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April 17, 2021

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

Many storytellers face a dilemma when they embark upon their quest to begin constructing a narrative is how exactly they want to structure the yarn they wish to spin.

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 story Structure and 5-act story Structure.

Remember, Arc Studio Pro makes it easy to plug your story into whichever structure you like best.

Three-Act structure

This was the story structure favored by the 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 introduce an audience to your protagonist, ask the piece's dramatic question(s), and establish theme and tone. You also construct the rules of your world and outline the stakes.

Begin your screenplay's journey in Arc Studio Pro by mapping out the protagonist's comfortable world before the inciting incident, using pre-designed templates tailored for a 5-act structure.

Act II –middle – antithesis – confrontation βš”οΈ

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

The protagonist usually isn't having a good time either. Usually, at this stage of their journey, they're being tested at every turn on their way through the trials and tribulations which are being thrown at them.

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

The 5 Act Structure mixes this part up a little, but we'll get to that later.

Arc Studio Pro allows you to highlight the emotional pivot points, ensuring the midpoint's impact is fully realized through effective pacing and character development.

Act III – End – synthesis – resolution πŸ€—

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 in order.

The dramatic question introduced in the first act is answered, and all subplots conclude.

Now let's explore some examples.

Three-act structure example: The Godfather

One of the most iconic gangster and crime films of all time, let's dive into how The Godfather uses a three act structure.

  • Act I – Beginning (Thesis – Set Up): The film introduces the Corleone family during Connie's wedding. Michael Corleone, the protagonist, is initially shown as an outsider to the family business, setting up his eventual journey into the mafia world.
  • Act II – Middle (Antithesis – Confrontation): Michael's transformation and ascent within the family business are depicted through his involvement in the mafia's violent power struggles. His journey through moral conflicts and physical dangers constitutes the bulk of the narrative.
  • Act III – End (Synthesis – Resolution): The film concludes with Michael taking over as the head of the family, having fully embraced his role in the mafia. The resolution sees him consolidating power and settling all family business, marking his complete transformation.

Three-act structure: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

The very first episode of Star Wars used a classic three act structure. Here's how it operates.

  • Act I – Beginning (Thesis – Set Up): The story begins with Luke Skywalker living a mundane life on Tatooine, dreaming of something greater. The arrival of R2-D2 carrying a message from Princess Leia sets the stage for his adventure.
  • Act II – Middle (Antithesis – Confrontation): Luke's journey takes him from the deserts of Tatooine to the Death Star, where he faces numerous challenges, from rescuing Leia to learning about the Force. This act is filled with growth, conflict, and the stark realities of the battle against the Empire.
  • Act III – End (Synthesis – Resolution): The climax of Luke's journey is the Rebel Alliance's attack on the Death Star. With guidance from Obi-Wan and his newfound confidence in the Force, Luke successfully destroys the Death Star, marking a decisive victory for the rebels and completing his transformation from farmer to hero.

What is the five-act structure

So, what's the appeal of the 5-act script structure?

First things first, a 5-act story isn't usually any longer than a 3-act story structure. All you are doing is simply breaking down the rather tricky bit in the middle of your arc.

This is the story structure favored by English playwrights, renowned dramaturg, and the scourge of schoolchildren everywhere: William Shakespeare.

Act I – once upon a time πŸ‘‘

It would feel silly to start anywhere else. This is a space of comfort for your protagonist. One day, they are invited to go on an adventure and are ripped from their comfort place and forced to evaluate who they are in increasingly different ways.

Act II – physical transformation πŸ’ͺ

During Act 2, the stakes of the story are all physical. The protagonist might alter their appearance, journey to a new area, or gather their equipment in the face of the challenge awaiting them. Currently, that is merely as far as they are willing to go to solve their problems.

Act III – emotional investment 😫

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

At the midpoint, which comes during this act, they will experience an enormous outpouring of their newly discovered emotions juxtaposed by a moment of extreme rejection. Our protagonist will then think about abandoning their newfound identity for a beat or two but will double down on their efforts and continue moving forward.

Act IV – psychological examination πŸ§ πŸ”

Now our protagonist has to dig deeper into their psyche and 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?

Act V – spiritual transformation 🧘

Finally, all our protagonists (s) need to prove that they have been on this journey by being challenged to showcase this new version of them. This lets an audience know that the protagonist has genuinely changed, and the shift will stick long after the screen fades to black.

Finalize your protagonist's transformation in Arc Studio by taking advantage of the plot board features and ensuring their spiritual journey is compelling and clear, leading to satisifying conclusion.

5 act structure examples

While modern films typically follow a three-act structure, some, through complex storytelling or narrative depth, can be analyzed through a five-act lens, particularly those that deal with extensive character development, multiple plot lines, or a significant transformation arc.

However, direct examples of modern films strictly adhering to a five-act structure are less common, as contemporary storytelling often blends or modifies classical structures to suit pacing and audience expectations.

Let's look at one classic example.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

One of the best examples of a 5 act structure in recent times is the second film in The Godfather trilogy.

  • Act I – Once Upon a Time:The film begins by setting the stage in two parallel narratives: the early life of Vito Corleone in Sicily and New York, illustrating his humble beginnings and migration to America, and Michael Corleone's current leadership of the family business, expanding its reach into Las Vegas, Hollywood, and Cuba. This act sets up the world of the Corleones, rooted in tradition yet facing the challenges of expansion and modernization.
  • Act II – Physical Transformation:In this act, we witness the physical transformations and actions that define the Corleone family's power dynamics. Vito's transition from a struggling immigrant to a respected member of the community in New York showcases his initial rise in the Mafia. Simultaneously, Michael navigates the treacherous waters of betrayal and threats to his authority, expanding the family's influence while confronting challenges that test his leadership and resolve.
  • Act III – Emotional Investment:The emotional core of the film is tested as Michael undergoes a Senate Committee hearing on Organized Crime, questioning his legitimacy and moral standing. Vito's pivotal decision to eliminate Don Fanucci to take control of his neighborhood highlights his commitment to his family's future. This act brings the characters' emotional investments to the forefront, as their decisions now directly impact their family's legacy and their personal integrity.
  • Act IV – Psychological Examination:As the consequences of their actions unfold, both Michael and Vito reflect on the paths they've chosen. Michael deals with the betrayal by his brother Fredo and must confront the implications of his power, questioning the costs of loyalty, family, and his own identity as a leader. This examination is a deep dive into their psyche, revealing the complex motivations driving their decisions and the moral compromises they've made.
  • Act V – Spiritual Transformation:The culmination of "The Godfather Part II" sees a spiritual transformation in Michael, juxtaposed against the backdrop of Vito's benevolent leadership style. Michael's actions against Fredo, driven by a ruthless pursuit of power, mark a final transformation that cements his legacy within the Corleone family. This act resolves the narrative arcs by highlighting the personal and familial costs of their quests for power, ultimately reflecting on the transformation of the Corleone family's soul across generations.

What's better a 3 act structure or a 5 act structure?

The best thing about studying screenplay structural writing is learning that these two paradigms aren't the only way that you can break a story down. There are so many methods β€” some so unconventional that perhaps you've never heard of them.

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

Some of you will find the 3-act story structure a natural fit, whereas others wouldn't dream of using anything other than the 5-act structure. Or, perhaps you would prefer to use an entirely different screenplay structure! The key is to experiment and figure out what works best for you. Try using the storyboard feature on Arc Studio Pro to play with both structures and see which suits your sensibilities best.

Always remember to keep your story moving forward, your characters engaging, and your themes truthful. The structure is always second to storytelling.


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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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