Wednesday, 8 September 2010

toolkit: five act structure

Writers from the ancient Romans to Shakespeare to Noh playwrights rocked the five-act structure long before TV and it's enduring appeal is evident, even when using the three-act structure as camouflage. Even if you're using the three-act structure, some of these points seem awful familiar...

Act 1 (Exposition)
- Setting details (place and time) are defined, whether by a simple byline ("Normandy, 1941") or courtesy of a character.  Characters are introduced and their history outlined, hopefully to present them in a sympathetic light.  Tensions between characters or against their environment, intrigues form and future conflicts are highlighted moving to the inciting incident that provokes the story.  While Egri criticises the need for exposition, dropping inductive clues on setting into narrative is a fine art and sometimes the best way to tell someone is to, well, tell them.

Act 2 (Complications) - Things get complex as the characters develop alliances, bonds and ties.  The plot develops with situations that relate to, or which represent the conflict characters face.  Adversaries other than the main antagonist appear here, whether as extensions of the antagonist's will or pursuing their own goals. Interests clash, intrigues tie up and develop, tension builds and momentum is gathered. 

Act 3 (Climax) -  As the momentum in Act 2 reaches it's high point, our protagonist stands at the crossroads and facing conflict, either soaring towards victory or crashing to defeat.  At this point, for better or worse, the plot turns, either towards redemption for comedy or judgement for tragedy.  Irreversible actions are taken, some secrets revealed and for the protagonist, the world changes or hangs off the edge of a cliff.

Act 4 (Falling Action) - The consequences of Act 3 play out as characters and events respond to what happened at the climax, momentum slows while tension is built again by uncertainty, by false hopes or fears.  Reversals of fortune take place and the emotions steering characters are played out and resolved - grudges are incubated and alliances are renewed or broken.  If it's a tragedy, it looks like the protagonist can be saved.  If it's not, it looks like all may be lost.

Act 5 (Catastrophe) - The conflict is resolved, be it by one last battle, catastrophe, protagonist downfall or by a victorious transformation caused by a turn of events made probable by what has gone before and must leave the character in a different place to where they were before.  While the word catastrophe has negative connotations, the final act can be a positive experience.  The final act also includes the denouement (literally an untying of knots), intrigues are unravelled and final secrets are revealed. 

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