What Is the Five-Act Structure?

The five-act structure is a formula that breaks a story into distinct sections: the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. With roots in Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars Poetic, the five-act structure is a valuable tool for screenwriters working on movies or TV pilots. Many narratives follow this template, including William Shakespeare’s dramas, and some five-act stories adapt the “hero’s journey” structure.

What Is Freytag’s Pyramid?

Freytag’s pyramid—sometimes called Freytag’s triangle—is a version of the five-act structure that outlines narrative arcs in tragedies and dramas, breaking the story elements into five building blocks that follow a triangular configuration. German playwright Gustav Freytag introduced the concept in his book Technique of the Drama (1863). Freytag’s pyramid names the introduction and rising movement as the acts that lead to the climax of the story (at the top of the triangle). The result of the climax leads to a fall or return, while the final act—tracing down to the bottom of the pyramid shape—results in catastrophe.

The Elements of a Five-Act Structure

  1. Act I: Exposition. In the first part of your script, introduce the main characters and provide a backstory. The first act also presents (or at least hints at) the central conflict through an “exciting force” or “inciting incident.”
  2. Act II: Rising action. In the second act of the five-part story structure, the conflict begins to increase as the characters try to achieve their goals and the narrative builds toward the climax. (Freytag called the second act the rising movement.)
  3. Act III: Climax. The third act contains the climax, the moment where the tension reaches its peak in a major scene. Freytag thought of the third act as the turning point rather than the culmination of action—the story’s midpoint where things begin to change and usher in the “counterplay.” Some modern writers delay the “climactic moment” until later in the story—usually act four—or instead opt for a three-act structure.
  4. Act IV: Falling action. The elements of act four—also called the falling action—include the series of events that lead to the resolution. Freytag emphasized the importance of a feeling of “final suspense” in the fourth act, a moment in which the audience experiences doubt about their expectations of how the story will unfold.
  5. Act V: Resolution. The final act is the end, resolution, or denouement of the story. Here, you should tie up loose ends and bring the narrative to a close, writing either a tragic or happy ending. Freytag called the fifth act “the catastrophe,” the point in a tragedy where most of the characters die.

An Example of the Five-Act Structure in Film

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola’s blockbuster Hollywood film, The Godfather, is a good example of the five-act dramatic structure.

  • Act one: As the film opens, audiences meet Michael Corleone, a member of an Italian American crime family. His character development reveals he wants no part in his family’s Mafia dealings.
  • Act two: Multiple violent acts against the Corleone family force Michael to engage in his family’s business.
  • Act three: The third act brings the climax, or turning point: Michael seems to want peace but instead chooses to enact violence and take vengeance against his family’s antagonists.
  • Act four: Michael flees the country to escape retribution for his actions and continues to suffer as his loved ones die.
  • Act five: Finally, Michael returns to New York and has the rest of the threats assassinated, officially taking his place as the head of the Corleone family.

An Example of the Five-Act Structure in Film

Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola’s blockbuster Hollywood film, The Godfather, is a good example of the five-act dramatic structure.

  • Act one: As the film opens, audiences meet Michael Corleone, a member of an Italian American crime family. His character development reveals he wants no part in his family’s Mafia dealings.
  • Act two: Multiple violent acts against the Corleone family force Michael to engage in his family’s business.
  • Act three: The third act brings the climax, or turning point: Michael seems to want peace but instead chooses to enact violence and take vengeance against his family’s antagonists.
  • Act four: Michael flees the country to escape retribution for his actions and continues to suffer as his loved ones die.
  • Act five: Finally, Michael returns to New York and has the rest of the threats assassinated, officially taking his place as the head of the Corleone family.

An Example of Freytag’s Pyramid in Film

From Macbeth to Hamlet, Hollywood filmmakers often adapt Shakespearean plays into movies. The plot structure of film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet follows Freytag’s pyramid. The action unfolds like this:

  1. Exposition: Romeo and Juliet meet while their families, the Montagues and Capulets, feud.
  2. Rising movement: Romeo and Juliet fall in love and secretly wed.
  3. Climax: Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, kills Mercutio, a close friend of Romeo. In return, Romeo kills Tybalt, resulting in his banishment. The lovers say goodbye.
  4. Falling action or return: Juliet fakes her death by drinking a potion to avoid an arranged marriage orchestrated by her father, and she sends Romeo a message outlining her plan.
  5. Catastrophe: The message doesn’t reach Romeo in time, and when he discovers Juliet, he believes she died. Distraught, he drinks poison. Juliet wakes to find Romeo dead and takes her life with a dagger.

To read more, click here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *