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December 22, 2022

Breaking Down Succession Using The Five Act Structure

Succession is a cultural phenomenon. It’s success coincided with the onset of the still on-going COVID-19 pandemic when people across the world spent more time indoors entertaining themselves with TV series. 

But other than the lockdown what made it such epic viewing? And what can we learn from Succession?

Let’s break down the plot of Succession according to the classic five act structure.

The success of Succession

Succession was created by Jesse Armstrong, and executive produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell among others.

The show follows the Roy family. They operate the worldwide media and entertainment conglomerate Waystar RoyCo, which was founded by the aging patriarch Logan Roy.

The show largely follows the inter-family dynamics of Roy and his children who are all angling for position within the company. The pilot debuted on HBO on June 3, 2018, and has currently run three seasons. A fourth season is scheduled to premiere in 2023.

Logan Roy is played by Brian Cox, and his children Kendall, Shiv, and Roman are played by Jeremy Strong, Sarah Snook, and Kieran Culkin respectively. The show has been described as King Lear meets Arrested Development. You can never go wrong with channeling Shakespeare

Though the show does view and read much like a play, which is no surprise as the writers room is made up of a number of playwrights, its pilot (directed by Adam McKay) can still be broken down into a classic 5 Act TV structure.

What is the classic 5 act TV structure?

The five-act format was first formulated by literary theorist Gustav Freytag His dramatic pyramid makes it easier for us to understand the highs and lows of a story as well as how we construct a story like this ourselves.

Do check out our blog on the five act vs three act structure to understand this theory in more detail and why some writers choose five acts over three. 

The classic 5 act TV structure breakdown of the Succession pilot


This is a hook, to draw the viewer in.

We don’t know anyone’s name yet, but we see an older man get up in the middle of the night, and urinate in the hall, seemingly not knowing where he is.

Act 1

This act introduces the main characters and the world.

We meet Kendall Roy on his way to make a big deal. We learn that the deal isn’t going to go through and Kendall’s upset because this is supposed to be the cherry on top of his big day, being named the new CEO in place of his dad who is retiring. 

We also meet Kendall’s brother Roman, as well as Cousin Greg (who we don’t know how he fits in yet.)

Act 2

This act introduces the central storyline and conflict of the episode. Kendall’s future position as CEO is now in jeopardy, and Kendall works to secure the deal, and make sure that his dad is still going to name him CEO.

Act 3

This is the low point when it seems the conflict cannot be resolved. Logan Roy, who we now understand is Kendall’s father and the man from the opening teaser, tells his children at a family event that he’ll be staying on as CEO, and that his wife (not their mother, but his current wife) will get two voting shares on the board.

Kendall confronts his father about this decision, to discover that his father sees him as weak and ineffectual as a leader of the corporation.

Kendall Roy confronts his father Logan Roy

Act 4

In Act 4 characters take action in the face of conflict. Shiv and Roman each attempt to secure their own positions in the new restructuring of their father’s trust.

Kendall, meanwhile, works to ensure that the deal from the beginning actually goes through.

Act 5

This is resolution of episode’s conflict, and for a pilot, establishes the long-term storyline.

Kendall makes the deal happen through brute force. It’s done, but the other side isn’t happy about it. As Shiv and Roman explain to their father that his “position” doesn’t work for them, Logan suffers a medical event that incapacitates him.


The tag is a hint of conflict in next episode, or laying something for later in the season.

The deal now closed, Kendall learns that his father suffered a brain hemorrhage and is vaguely threatened by the man whose company he just bought who tells him that “daddy’s not here to protect him.”

What can we learn from Succession

At some point in this pilot, every single character says something dissonant and contradictory in private to another character. As an audience we are privy to this.

This keeps us leaning forward. We need to understand which conversation reflect their true beliefs . And even if they can’t decphier between the lies and the truth, this contradiction has the haulmarks of real life. Logan Roy in particular is apt to double speak, and while he’s not a villain in the classical sense, he does often steal scenes with his monologues.

There is a big gap between text and subtext. This is extremely difficult to do on the page, and requires a level of trust and understanding from collaborators who truly understand each character’s inner conflict.

The show is more akin to live theatre scripts than television.

From the beginning, the focus and theme are there, and that’s what audiences will respond to.

Audiences don’t respond to anything that’s not touching them emotionally or thematically. The structure of the Succession pilot is a good reminder of that.

Kendall, Shiv, and Roman discuss their family at a party. Kendall is dressed in a green dress.
Kendall, Shiv, and Roman discuss their family at a party.

Great writing is great writing, and Succession nails it. Every time.

If you’re interested in learning more about how to plot your storylines and write epic scripts be sure to check out the other blogs on our site and download Arc Studio Pro, our industry standard screenwriting software.


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Breaking Down Succession Using The Five Act Structure
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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