Shakespeare and His Five Acts

I once had the privilege of teaching an informal Shakespeare class.

We talked about the many great features of the Bard’s plays, including, and certainly not limited to, his use of Blank Verse, compassionate storytelling, and strong female characters, but I was personally the most impressed by Shakespeare’s Five Act System of story development.

Never heard of it?

For those of you who are not ruthless Shakespeare Nerds, every Shakespeare play has five acts exactly. In each and every play, the same functions are served in the same acts. The First Act of Romeo and Juliet serves the same purpose as the First Act in Henry V and so on.

When I first learned this, I thought that this rigid structuring would render all of his writing monotonous.

I was wrong.

Far from being restrictive, the Five Act system is simply a streamlined way of looking at how stories are constructed.

The Five Act system is everywhere, in every story, book, movie, and play, although it isn’t always so clearly marked.

My students weren’t as impressed as I was, so I hope to show you how it may help your writing.

These separate parts are as thus:

The First Act, or The Introduction.

In the First Act, the major characters, events, themes, and motifs of the story are introduced to the reader. This is the first time the reader meets these characters and understands the situation that they are in. It’s important to write more slowly and cautiously in the First Act. If you don’t, you run the risk of running faster through details than your reader can absorb them.

The Second Act, or The Complication

This is the part of the story where things may begin to get a little complicated. Things in the life of your characters may start to go a little wrong in this part. Not too badly, but events and circumstances may stray slightly out of their comfort zones. During the Second Act, the writer sets in place the actions or foreshadowing that lead to other, more important actions and circumstances later in the story.

The Third Act, or The Central Action

This section is the meat. Essentially, this section is what the story is about. In the Third Act, characters die, spurring reactions from major characters, lives are changed by formative events, and evil strikes menacingly. Whatever drives your story and its characters happens in the Third Act. The Third Act is usually the first thing to occur to a writer when he decides to write. If there were no Third Act, there would be very little reason to tell a story at all.

The Fourth Act, or The Falling Action

I have always found this section of a story to be the easiest to write. The repercussions of the main action of a story is the most organic part of the story to develop. A writer may have to creatively force the first and second acts to lead up to the actions of the third act, but what follows the central action is inevitable. Don’t sweat when writing this section of your story. The Fourth Act is just a straight line leading from the Central Action to the . . .

The Fifth Act, or The Conclusion

As you might imagine, this is where the story ends. Finish the development of your characters, round up your themes and motifs, and wrap up any of the wayward details. Don’t be afraid of moving too slowly as you wrap up your story. If you’ve done your job well, your reader won’t mind lounging around your story for a while as you leisurely clean up the last moments. Be careful to end well, however. Everyone remembers the last sentence of a book.

Important Note:

You will notice that the climax is not included in this diagram, because the climax a feature of the emotional arc and impact of a story. It has nothing to do with how the story develops as a mechanical entity. We’ll talk about that someday, but for now we are only interested in a story’s growth and development.

Just remember: Write like Shakespeare!

Only better. -BW

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