Pursued By A Bear: “I can’t make sense of five-act structure”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“Do I need to know about the traditional 5 Act Structure in order to write a good play? Is it ok to break the rules? I keep trying to read articles and books about this but I just end up bored and confused. Does this stuff actually matter?  Thanks!”

For those of you who don’t know, or who’ve got bored and confused, the five act structure is a construct you can use to analyse or create works of literature. It can come in very handy when you reach a point in your story and find yourself unsure of what should happen next. A lot of people use the structure in the planning stage to map out their plot, the idea of which is to ensure the events of the story flow towards a meaningful conclusion.

Think of the play like a journey; your characters are the travellers, your plot is what happens along the way and your structure is the road. You could write an infinite number of stories which take place along a similar road.

Because the five act structure is so versatile, it’s also a useful tool when analysing the works of others. Almost every film produced by Hollywood follows a predetermined structure, to the point where you can often predict how a film will end. Don’t think of this as a prescriptive or limiting template though, absolutely anything can happen within the confines of the structure. It’s really a way of making sure you hit a series of plot developments which, if used correctly, can add depth to your characters and story.

I’m still getting my head around this structure stuff myself, and there are so many different versions and theories behind it that it can get very confusing. For the purposes of an example I’ll try to stick to a very simplistic version. Forgive me if your knowledge is already beyond this point.

I’m using the film The Matrix* as an example to illustrate each point, mainly because I re-watched it fairly recently and can remember (fairly accurately) how the plot unfolds. If you haven’t seen the film this will be a good excuse to check it out. (*Spoiler alert – plot points revealed below.)

Act I – Exposition
This act is essentially where you set up the story; we meet your protagonist and other major characters, we see their normal situation and see that something needs to change. The protagonist needs to learn something about themselves or their situation in order to resolve a problem. The protagonist is given an opportunity to see outside their normal world at some point during this act, which they need to take (or there will be no story…)

Example: In The Matrix we see Neo at his mundane office job, getting berated by his boss. He thinks he is special but his boss is convinced otherwise. Neo receives a phone call from Morpheus who tells him to hide from the agents who have come to get him. Neo makes the decision to do as Morpheus asks, even though he doesn’t succeed in escaping.

Act II – Rising Action
As a result of your protagonist’s decision in Act I (see above), stuff will now happen. This can be absolutely anything as long as it is the direct result of a choice made by your protagonist. Your protagonist will mainly be reacting to events at this point, they are getting to grips with the new world they’ve been dumped in as a result of their choice in Act I. Eventually though, the protagonist will have to make a choice which fully commits them to a course of action, this choice will propel them towards the ultimate conflict of the play.

Example: Neo is caught and interrogated by the agents. After his release he meets Morpheus and takes the red pill which will show him “how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Neo learns all about the matrix and receives his training. Morpheus takes Neo to meet the Oracle, Morpheus is captured by the agents. Neo makes the choice to risk his own life and save Morpheus. This is essentially what we in the business call ‘the point of no return’.

Act III – Climax
In this act your protagonist reaches the emotional peak of his/her story. There must be a moment of supreme confrontation which causes the character to learn a vital truth. The truth your character learns will allow them to find whatever was missing at the beginning of the play.

Example: Neo’s problem at the beginning of the film was that he felt like he was meant for something more than his humdrum existence, he felt trapped.. As he rescues Morpheus, Neo comes face-to-face with Agent Smith and beats him in hand-to-hand combat. Neo now knows he is The One. The thing Neo has learnt is that he’s in control of his own world (literally).

Act IV – Falling Action
This act should tie up any final loose-ends in the plot. Stuff will still happen, but we know it’s really all over once our protagonist discovers the thing they were missing or learns the vital truth they needed. To make this a satisfying story we need to see the manifestation of the new knowledge your character has; we want to see them using what they’ve learned to move forward.

Example: The story was really over once Neo was able to beat Agent Smith, from that point we knew he could achieve what he needed to achieve. However, to be satisfied with the story we still need to see Neo wrap it all up. With his new knowledge Neo is able to kill Agent Smith and escape the matrix, ensuring Morpheus is safe.

Act V – Denouement
Although it feels like everything is now finished and the events of the plot have been resolved, there’s still one thing missing; we need to see how the protagonist has changed as a result of their journey. This is often done by putting your protagonist back into that normal world we saw them in at the beginning and showing how their relationship with that world has changed.

Example: Now that Neo is able to control the matrix we see him in one final moment, back in the real world, sending the agents a warning; he’s coming for them. He is now in full control of his world.

Hopefully the above explanation is clear enough, and not too boring. As I said, there are many different theories behind the structure of storytelling. This version is based on Aristotle’s teachings and it’s so general as to fit almost any story. There are much more prescriptive theories taught in film schools which determine how and when each event in the plot should happen.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking the five act structure means you have to write a super-long play with five acts either. You can write a ten minute play using the same basic journey. Character has a problem, character decides to change something, character experiences a series of challenges, character learns, character overcomes, character no longer has a problem.  You can apply this simplified structure to almost every (meaningful) story in history.

You’ve undoubtedly heard film terms such as ‘the inciting incident’ and ‘the second turning point’. It’s up to you how deep you need to go down this particular rabbit hole. I personally find that following a very detailed template stifles my creativity and I quickly lose interest in a story if I feel I’m not in control of where it’s going.

Aristotle’s version is loose enough to keep me creative while also giving sufficient direction when I get a bit lost along the way.

You need to decide how you want to use these kinds of structures in your writing (if at all). I’ve met some writers who plot the entire story according to five act structure before they start writing. Others will write the whole play and then go back to restructure things if they find the plot isn’t working. Then there are those writers who do everything by instinct and don’t even know what a denouement is; these people are still subconsciously structuring their work because they are still striving to take their audience on a meaningful journey.

I tried to show in my example above that the five act structure isn’t just about plot, it’s also a great tool to use for character development. Your protagonist needs to learn something during the course of the play for the story to have emotional impact. Characters learn by taking a journey. You put them in a situation, they fail, but they learn something. You put them in another situation, you show they’ve learnt something by having them react differently than they did the first time. Structure is the foundation of character development.

My thinking is that it’s helpful to be familiar with this stuff so that you can decide how and when to use it. If it never feels useful and you feel your plays are popping out of your brain with a ready-made coherent structure, just put the theory to one side and continue what you’re doing. If you feel there’s something lacking, your plays just aren’t hitting the emotional heights you want to reach, it’s definitely worth considering the five act structure as a way to strengthen your character and plot development.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

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