3 Acts or 5 Acts? That Is The Question
The Debate Over The Dominant Storytelling Paradigms
In his seminal screenwriting guide Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Syd Field brought three-act structure to global recognition and practice. Field’s outline was simple. A screenplay is constructed of three acts: Set-Up, Confrontation and Resolution with two separate “plot points” that occur at the end of the first and second act.
Latter-day story expert John Yorke traces the teaching of three act structure back to the work of Epes W. Sargent whose 1912 book The Technique of the Photoplay is noted by Yorke as “the world’s very first screenwriting manual”. In Into The Woods, Yorke goes on to argue that the three-act structure rose to prominence due to the fact that the model essentially reflects the learning process.
…human beings order the word dialectically. Incapable of perceiving randomness, we insist on imposing order on any observed phenomena, any new information that comes our way. We exist, we observe new stimuli and both are altered in the process. It’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis…Every act of perception is an attempt to impose order, to make sense of a chaotic universe. Storytelling, at one level, is a manifestation of this process”. (John Yorke, Into The Woods)
Five-Act structure, on the other hand, has a long and erratic history. The Five-Act structure identically shares the first and final act with the Three-Act paradigm but opts for two additional act breaks within the second act. The Roman African playwright Terence (190–159 BC) first developed the technique, which would resurge during the Renaissance before being definitively articulated through the works of Shakespeare. In his 1863 The Technique of the Drama, Gustav Freytag used his own model, Freytag’s pyramid, to visually express the Five-Act paradigm.
The late 19th and 20th century developments in the fields of entertainment and technology led to a revival of the three-act structure. The “Hollywood paradigm” found wider articulation through the works of Field and his successors as the study of screenwriting developed from the 1970s onwards. As well as its dialectical properties, the Three-Act structure offered appeal in its accessibility, clarity and structural simplicity:
“When too many scenes strive to be powerhouse climaxes, what should be major becomes minor…This is why a three-act Central Plot with subplots has become a kind of standard. It fits the creative powers of most writers, and avoids repetition”. (Robert McKee, Story)
If the Three-Act structure is such a concise, and resonant, narrative model, what then are the advantages of a Five-Act structure? Why would the writer run the Five-Act risk of becoming, as McKee says “repetitious, running downhill to a halt”? The answer? To navigate through the dreaded labyrinth that haunts screenwriters. The Second Act.
“Writers who struggle with the Hollywood paradigm often find the five-act shape gives them the control over their middle section they otherwise find hard to deliver. Used wisely, it imposes a much stronger structure, creates regular gripping turning points that increase narrative tension and in turn eliminates one of the most common problems new screenwriters are heir to: the ‘sagging’, disjointed, confused and often hard-to-follow second act”. (John Yorke, Into The Woods)
“How then does the writer solve the problem of the long second act? By creating more acts. The three-act design is the minimum. If the writer builds progressions to a major reversal at the halfway point, he breaks the story into four movements with no act more than thirty or forty minutes long…In Hollywood technique is known as the Mid-Act Climax…a major reversal in the middle of Act Two, expanding the design from three acts to an Ibsen-like rhythm of four acts, accelerating the mid-film pace”. (Robert McKee, Story)
3 Acts or 5 Acts? The choice is yours…
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