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.
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Common Core Standards
ELA-Literacy.RL.6.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments
ELA-Literacy.RL.7.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text
ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text
ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text
ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text
ELA-Literacy.RL.6.5: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot
ELA-Literacy.RL.7.5: Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
ELA-Literacy.RL.8.5: Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style
ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise
ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact
ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature
ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6: Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement)