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April 17, 2021

Screenwriting Battle: 3-Act vs. 5-Act Story Structure

Ah, story structure.

A dilemma that many a storyteller faces when they embark upon their quest to begin constructing a narrative is how exactly they want to structure the yarn they wish to spin.

Ultimately it comes down to personal preference and how your brain is wired to the telling of tales, but here are two of the more popular versions of story structure and how you might best use them to scaffold the beats of your next screenplay: 3-Act Structure and 5-Act Structure.

Three-Act Story Structure

This was the story structure favored by Grecian writer, philosopher and (arguably) founder of Western storytelling tradition… Aristotle.

The notion is a simple one, your story is divided into three sections:

Act I – Beginning -Thesis – Set Up 🤝

This is where you are introducing an audience to your protagonist, asking the dramatic question(s) of the piece and establishing theme and tone.

You also construct the rules of your world and outline the stakes.

Act II – Middle – Antithesis – Confrontation ⚔️

Often this is the longest and densest part of any narrative. Many a good writer stumbles in the quagmire which is Act II.

However, feel for the poor protagonist of any narrative who during this stage of their journey is being tested at every turn on their way through/over/around all the trials and tribulations which are being thrown at them.

This is also where you’ll start exploring the B and C plots which are peppered throughout your work.

Act III – End – Synthesis – Resolution 🤗

If our hero is going to live happily ever after this is where they get to do it. Antagonism(s) will be defeated, love interests will be swept off their feet and the world will be put back to being well and proper again.

The dramatic question which we opened with will be answered and any/all subplots will reach their conclusions. All that is left is for you to type fade to black and then the credits can start crawling up the screen.

3 Act Story Structure
3-Act Story Structure

Five-Act Story Structure

However, it isn’t the only way to look at structuring your work.

You might want to break your next narrative into five acts. You are not inventing anything additional which you need to be writing. All you are doing is simply breaking down the rather tricky bit in the middle of your arc.

This is the story structure that was favored by English playwright, notable dramaturg and scourge of schoolchildren everywhere: William Shakespeare.

Act I – Once Upon a Time 👑

It would feel silly to start anywhere else really. This is the space that your protagonist exists within until one day they are invited to go on an adventure and are ripped from their place of comfort and warmth and forced to evaluate who they are in increasingly different ways.

Act II – Physical Transformation 💪

This is the easiest way that you can change your protagonist. They move from one physical space to another. It may be that they have to train (in a montage to some killer workout music) or even that they alter their external appearance. But currently, that is merely as far as they are willing to go…

Act III – Emotional Investment 😫

However, just trying on a new frock and pumping iron for a bit doesn’t quite get them what they want. So, they have to really consider how they feel about this new version of themselves that is emerging.

Often at the midpoint, which comes during this act, they will experience a large outpouring of their newly discovered emotions which will be juxtaposed by a moment of extreme rejection.

Our protagonist will then think about abandoning their newfound identity for a beat or two, but then will doubling down on their efforts and continue moving forward.

Act IV – Psychological Examination 🧠🔍

Now our protagonist has to dig deeper into their psyche and really understand why they needed to go on this journey in the first place. They will ask big questions of themselves like:

Who do I want to be? Where am I going? What is it that I’m destined to become?

Externally, they are defeating dragons, rescuing princes(ses) and sorting out what needs to be cleaned up.

Act V – Spiritual Transformation 🧘

Finally, all our protagonist(s) need to do is prove that they have been on this journey by being challenged to showcase that this new version of them that we now can see on our screen is going to be sticking around long after we fade to black.

They have entirely altered their outlook on life and will forever be reminded of the one and a half hours that we spent with them as it literally changed who they are!

5-Act Story Structure
5-Act Story Structure (credit: Storyboard That)

The best thing about studying structural writing for a screenwriting geek like me is that these two paradigms aren’t the only way that you can break a story down. There are many methods — some so unconventional that perhaps you’ve never heard of them.

When you are approaching your own writing it’s all about using the tools that you find most useful and refining them both to fit your style but also the needs of the project that you’re working on.

Always remember just to keep your story moving forward, your characters engaging and your themes truthful.

Structure is always second to storytelling.

Screenwriting Battle: 3-Act vs. 5-Act Story Structure
Ted Wilkes

Ted Wilks is a screenwriting teacher at Regents College in London

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