Five Act Structure
We’ll soon be getting into some familiar territory. If you’ve had any creative writing study at all in high school, then you’ve at least heard about the Five Act Structure. Those of you who are more experienced with writing will have a fairly decent grasp of how the Five Act Structure works.
The Five Act Structure is a way to describe the basic development of any story. In Level 1 we talked about the focus or main core with which the story will be developed. Here we’ll look at how the story is broken down into definable sections. There’s nothing mystical about this, but every story pretty much follows the Five Act Structure. Because it’s fundamentally the way story telling has developed through all the centuries that story telling has existed. Let’s look at each Act and I’ll describe what they’re getting at.
Act 1 – Exposition. In this section of the story, the focus is on describing the world, the characters, the moods…basically introducing the reader to the environment they are in. The author pays close attention to setting details, character descriptions, and begins laying some of the groundwork necessary for the moving of the plot.
Act 2 – Rising Action. The Exposition section can be short, long, or even somewhat mixed into Act 2. But Act 2 is when the author takes the next step from painting the setting and characters, to actually moving those characters through the setting in a meaningful way, by introducing an ever increasingly complex plot and seemingly unattainable goals. Exposition may continue, but it is no longer the focus. It is becoming increasingly demanded of authors to avoid going straight into Exposition and instead throwing the reader into some intense action sequence. If a book doesn’t start off with a bang, chances are it won’t get published into today’s publishing world. My Five Stage Plot helps to solve some of this blending of Act 1 and Act 2, but I’ll get to that in Layer 6. However, for analytical purposes, finding that point where the author switches gears from Exposition to Rising Action is important to look for. Stories may begin with a bang, but they’ll usually settle enough for a proper Exposition before tossing the reader back into the fray. Look for the seam. Act 2 is usually the longest section of the book.
Act 3 – Climax. The Rising Action brings the main characters up to a point where the end is in sight. There is no more to figure out and their goal is now attainable. The Climax section ends just before the culmination of the events. It is the last push to the top of the mountain and ends just before the main character takes his final step to the top, culminating in a final moment where success or failure is uncertain. As a result, it often blends seamlessly into Act 4.
Act 4 – Falling Action. This is what many people “think” of as the Climax. It is the pinnacle from which there is nothing left to do but fall back down. It is usually the most intense section of the book. This is not the battle between the Hero and the Villain, rather this is the moment where the Hero is victorious and stands plateaued upon the very top of the plot looking down upon what he has done. It is simultaneously the great holding of breath over what just happened and the sighing that it is finally over. A few things might happen between the characters during this moment, such as the Hero rushing away from his fallen foe to release the captive Princess or even a final scare from the supposedly dead villain. But we’re still walking at the pinnacle of the story, looking down on where we’ve been and where we have to go next. For action to continue, it must go down. There is no more climbing the mountain.
Act 5 – Denouement. AKA Resolution or Conclusion. Now the Hero must begin his journey down the other side of the mountain. This is the cool-off period for the book. It is a chance for the author to wrap things up in a nice bow, or in the case of tragedies to show the audience a greater moral from the Hero’s downfall. It is the last chapter or so that takes the story a little further to satisfy the reader before the last page, so that there’s not such an unexpected end. Nothing more about the plot of this book will be introduced. Nothing more will be learned. It will be processed, internalized, and accepted into the lives of the characters and the reader.
Illustration. Now to give you an illustration on how this works, that will also give sense to my picture. Let’s consider a track race. Exposition is when the racers line up, the race is described, the audience has a chance to see the track before them and know what’s expected. Rising Action begins when the race starts. But notice this. How much of Exposition and Rising Action happen at the same time? A lot. They tend to blend, and that’s okay. The Climax is the last ten feet of the race when the audience rises to their feet wondering which of the three leading runners will win. The Falling Action begins the moment the finish line is crossed. The winner has been decided and holds their hands up in victory. The tape still drifts behind them as they try to bring themselves to a stop. The audience is on their feet screaming. It has happened. The race is over. The Denouement is the cool down period, where the runners jog and walk around with blankets trying to get their systems down to normal. They try to slow their breathing. They shake hands, congratulate each other, and even answer questions from the media. The audience is settling down, recounting the exciting event to each other.
Does it make sense now?
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