On Pacing and Structure (Part 4): Five Act Format

Today I’m going to be discussing and explaining the Five Act Structural Format. Let’s not beat about the book, and get right into it.

For this blogpost, I suggest you read this article on the subject in order to provide more insight on this subject.


These are the Five Acts of the Five Act Format.

  1. The Status Quo
  2. Challenge to the Status Quo
  3. The Turning Point/ The Road of Trials
  4. Escalation of the Challenge
  5. Climax and Conclusion

Five Act Structure

The purpose of this format, like all other structural tools, is to provide a useful shorthand for the design of a story you’re writing. What separates this format (in my opinion) from the others is a distinct before/after midpoint structure. If you have an important plot point in the center of your story which defines/redefines the nature of your story, such as an important incident of character development, then you might consider using this structural tool to study your story.

According to the linked article above, this was the format that Shakespeare used, so it has that going for it too.

I will be citing ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone/Sorcerer’s Stone’, and ‘Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring’ as examples for using this format- repeats from my Hero’s Journey explanation. Why? Because I wanted to prove that these are analytical tools can provide different information from the same text. (THAT SAID, I also tried to use this tool to study Star Wars again, but I found that the 5-Act structure didn’t apply to A New Hope.)

I will also cite ‘The Rage of Dragons’ by Evan Winter, to provide an additional example.

Finally, I will also cite ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as well as the MCU’s ‘Ironman.’ I did not discover these as examples myself; I’m deriving them from the linked article above. I suggest you read that article.


Act 1: The Status Quo

In this act, the author explores the status quo of their protagonists, setting, and pre-existing conflicts within the setting. In the Hero’s Journey format, the equivalent to this Act would be the ‘Normal Life’ section which begins the story. This Act is equivalent to the first half of the first act of the Three Act Format.

As you write this act (or re-write it), focus on showing the world pre-plot. Provide a contrast to the character development which will eventually happen. It is also helpful to include a pre-existing conflict in this act (such as an oppressive regime people are rebelling against, or a student struggling to pass a class, or a failing marriage).

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To make your readers emotionally invested in your story. Include a hook! Make your characters interesting, or barring that likable. If this chapter is boring, people might not read the rest.

Examples:

  • In ‘Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring,’ this Act corresponds with everything from the beginning of the story until the Nazgul come to the Shire to force Frodo to run for his life. Gandalf forcing Frodo to run is the first scene of the next act.
  • In ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone/Sorcerer’s Stone,’ this Act corresponds with everything from the beginning of the book until Harry learns he is a wizard, up until his first few months in Hogwarts as we learn the basics of the setting.
  • In ‘The Rage of Dragons,’ this Act corresponds to everything from the beginning of the book until the scene before Tau’s father dies. The scene where Tau’s father dies is the first scene of the next act.
  • In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ this Act contains the information about the feud between the Capulets and Montegues
  • In ‘Ironman,’ this Act displays Tony as a despicable-but-smart, billionaire playboy.

Act 2: A Challenge to the Status Quo

In this act, things change. The outside world intrudes upon the protagonists and force a change upon them. In Romeo and Juliet, in this Act the protagonists meet and fall in love. The protagonists are forced to exit their comfort zone and try something new.

Compared with the Hero’s Journey format, this Act mirrors everything between the ‘Call to Adventure’ and ‘Searching for the Plot’ Acts. Compared to the Three Act Format, this act is equivalent to the second half of the first act, and part of the second act. The setting and characters are changing, and the tension is beginning to build up.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To begin the two parallel plots, the internal plot and the external plot. The internal plot is the individual character arc your protagonist go through (for example, your protagonist must learn to be humble, or wise, or more active), while the external arc is the genre story (for example, a murder mystery, or a fantasy quest, or a romance).
  • Show how the protagonist’s character flaws (their alcoholism, for example) trips up their ability to solve their problems (in a murder mystery, their alcoholism allowed a criminal to escape because the protagonist is out of shape due to depression). In this instance, there are two challenges to the status quo:
    • First, the murder. Before the status quo can re-assert itself, the murderer must be caught.
    • Second, the protagonist being alcoholic. Before the protagonist can catch the criminal, they must address their alcoholism because it’s constantly resulting in them making poor decisions.

Examples:

  • In ‘Harry Potter,’ this act begins when the troll attacks Hogwarts and Harry goes to save Hermione, and ends with Quirrell trying to crash Harry’s broomstick.
  • In ‘Fellowship,’ this act begins with Frodo on the run from the Nazgul in the Shire, and ends as Frodo enters Rivendell.
  • In ‘Rage of Dragons,’ this act begins with Tau’s father being killed, and it ends as Tau goes to Ihashe school.
  • In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ this act contains the beginning of the romance between Romeo and Juliet- throwing into chaos the pre-existing conflict between the Montegues and Capulets.
  • In ‘Ironman,’ in this Act Tony is captured by terrorists and forced to produced weapons for them in revenge for him producing weapons which killed civilians. Instead he fights back, producing a suit of mechanized armor.

Act 3: The Turning Point/ The Road of Trials

Things get even worse. In act 2 the status quo is upset, but the story was not yet been thrown into chaos. In act 3, the chaos begins. This is the point in the story when the protagonists say, ‘Either I step up, or we suffer.’ Maybe the protagonist had a revelation in act 2, and in act three says ‘I am going to be a better person now.’ In this act the conflicts generated in the second act have their initial consequences… and those consequences often make the plot more complicated.

Think of this act as the bread-and-butter of the plot. Characters are acting and reacting. There might be some character development in this act, but the focus on this act should largely be plot and not internal character development. Throw one or more obstacles in the protagonist’s path.

Emotional stakes are what makes a story compelling, so don’t neglect adding them to a story! Just remember that Act 2 is where where the emotionally compelling conflict is initiated, and Act 3 is a follow-through on that conflict.

To quote the article I’ve linked:

(The Turning Point Act)’S A WAY TO HIT THE AUDIENCE WITH CLIMAX-LIKE DRAMA BEFORE THEY’RE READY FOR IT. BEFORE THEY EXPECT IT. AND IT’S NOT MERE “GOTCHA” TACTICS. IF DONE RIGHT, YOU CAN CREATE THE KIND OF EMOTION TO CARRY YOU RIGHT THROUGH TO THE END.

SHAKESPEARE’S 3RD ACTS WERE OFTEN FILLED THEM WITH SUCH MOMENTS OF STORYTELLING BEAUTY: GREAT INVERSIONS OF FORTUNE. BEST INTENTIONS GONE AWRY. DEATHS! LOSS! CONFUSION! SUDDEN CHAOS! EVEN THOUGH THESE 3RD ACTS DON’T FINISH THE ARC OF THE WHOLE STORY, THEY ARE OFTEN THE MOST RESONANT MOMENTS AND THEY ARE STILL CLIMAX-WORTHY IN SCALE.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • In Act 2, the protagonist began their journey of self-discovery, learning what they did when put under pressure by the outside world, maybe having one or two successes. In Act 3, the outside world strikes back. It is a turning point, when the choices the main characters made in Act 2 come back to haunt them. From a narrative point of view, the protagonist is confronted by the actual, real world consequences for their choices for the first time, are exposed to the first real challenges they’ve endured in their trials.
  • At the midpoint of this act, which is also the midpoint of he book, the protagonist will undergo a conflict/combat/climax which will result in a false victory (because the final climax has yet to come) or a setback (as the protagonist loses something important to them in the process, like the death of a mentor figure).
  • The tension and stakes are ramping up in this chapter, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the protagonist will have to make personal sacrifices to achieve victory.

Examples:

  • In ‘Harry Potter,’ the Turning Point of the story is when Harry goes to save Hermione from the Troll. Harry and Ron have to stand up for their friend, and prove that they’re repentant for being jerks. The act ends when Harry is nearly killed by Querill in the Quiddich match.
  • In ‘Fellowship,’ the Turning Point of the story is when Frodo decides to continue his adventure, taking the Ring to Mordor of his own free will as opposed to taking it out of fear of being killed. This Act ends when Gandalf is killed fighting the Balrog.
  • In ‘Dragons,’ the Turning Point is when Tau turns to dueling demons in order to become stronger, as well as when Tau learns that the queen of his people is trying to form a secret alliance with the hedeni. This Act ends when the Nobles murder one of Tau’s friends in cold blood.
  • In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the Turning Point is when Romeo’s buddy Mercutio is killed by Tybalt, and then Romeo killing Tybalt in revenge. This ups the stakes of the conflict between the Montegues and Capulets- thus driving Romeo and Juliet further apart.
  • In ‘Ironman,’ the Turning Point is when he returns home after escaping from terrorist captivity, closes his weapon-trading empire, and begins his superheroics.

Act 4: Escalation of the Challenge

In this Act we begin to gain narrative momentum leading to the final climax, the resolution of the plot, and the release of tension. But before we can release tension, we must first escalate it!

At the end of the previous act, your protagonists were given setbacks; their initial plans to fulfill the external plot have been stymied by those failures. Now they have to play fast and loose with the rules to complete the external plot. The point of this act is TENSION! You want your heroes to suffer setbacks so they go into the climax as underdogs.

Usually, this is a character focused act. The heroes suffered a setback in the last chapter, and are now on their heels as they suffer from the physical and emotional fallout of the last Act.

For most stories, this act should be the shortest. Most of the character development should have happened in the previous acts or the final act, so focus on adding as much tension as you can as you can in as short a time as possible.

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To slow things down for a moment, provide a breather for the reader before the quick ramp-up of the fifth act. This is the chance for your characters to say to their friends, “In Act 5 we’re all going to die on a suicide mission. It was nice to know you, my friends.” In this moment of quiet, you raise the tension by giving the reader the feeling of ‘this moment of relative peace can’t last.’
  • Act 3 was very tumultuous (possibly including the death of important characters, like the mentor), so Act 4 is when you take a few moments to morn them. To escape the chaos of Act 3, your protagonist had to make a self-destructive decision, so in Act 4 we explore the consequences of that decision.
  • This is the moment to have your characters show emotion- especially from characters who have otherwise been portrayed as stoic and unemotional. The characters have suffered a setback in Act 3, and they know that in Act 5 they’re probably going to lose the plot outright, so in Act 4 no one’s in a good mood.

Examples:

  • In ‘Harry Potter,’ this Act’s nadir occurs with the death of the unicorn in the Forbidden Forest. The unicorn, who’s blood grants renewed life, is the one think granting Voldemort new life. With the knowledge that Voldemort is scheming to come back to life, the heroes know the clock is ticking and that they must stop Voldemort from coming back.
  • In ‘Fellowship,’ Act 4 is when the heroes go to Lothlorien, where they receive guidance from the Galadriel, in the aftermath of Gandalf’s death. She is a source of wisdom to replace Gandalf’s wisdom, allowing an element of healing to occur before the climax.
  • In ‘Rage of Dragons,’ Act 4 is everything between the murder of Tau’s teammate, and the hedeni launching their all-out-assault on Tau’s people. There is a very brief Lesser uprising in revenge, along with a rallying of the troops. (Honestly this is the weakest act of this book.)
  • In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ in this act the lovebirds decide to elope, and come up with a plan to fake their own deaths.
  • In ‘Ironman,’ in this act the status quo attempts to re-assert himself. Tony has lost control of his company and the villain tries to rebuild their weapon manufacturing business- something repentant Tony doesn’t want.

Act 5:  Climax and Confusion

And the end has come. It’s time for the final battle (if you’re writing a battle-y book), and the resolution of the plot. The tension of the story builds to a breaking point, and then it resolves. All the foreshadowing you’ve set up in the early parts of the story (should hopefully) pay off. All the lose plot threads should be tied off.

The protagonist uses the tools they’ve gained from the two parallel plotlines to either succeed or fail in their final conflict. Remember that the two parallel plotlines are the internal, character-based plotline (such as learning to trust people, or overcoming an emotion trauma as examples), while the external plotline is the main and obvious plotline of the story (defeating the Big Bad of the fantasy story, catching the criminal in a mystery story, the successful resolution of the relationship in the romance).

Why does this Act exist, from a narrative perspective?

  • To finish telling the story, of course! After the low point of the previous Act, this act turns the tables on the bad guys and allows the heroes (or antiheroes) to succeed. The protagonist use all the tools and skills they gained in the previous acts to overcome their final obstacles, creating a satisfying character arc.

Examples:

  • In ‘Harry Potter,’ the heroes must sneak through the traps laid by the teachers in order to get to the Mirror of Erised, then triumph over Voldemort and Quirrell.
    • The internal plot of Harry gaining friends (Ron and Hermione) allows him to defeat the external plot of Voldemort (aka Harry’s emotional trauma caused by the death of his parents and the abusive upbringing of the Dursleys).
  • In ‘Rage,’ the climax begins with the attack by the hedeni, goes through to the end of the book.
    • The internal plotline for Tau was him becoming a hardened warrior, and learning to trust his Kellan Okar. The (external plotline) hedeni war is resolved when he uses his (internal plot) warrior skills and Kellan Okar’s help to defeat the hedeni who attack them.
  • In ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the pair of them miscommunicate their goals and wind up killing themselves.
    • The internal plotline for the lovers was their romance ends tragically. Juliet sends the message of ‘let’s fake our deaths and elope to escape the external plotline’ to Romeo, but it is not delivered. When he hears the news that she died, he assumes she died for real and kills himself. Shen then kills herself, to be reunited with her love
  • In ‘Iron Man,’ Tony confronts the bad guy, proving the superiority of his beliefs by triumphing over him.
    • The internal plotline of Tony’s anti-manchild/anti-bloodshed reforms is what drove him to become the Iron Man. Because he took his desire to be a better man seriously and chose to become a superhero, he has experience wearing the Iron Man suit. When he’s challenged by the villain who’s also wearing an Iron Man suit (the external plotline), Tony is victorious because he has more experience wearing the suit(internal plotline).
  • In ‘Lord of the Rings,’ the climax consists of the Fellowship’s departure from Lothlorien, goes through the betrayal of Boromir, and the breaking of the Fellowship.
      • The external plot of the corruption of the One Ring (in the form of Boromir trying to steal it from Frodo), forces the final stage of development of the internal plot of Frodo abandoning the Fellowship to take the Ring to Mordor by himself, because he can’t trust any of them.
      • This is an inversion of what is expected (namely the external plot affecting the internal plot at the climax instead of the other way around), but that makes sense given the context of how Frodo’s story in the Lord of the Rings is a story of falling to corruption.

In other sources, you might find the Five Act Format refer to the acts in a different way. Here they are: Prelude, Prostasis, Epistasis, Catastasis and Catastrophe.

Prelude: This is the first part of the story. In the five act format I’ve described above, it’s Act 1.

Prostasis: This is equal to Act 2 in the 5 Act Format.

Epistasis: This is the main chunk of the storytelling. In the five act format, it’s Acts 3.

Catastasis: Is the equivalent of Act 4 in my five act format. In the Catastasis phase the plot and drama of the Epistasis phase is further heightened.

Catastrophe: This is the equivalent of Act 5, where the plot lines resolve. While Catastrophe has a negative connotation today, it refers to any ending, both positive or negative. You may also hear this referred to as the Eucatastrophe, for positive outcomes only.

These words were originally used in the context of Ancient Greek plays, hence accounting for the use of Greek words. You might see other sources apply the terms slightly differently, and that’s fine. What matters is that you understand the general principle behind how they are applied.


And finally, let’s take a moment to talk about Freytag’s Pyramid.

I got this image off of Wikipedia.

Each of these points is equivalent to the 5 Acts of the novel I’ve talked about above, but with slightly different emphasis. Freytag designed this pyramid in the context of Greek Plays, and such plays often featured the context of fate.

In Act 1, aka the Introduction, the characters of the play and the stakes of their everyday lives are introduced.

In Act 2, aka Rising Action, the everyday lives of the characters are disrupted by an outside force.

In Act 3, the Narrative Climax, the characters have to make choices which they will never be able to take back. Those choices determine their fate for the rest of the story.

In Act 4, aka Falling Action, the characters have become trapped by their fates but aren’t yet aware of it.

In Act 5, the Catastrophe, the characters become aware of their fates, the plots resolve.

In this format, the focus of the story is on Act 3, with Acts 4 and 5 containing a sense of foreboding and anticipation for the inevitable doom of the characters. All choices made by the characters after Act 3 have little impact on the plot as a result. For us modern readers, who like reading novels suspenseful to the very last page, this Act 3 Climax storytelling style isn’t as popular as the Act 5 Climax storytelling style. However you should be aware that this style does exist, if you want to try it out.

 


And that’s a wrap! Five act format is very useful in providing a slightly non-standard format for your narrative. Are you trying to write a novel, or are you having trouble editing a novel? Maybe you’re having narrative problems, which a format like this can solve.

 

 

 

Suggested Reading

The Avengers- Defining an Act- Lessons from the Screenplay

  • 3 Act Structure vs 5 Act Structure

Storycraft: Basic 5 Act Plot Structure– David Stewart

Shakespearean Plot Structure by Tim Nance

And, again, I suggest you check out this article on the subject by Film Crit Hulk. It was by far the most insightful source I found.

An exploration of Breaking Bad in the context of it’s structure

 

 

 

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