Rethinking the Five Act Structure

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Hello dear readers,

If you have been telling or reading stories for any length of time, you are probably familiar with the five act structure. If you know them, say the acts with me: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution (denouement, for our French-speaking members of the audience).  It is a very reliable structure, and if you are just getting into storytelling, then I highly recommend you using it as a guide. We here have written articles about it- or, rather, its sister structure, the three act– in the past, lauding the merits of using it.

However, for those who have been telling stories for some time and are looking for a way to kick your writing to the next level, I encourage you to begin thinking of your story in a slightly different way. Rather than  being confined to hitting those five points, try aiming less at the letter of the law, and more at the intent. Break down your story into parts small enough to have a specific purpose and/or emotion to them. Some would say that each scene should accomplish at least two things (move the character, carry the plot). In many ways, the advice I am giving you now in a reiteration of that  point, but with more heart.

Allow me two examples:

  1. “Into the Word”

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Our new musical, “Into the Word,” boasts of itself as an Christian allegory in four parts, and follows the calling, choice, conviction, and celebration of the main character.  Although I could easily, in hindsight, list out the traditional story arc she pursues, it was better, in the writing of the piece, to internalize the emotion tied to that scene and really hit the mark that way, rather than simply hitting a bullet point in my notes. The music is didactic in nature, but even still it never loses sight of the fact that it is to entertain/enlighten first, and to teach/instruct second. Always remember: stories must, by and large, be about more than just a recitation of facts, but rather adventures to take people on, hopefully again and again. If you are not emotionally engaging yourself, your characters, and your audience, there is no promise that any one of you will stick around to see how the project turns out.

2. “To the End”

 

In this short, the last installment in F10 Films’ Project 12 Film Series, writer, Fabiola Martinez, throws us, neck deep into Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance).  Note: there are still five points  in this example, but those points bother to detail the specific psycho-spiritual state each characters must achieve in each scene, rather than simply giving those scenes a vague classification.

From these two examples, we see that this form of story diagramming goes beyond a bland, post-mortem analysis of a script or other body of work, and sticks its thumb right in the center of its beating heart. Our goal here, again, not to reinvent the wheel but to better the cohesion and direction your specific story takes. When you begin to understand exactly it is that your story works, you will be freer to enjoy the ride, rather than needing to spend every waking moment worrying about whether or not you will miss a turn along the way. So, go ahead, get down with your bad, better self, and many blessings to you on this, your writerly journey.

Sincerely yours,

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