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:
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