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Dramatic Division: An Analysis of the 3- and 5-act Structure of Dramatic Writing
Research into the difference between 3- and 5-act play structures is very difficult. Few books address this topic directly unless they are dealing with scriptwriting, though I believe it to be a topic of great interest to the budding writer of all forms: fiction, nonfiction, drama, screen, and even poetry. What are the different structures? they ask. Why choose one or the other? Why have structure at all? How can I use the theory of structure to aid me in my writing? Indeed, as I mature as a writer I’m indelibly drawn to these same questions. It is my belief that few books go in-depth into this question because the form was established so long ago by Aristotle. Any who wished to approach the task of dramatic writing assumed that structure and moved on with the business of getting the play written. Jackson G. Barry, in his book Dramatic Structure, is ambivalent about act division, and believes the division of acts to be an afterthought, something that is either “purely conventional or organic and, in either case, its dictated divisions may or may not be physically marked for an audience at the playhouse” (Barry 86). Act division is, he says, “certainly conventional, the product of historical precedent” (Barry 86).
When it is discussed, it is done so only briefly, usually a brief chapter somewhere between scene and plot. I am always baffled by this, because the number of acts and the way they are structured seems to me to be the first choice a writer would make about their work. If you have ten items you need to place in a box, wouldn’t you want to pick the right box for your items? Would the type of box affect the order in which you place your items? Perhaps it is a more personal aspect of approach by an individual writer, but I am of the mind that knowing the major structure of my work at the beginning of writing is beneficial in crafting scene structure.
Screenwriters have since figured this out, and many screenwriting books address the topic directly. This is perhaps due to the close connection between a successful screenplay and the bottom line for movie production companies. There is little deviance and experimentation because production companies are more interested in earning money than they are setting new standards of dramatic structure. Therefore, writers who attempt screenplays begin with the dramatic structure that is most often used in film: 3 acts.
The 3-act structure has begun to pervade fiction writing courses as well. The pattern of crisis, climax, and resolution that is characteristic of a 3-act structure is one that is being used by fiction writers in order to capitalize on the tension that it builds in the reader. This crisis, climax, resolution concept has been likened by some feminist theorists to the sexual climax of men, and claim that the pervasiveness of the 3-act structure is representative of the oppression of the feminist perspective.
Regardless of one’s opinion on the 3-act structure, there is little argument that it is the most popular structural form in modern dramatic writing. However, plays can be written in any number of acts the author chooses. Some plays have only 1 act, while others have none at all. It is my concern that the limited amount of information, and the one-sided approach that scriptwriting takes, is a failure for the future of dramatic writing, and writing in general.
Is an “act” merely a division of convenience to aid the readers and theorists in their discussion? Or is it something more fundamental in the way we tell our stories? Is the act fundamental and necessary to our experience of the dramatic arts? It is precisely these questions I hope to answer by taking a closer look at both the 3- and 5-act dramatic structures.
Poetics by Aristotle, Joe Sachs trans. Originally published in 335 BC.
The Art of Poetry by Horace Originally published in 18 BC.
Techniques of the Drama by Gustav Freytag, Elias J. MacEwan trans. Originally published in 1863.
A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen, Rolf Fjelde trans. Originally published in
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
The 3-Act Structure
A whole is that which has a beginning, middle, and end: a beginning is that which is not itself necessarily after anything else, but after which it is natural for another thing to be or come to be; an end is the opposite, something that is itself naturally after something else, either necessarily or for the most part, with no other thing naturally after it; and a middle is that which is itself both after something else and has another thing after it. Therefore, well-organized stories must neither begin from wherever they may happen to nor end where they may happen to, but must have the look that has been described (Aristotle 30).
Thus he is describing the essential nature of the three acts: the beginning (crisis), middle (conflict), and end (resolution).
Examining the screenwriting industry is a good way to get a grasp on the nature of dramatic structure. Syd Field, one of the most highly respected authors on the topic of screenwriting, says in The Screenwriter’s Workbook that “a thorough knowledge and understand of structure [is] essential in the writing of a screenplay” (27). As said earlier, the 3-act structure is most prolifically discussed with regards to screenwriting, which has established for itself a very definite formula with which most film scripts are written. Though of course films can go outside this structure, it has proven to be a successful technique for many films. Screenwriting manuals even go so far as to time out the events. Field, for example, outlines what he calls the screenwriting “paradigm” (Field 40). If a movie is one hundred twenty minutes, and therefore roughly one hundred twenty pages long, act one would comprise one quarter, or thirty pages, of the script, act two would comprise one half, or sixty pages of the script, and act three would comprise the final quarter of thirty pages. A further analysis of the structure of screenwriting sheds light on the elements of each act (fig 1).
Act 1 is traditionally considered to be the setup. It is in Act 1 that we meet the protagonist, develop a sense of the story context, and learn about the central problem of the
story. Act 1 also contains the “Inciting Incident”, the event which causes the initial problem, or the “call to adventure” (51) as described by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. This is the event that gets it all going. Though these structural definitions come from a manual on screenwriting, we can look at A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen, a 3-act play, to see how its structure coincides with these concepts. In Act 1 we meet Nora, the protagonist of the play. We learn of her character as a lighthearted and frivolous woman, and of her context as a wife to wealthy bank manager Torvald Helmer. The inciting incident is, when Krogstad appears at the Helmer household to complicate Nora’s life.
Plot Point #1 is the moment in Act 1 where the protagonist has decided to accept the call to adventure and face the challenges ahead, and signals the transition to Act 2. In Doll House this is the moment where Nora realizes that she cannot simply talk Torvald into doing what Krogstad wants. She cannot reveal her situation to her husband because of his intense distaste for dishonesty. Her situation is truly desperate, and as she realizes this she also realizes that she will do anything to find a way out of her predicament.
Act 2 is often labeled “confrontation” because the majority of this act tends to deal with complications and confrontations for the protagonist. In screenwriting, the midpoint is the culmination of
these complications, the moment in which the protagonist loses hope. It is the central even that everything leads up to, and that everything is a result of. Again, if we look at A Doll House, we can consider the midpoint moment to be when Krogstad places the letter in the mailbox. The letter is then the subject of much concern and conjecture, of planning and scheming, and represents a loss of hope for Nora since she cannot get to it without alerting her husband to her troubling situation.
Plot Point #2 is the transition from Act 2 to Act 3. It takes all the confrontation and turns it into the final climb up to the climax of the story. In A Doll House, Nora has managed to distract her husband from opening the letter box, but she knows it’s only a matter of time until he does and her world falls apart. He’s agreed to wait until the following evening, and in doing so seals her fate and the time she thinks she still has to live.
Finally, Act 3 is the resolution. The climax of the story is culmination of all the tension and complication the protagonist has experienced. Finally, once the climax has occurred, there is often a falling action, or denouement. In A Doll House, the climax is when Torvald finally reads the letter and knows what his wife has kept from him. It is a revelation for Torvald, but it is also a revelation for Nora and is the culmination of her character arc, the line of change that can be traced for her throughout the play. Once she has experienced her revelation, the story falls into its denouement. Nora decides to leave, and does.
Some critics of the 3-act structure claim that it reflects the domination of western culture and civilization by the male perspective. As Edwin Wilson notes in his introductory theater textbook The Theater Experience, radical feminist theorists “saw the plot complications, crisis, and denouement in tragedy as a duplication of the male sexual experience of foreplay, around and climax” (Wilson 166). In response, feminists have called for a dramatic form “that stressed ‘contiguity,’ a form…which is ‘fragmentary rather than whole’ and ‘interrupted rather than complete.’ This form is often cyclical and without a single climax” (Wilson 166). Though Wilson notes that not all feminists embrace this definition of new dramatic structure, it is clear that they are taking the opportunity to experiment with finding their own structure and form.
The 5-Act Structure
Gustav Freytag is credited with defining the 5-act structure of dramatic writing. However, the 5-act structure has been used by playwrights for a very long time. The Roman philosopher Horace, who lived from 65 BC to 8 BC, first proposed the 5-act structure in his Ars Poetica, or The Art of Poetry, when he says, “A play which is to be in demand and, after production, to be revived, should consist of five acts—no more, no less” (Dukore 71). The dissemination of this work throughout Europe led to a revival of this structure format by Renaissance playwrights. Shakespeare wrote all of his plays in 5 acts.
Freytag, a German novelist and critic of the nineteenth century, observed pattern of structure and plot in a variety of plays throughout history. In this way, he was able to identify the elements that made up each of the 5 acts of a play (fig 2). He called these a) introduction, b) rising action, c) climax, d) return or falling action, and e) catastrophe. Each act is separated by what he calls a stirring action, “through which the parts are separated as well as bound together” (Freytag 115). They are the moments which transition the dramatic action from Act to Act.
In Act 1, introduction, of course, introduces the audience to the context of the play and to the main characters. In ancient plays this was often done in a prologue. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we are of course introduced to Hamlet and his father’s ghost, thus setting the stage, and tone, for the action to follow.
In Act 2, the rising movement, Freytag writes that, “the action has been started; the chief persons have shown what they are; the interest has been awakened” (125). In Hamlet, Polonius and the King notice Hamlet’s despair but fail to properly diagnose it. Instead they contrive ways of finding out his ills that cause complications for everyone, especially poor Ophelia.
In Act 3, the climax of the story is the greatest moment of tension. The climax is the turning point and this third arc effects a change either for the better or for the worse in the protagonist’s situation. In act 3 of Hamlet, the players act out their play as Hamlet watches the reaction of his mother and uncle. Hamlet then has an opportunity to kill his uncle but waits. He then confronts his mother but notices someone hiding behind the curtain. After he stabs the figure, he discovers he has murdered Polonius. He must now leave.
In Act 4, the falling action begins. Now that the climax has occurred, the characters must deal with the consequences. Hamlet must dispose of Polonius’s corpse. The King must address his court and send Hamlet away. Ophelia has gone insane and her brother Laertes demands justice for the wrongs done to his family. Finally, Ophelia takes her own life.
In Act 5, the denouement signals the end, and all things are resolved. For Hamlet this means that all interested parties take part in one final scene where everyone ends up dead.
The exposition of Act 1 in a 5-act structure is, of course, the “setup” seen in Act 1 of the 3-act structure. It sets the scene and introduces the protagonist. The stirring action that exists between Act 1 (exposition) and Act 2 (rising action) is the “inciting incident.” It is the protagonist’s response to this stirring action that causes the rising action.
One clear difference between the 5-act and 3-act structure is the location of the climax. In the 3-act structure, for example, Hamlet’s play-within-a-play would be the midpoint, the moment in which all is lost for Hamlet. Everything would lead up to the fight scene, which would be the climax. It is interesting that Freytag does not consider this to be the climax of the play. To a modern mind, the action and finality of Act 5 seem to make it very climactic, with little to no denouement. It is a new perspective on the importance of certain elements in Hamlet that, for me, give it a new light.
Ultimately there are far more similarities than differences between the 3-act and 5-act structure. It seems to come down to a matter of language more than anything inherent in the structure itself. Freytag’s definition of the 5 acts is very similar to the present understanding of the 3 acts, especially in terms of the philosophy of screenwriting.
It is interesting to note that Ibsen abandoned the prevalent 5-act structure in favor of experimentation with 3 acts. It is perhaps the extensive influence his work has had on the modern dramatic arts that has led to the present-day approach to the 3-act format, and why his play The Doll House can so easily be analyzed against our present understanding of that structure.
I believe that a thorough understanding of each method is important to understanding the dominant method of story structure for the last several thousand years—really for as long as we have been recording poetics and our ideas about them. Is the 3-act structure better or worse than the 5-act structure? No. Is it crucial that the chosen structure be made apparent to the reader or audience? Not really. The true benefit of knowing and using these structures is the development of a compelling storyline that will resonate with its intended audience.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Joe Sachs. Newburyport: Focus, 2011. Print.
Barry, Jackson G. Dramatic Structure. Berkley: University of California Press, 1970. Print.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973. Print.
Dukore, Bernard F. Dramatic Theory and Criticism. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974. Print.
Field, Syd. The Screenwriter’s Workbook. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006. Print.
Freytag, Gustav. Technique of the Drama. Trans. Elias J MacEwan. New York: Benjamin Blomm, 1968. Print.
Ibsen, Henrik. The Complete Major Prose Plays. Trans. Rolf Fjelde. New York: New American Library, 1978. Print.
Kaucher, Dorothy Juanita. Modern Dramatic Structure. Columbia: The University of Missouri, 1928. Print. The University of Missouri Studies: A Quarterly of Research vol. 3 no. 4.
Pruter, Robin Franson. “3-act Structure.” College of DuPage, 8 Mar. 2004. Web. 24 Nov. 2013. [http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/pruter/film/threeact.htm].
Wilson, Edwin. The Theater Experience. 12th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print.