This series focusses on the exercises in our Write This Now tool. Each exercise presents you with a set of prompts designed to help you address a writing problem like planning a scene, or getting to to the heart of a character. Once finished, you can copy a formatted version of any exercise you take to your clipboard. This time, we look at the Five Act Structure Questions.
This exercise is adapted from John Yorke’s excellent Into the Woods. In it, he argues that a five act structure emphasises a midpoint transformation or coming to knowledge (think about Hamlet provoking the king’s implicit admission of guilt with his play within the play – his suspicions are confirmed and his world is transformed). Working to this structure, Yorke argues, mitigates against the notorious ‘saggy middle’ that dogs the traditional three act plan. Additionally, presented as a circle, the five act structure offers some very interesting symmetries – in particular between acts one and five and acts two and four, which often mirror one another
This exercise walks you along the process of building (or reworking to) a five act structure. The questions should be broadly self-explanatory, but here are some further notes:
Act 1: No knowledge. This is your starting point. The world is introduced. Your character has problems but is probably more or less managing them.
Act 1: Growing knowledge. A storm is on its way.
Act 1: Awakening. This is the famous inciting incident. Your character is forced to engage – albeit reluctantly – with a transformed reality.
Act 2: Doubt. Our first impulse, when faced with a challenge, is often retreat and uncertainty. Hamlet contemplates his own mortality, for example. The traditional refusal of the call to adventure comes about here.
Act 2: Overcoming reluctance. The forces that demand action continue to apply. More information may come to light, pressure may be exerted.
Act 2: Acceptance. Action is unavoidable. A resolution is made. In a quest story this is the point at which the hero finally sets out.
Act 3: Experimenting. We’re in new terrain. Skills are learned, so-called threshold guardians are overcome. There may be training scenes here (think about Neo’s training in The Matrix, Hamlet tutoring the players).
Act 3: MIDPOINT. And everything changes here. Yorke’s book is really helpful in discussing this. The middle is not just a desert between a first act inciting incident and the third act climax – in fact, it sits at the heart of things. It’s true that the protagonist has already set out into a new world in response to the inciting incident, but she only really confronts true transformation at the midpoint. Some examples: Hamlet sees evidence of Claudius’s guilt. Neo meets the Oracle who tells him either he or Morpheus will die. In The Godfather Michael kills Sollozo and McCluskey. (That’s no moon!) Luke, Han and Obi Wan encounter the Death Star and learn the true scale of their adversary and the scope of their quest.
Act 3: Experimenting. Battle is resumed in the light of new knowledge.
Act 4: Doubt. We’re playing by grown up rules now. Adversaries push back hard.
Act 4: Growing reluctance. In fact, is the protagonist up to the fight?
Act 4: Regression. The lowest point. Near capitulation. If there is a death and resurrection in this story – this is the death part
Act 5: Reawakening. The spark re-ignites. A new resolution.
Act 5: Re-acceptance. The final struggle is joined.
Act 5: Total mastery. The protagonist’s understanding is complete – the conflict resolved.
Remember that any structural framework is an over-simplification. Few works fit templates of this sort perfectly. A structure plan can be a useful tool for assessing or planning a project – but don’t let your instincts be strait-jacketed.