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
Create your own at Storyboard That ACT 1: PROLOGUE ACT 2: RISING ACTION ACT 3: CLIMAX ACT 4: FALLING ACTION ACT 5: DENOUEMENT "In fair Verona...a pair of star-crossed lovers take their life. The fearful passage of their death marked love and the continuance of their parents' rage, which led to their children's deaths.​ " Romeo and Juliet fall in love but cannot be together because their families do not like each other. They decide to get married in secret. ​ After crashing the Capulet party, Tybalt goes after the Montague crew and kills Mercutio. To avenge his friend, Romeo duels with and kills Tybalt - Juliet's cousin. ​ Romeo is banished, but before he goes he gives Juliet a proper wedding night! Juliet's father requests that she marries Count Paris. However, to escape a second wedding she and Friar Lawrence concoct a plan to make it appear as if she dies. By taking a sleeping potion! Being the only person who knows the whole story, the Friar explains it to the families, who decided to finally end their grudge. ​ O, speak again, bright angel, for thou art as glorious to this night, being o'er my head, as is a winged messenger of heaven! I feel personally responsible...I married them hoping it would end the fighting. It's just a scratch...


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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
Create your own at Storyboard That EXPOSITION CONFLICT​ RISING ACTION CLIMAX FALLING ACTION DENOUEMENT The story starts in Duke Fredrick's court. However, the rest of the play is set in the Forest of Ardenne. Rosalind and Orlando fall in love, however they cannot be together because she is exiled, and he is denied his status by the Duke. After everyone in Duke Fredrick's court escapes to the woods, the play focuses on Rosalind and Orlando, who have fallen in love. However, they have been separated and she is disguised as a man. Rosalind promises to marry Orlando, but first, she and Phoebe make an agreement that if for any reason she doesn't marry Ganymede, she will marry Silvius, thus tricking Phoebe into marrying Silvius. Rosalind, appearing as herself, marries Orlando, and Phoebe marries Silvius. The Duke and Oliver put aside their differences with characters in the play and Duke Senior is returned to power.