespeare!!! Hamlet is one of my favorite all time pieces because Hamlet is so complex in comparison to most every other character ever written!! Interesting Hub!!! Thanks for sharing!!

Dianna Mendez on July 22, 2012:

Agree! Hamlet is another great piece of classic literature I have enjoyed. I believe many of our current youth do not have this exposure. How sad! It is perfect and should be mandatory studies in high school and beyond.

Joshua Patrick (author) from Texas on July 22, 2012:

Romeo & Juliet is the first piece of Shakespeare's work most people read (Freshman year of high school) and although it is a great story, I prefer the tragic tales of Hamlet and King Lear.

It's amazing how perfect this style of storytelling is, even hundreds of years later.

Dianna Mendez on July 22, 2012:

I love Shakespeare's plays. I remember the first time I had to read one in high school. I was so wrapped up in it for weeks. I have never been to the Shakespearian festivals yet, but would love to some day. Thanks for the explanation on this structure. Voted up.

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