The five act story structure

This entry is part 6 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)

Planning out a novel? Be sure to join my newsletter for a FREE plotting/revision roadmap, and check out the full series on plotting novels in a free PDF!

Almost a corollary to the three act story structure is the five act story structure. Its most notable proponent is Gustav Freytag (in Freytag’s Technique of the Drama).

The basic difference between three and five act structures is that the second act in the three act structure is divided into three acts in the five act structure. (Uh . . . what?) It’s like this: the confrontation phase of the story is divided into the rising action, turning point and falling action.

Basically, the middle turning point is where things turn around for the hero. It’s not the ultimate confrontation, but after this point, the hero is able to start applying some of the things he’s learned—to start succeeding. I guess that’s why they call it the “falling” action. Because . . . things are falling into place? (*cough*cough*dumb name*cough*)

I’m going to blame this on my middle school English teacher—but I think this structure is a little misleading. First of all, the “falling action” sounds an awful lot like the denouement—the events after the climax. In fact, that’s exactly how I learned the term. (I honestly can’t think of any reason to call the third quarter or so of the book the “falling action.” That sounds boring.)

Here’s how I was taught a five-act structure (please, don’t hate on me because of my mad Paint skills. You know you wish you had 8-bit graphics skillz.):
plot chart labeled
The line graph here is somewhat representative. In the exposition, the hero isn’t making a lot of progress toward his ultimate goal—the final confrontation with the antagonist.

Then comes the rising action—he’s started on the path toward the confrontation. The rising action leads to the climax.

After that final confrontation, we have a very short falling action—it’s not as long as the rising action, it’s just tying up the loose ends. And then there’s the resolution: the character’s final situation. Notice that this is much higher than the exposition, because the character has changed.

This might be a little misleading, too. Really, the rising action is anything but a straight line—we have all those intermediate story questions to answer. The hero has to learn and acquire new skills (like 8-bit graphic skillz, yo), and growing and learning and changing are usually painful and fraught with setbacks. So the rising action might really look like this:
plot chart alt

The three act structure would divide the acts at the end of the exposition and either at the climax or just before the resolution (depending on who you ask 🙂 ).

Planning out a novel? Be sure to join my newsletter for a FREE plotting/revision roadmap, and check out the full series on plotting novels in a free PDF!

What do you think? How would you apportion or draw the five acts in the five act structure? What is with the name “falling action,” and what would be a better name?

Series NavigationThe story questionPros and cons of the three act structure

2 thoughts on “The five act story structure”

  1. I think of it as three main plot points.
    First point, at the end of “exposition”, is when the hero makes a decision to confront his issues instead of avoiding them.
    The second point, which I think is this “climax” on your chart, is when the hero survives and ordeal and gains a small victory against the dark forces. However, this awakens the dark forces and he’s forced down another path. I think this is your falling action.
    The third point is the final climax when the hero confronts the dark forces for the last time and the “story question” is answered.

    So here’s my proposal for better naming:
    Exposition: “I’m out of money and the rent is due. Whatever am I going to do?”
    Rising Action: “The night guard is out sick. Let’s steal a bunch of crap from the corrupt MegaBuy and sell it on Ebay.”
    Climax: “This is not going well. There’s another guard and he’s a mean SOB. He sounded the alarm!”
    Falling Action: “Look at all our loot. We’re going to be rich. But first, run for your life!”
    Resolution: “We’re cornered. But the mean guard hates MegaBuy. We promise to return the loot and live to see another day. We now have jobs at MegaBuy. We can Ebay stuff without even leaving the store. The end.”


  2. Well, when we used the chart in high school, “climax” meant “climax”—the final confrontation. It’s not really the same as the midpoint from the the five-act structure. That’s why it’s almost at the end of the chart.

Comments are closed.