What is Five-Act Structure and How Do You Use It?
Five-act structure is the secret to writing an hour-long pilot. But how can you master these kinds of scripts if you have no idea how to use it?
Story structure is not mandatory but many writers find it incredibly useful and comforting when they sit down to work. Outside of that, you may need to know it as you take professional meetings for staffing. Today, I want to go over one of the less talked about structures five act, and let you know how yo use it and why.
So let's fade in!
What is Five-act Structure?
Story structure marks the beats or moments in a play, tv show, or movie that move along the plot. The structure itself comes from Aristotle's Poetics. In 350 BCE, Aristotle wrote that the plot structure of a drama is formed like a basic triangle.
We call that the rhetorical triangle.
Our traditional three acts come from this triangle. But people wanted more nuance as plots got more complicated. While traditionally marked in three acts, a German playwright and novelist named Gustav Freytag wrote a book called Die Technik des Dramas. In it, he put forth the five-act dramatic structure.
Today, it's referred to as "Freytag's pyramid."
Who uses Freytag's Pyramid?
William Shakespeare. That should be good enough for you.
But I am aware Shakespeare didn't sign any overall deals at Netflix or Amazon. So instead, let's talk about Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad.
Gilligan used the five-act structure in every episode of Breaking Bad. Including the pilot.
It's also used in the Grey's Anatomy pilot as well. In fact. Many TV pilots you read and write will be done with five acts.
In terms of films, check out things like Erin Brokovich and Gladiator. Writer Michael Hauge diagrams both movies as having five-point plot moments they defy the typical act structure seen in most films.
So what should happen in each act?
What are the five acts inside Freytag's Pyramid?
While Freytag triangle was created to be used on plays, we're evolved as a society and now try to use them for film and television. Let's diagram each part of the triangle, which is more like a parallelogram, and see how they can help you map your story.
Oh, an since we're writing screenplays, I switched up some of the titles so they'll be more useful to writers.
- The Tag: Start exciting
- Act One: Exposition for the Audience
- Act Two: Conflicts appear
- Act Three: Things get real bad
- Act Four: Everything's downhill
- Act Five: Tying up loose ends
- The Dénouement: Where do we go from here?
What about page counts for those acts?
Here's a few page-centric goals for you to try to hit. Know that these page numbers will totally vary when it comes to length of teasers, tags, and how many characters you want within the story.
- Teaser (1-3)
- Act 1: p3 to p 10
- Act 2: p10 to p20
- Act 3: p21 to 32
- Act 4: p33 to p41
- Act 5: p42 to p52
Tag (53-55 pages) (END)
How to format five act structure in TV
The format for a one-hour series episode is fairly easy. At the beginning of each act, writers need to center and underline where we are in the script. The same goes for the end of the act.
It should look like this:
*The scenes happen*
*The scenes happen*
END OF ACT ONE
Now that you have the looks, here are all the checkmarks you will need: TEASER, END TEASER, ACT ONE, END ACT ONE, ACT TWO, END ACT TWO, ACT THREE, END ACT THREE, ACT FOUR, END ACT FOUR, and then ACT FIVE, END OF ACT FIVE and the TAG.
Once your show is done, you close out with a centered and underlined END OF SHOW, END OF EPISODE, or THE END. It's up to you!
NOTE: Most streaming and cable shows in the current market place no longer mark when teasers or acts start and end. TV scripts are now written like movies, albeit with a TV episode's average page count of 55 to 62 pages. (See Game of Thrones as an example of this formatting.) They still employ five acts -- or four acts and an end-credits tag as the fifth -- they just do not denote the start or end of the acts. Cool? Cool.
But what happens in each act?
Let's diagram each act so you know what you need to provide the audience. This goes for movies and television.
The Tag: Start exciting
No matter if you're a movie or a tv show, your opening scene is the most important one of the screenplay. This is where you hook the reader and get people excited to make the TV show or movie. Your tag should give us a snippet of the characters, their world, and their problems.
Like this scene from The Sopranos.
Act One: Exposition for the Audience
This is where we can meet the extended family of characters and understand how the world works. In The Wire its when we understand which cops do what, and who the drug dealers are in this arena. In Philadelphia, it's the juxtaposition of the two different lawyers and their lifestyles.
Act Two: Conflicts appear
The world needs to close in on the people we meet. In The Dark Knight, this is where we see Joker as a real threat to an already-overextended Batman. In The Americans, it's where we find out the Jennings' neighbor is an FBI agent and the Russian spies' mission gets more complicated.
Act Three: Things get real bad
Drama is all about conflict. And you have to keep making things worse and worse on your characters to see how they will hold up. In a show like This Is Us, it's when characters have their emotional breakdowns in the past and future. When we tear their careers from them and complicate their pregnancies. In a movie, this is where we need to find the motivation for a character in strife. Like when Rusty finds Danny Ocean's ex-wife at the casino and they realize they need an insane magnet to break into it.
Act Four: Everything's downhill
Your characters need to win and lose. but we learn more about them from losing. In Invincible (go Eagles!), this occurs when Vince thinks he won't make the team. He's getting his ass kicked all over in life and is not sure he can make it. In a show like Lost, it's when people make their peace with being stuck on the island. there's fear, in-fighting, and a smoke monster.
Act Five: Tying up loose ends
Here's where you find your endings. You pick moments that tie it all together and leave people with your theme. In a show like the Veronica Mars pilot, it's when she solves the mystery of the week and gets Weavel to leave her new friend alone. And turns the tables on the cops.
In a movie, like in Die Hard, it's when John McClane kills Gruber and saves his wife.
The Tag or Dénouement: Where do we go from here?
For TV, the tag is super important. You want to show that your idea has legs to last 100 episodes. For Mad Men, it was the reveal Don has a family and there's so much more to this guy than meets the eye. In Back to the Future, it's learning that Marty may need to continue his adventures to save his kids.
What's next? Learn three act structure!
That’s where the three-act structure comes into play. Most movies made today are based off three-act screenplays. And the three-act structure has its roots in performances of old. Why does everyone use it?
Because it works, it's time-tested. And best of all? It's easy to master.