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April 17, 2021

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

Ah, 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. 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 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.

Act II – Middle – Antithesis – Confrontation ⚔️

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.

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 in order.

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

3 Act Story Structure
3-Act Story Structure

Five-Act Story Structure

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 👑

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 💪

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 🧠🔍

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.

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

Summing Up the 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 — 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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