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The Five Act Play (Dramatic Structure)

By Rebecca Ray

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Structures of a Play

Plays first originated in ancient Greece. Aristotle was one of the first to write about drama and describe its three segments: beginning, middle, and end. Over time, dramas evolved, the Roman poet, Horace advocated for five acts, and many centuries later, a German playwright, Gustav Freytag, developed the five-act structure commonly used today to analyze classical and Shakespearean dramas. The pattern of this five-act structure can be seen in the familiar plot diagram:



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The Three Act Structure

Aristotle believed that every piece of poetry or drama must have a beginning, middle and end. These divisions were developed by the Roman, Aelius Donatus, and called Protasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe. The three-act structure has seen a revival in recent years, as cinema blockbusters and hit TV shows have adopted it.


The Five Act Structure

The five act structure expands the classical divisions and can be overlaid on a traditional plot diagram, as it follows the same five parts. Shakespearean plays especially are known for following this structure.

In the illustration above, the narrative arc of the Plot Diagram is between the Five Act Structure (top) and Aristotle’s divisions (bottom).


Format of a Five Act Structure

Act 1: The Exposition

Here, the audience learns the setting (Time/Place), characters are developed, and a conflict is introduced.


Act 2: Rising Action

The action of this act leads the audience to the climax. It is common for complications to arise, or for the protagonist to encounter obstacles.


Act 3: The Climax

This is the turning point of the play. The climax is characterized by the highest amount of suspense.


Act 4: Falling Action

The opposite of Rising Action, in the Falling Action the story is coming to an end, and any unknown details or plot twists are revealed and wrapped up.


Act 5: Denouement or Resolution

This is the final outcome of the drama. Here the authors tone about his or her subject matter is revealed, and sometimes a moral or lesson is learned.


Examples of the Five Act Structure with Shakespeare's Plays

Romeo and Juliet

Five Act Structure - Romeo and Juliet

Example

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Act 1: The Exposition


Act 2: Rising Action


Act 3: The Climax


Act 4: Falling Action


Act 5: Denouement or Resolution


As You Like It

As You Like It Plot Diagram

Example

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Act 1: The Exposition


Act 2: Rising Action


Act 3: The Climax


Act 4: Falling Action


Act 5: Denouement or Resolution



Macbeth: “The Scottish Play”

Macbeth 5 Act Structure Storyboard

Example

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Act 1: The Exposition


Act 2: Rising Action


Act 3: The Climax


Act 4: Falling Action


Act 5: Denouement or Resolution


Common Core Standards



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•   (English) The Five Act Play (Dramatic Structure)   •   (Español) El Juego de Cinco Actos (Estructura Dramática)   •   (Français) The Five Act Play (Structure dramatique)   •   (Deutsch) Das Fünf-Akt-Spiel (Dramatische Struktur)   •   (Italiana) La giocare cinque Act (struttura drammatica)   •   (Nederlands) The Five Act Play (Dramatische Structuur)   •   (Português) The Five Act Play (Estrutura Dramática)   •   (עברית) שחק חמש Act (למבנה הדרמטי)   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) العب قانون خمسة (البناء الدرامي)   •   (हिन्दी) पांच एक्ट प्ले (नाटकीय संरचना)   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Пять Закон Play (драматической структуры)   •   (Dansk) De fem Lov Play (Dramatisk Structure)   •   (Svenska) Fem enaktare (Dramatiska Structure)   •   (Suomi) Five näytelmä (Dramaattinen Structure)   •   (Norsk) The Five enakter (dramaturgi)   •   (Türkçe) Beş Hükümet Oyunu (Dramatik Yapısı)   •   (Polski) Pięć Aktów (Dramatic Structure)   •   (Româna) Jocul Cinci Act (Structura dramatică)   •   (Ceština) The Five zákon Play (Dramatic Structure)   •   (Slovenský) Päť aktov (dramatická štruktúra)   •   (Magyar) Az öt törvény lejátszás (Drámai Structure)   •   (Hrvatski) Petogodišnja reprodukcija (Dramska struktura)   •   (български) Петят акт на действие (драматична структура)   •   (Lietuvos) Penki aktas Groti (dramos struktūra)   •   (Slovenščina) Zakon Pet igrati (Dramatično struktura)   •   (Latvijas) The Five likums Atskaņot (Dramatisks struktūra)   •   (eesti) Viis seaduse Play (Dramatic struktuur)