Discarding the five-act structure

While preparing a talk for a local writers’ group, I included in my section on story structure the usual advice about three- and five-act structures.

Photo © chesterF - Fotolia.com

Photo © chesterF – Fotolia.com

This is the concept that the events or turning points form three or five acts, depending on how many turning points you have in your work.

The five-act structure was once thought to be the “only” way to write a story. Shakespeare and most of his contemporaries wrote this way. For example, Henry V:

  1. Show the hero’s everyday world and inciting incident (Henry at court with his advisors, receiving a challenge from the Dauphin of France)
  2. The hero’s reaction to the incident and increasing conflict (The king gathers his troops and goes to France)
  3. Everything leading up to the climax (battles between the English and French)
  4. Climax (Battle of Agincourt)
  5. Denouement (Henry at the French court negotiating terms of peace)

The three-act structure is similar, but includes the hero’s reaction in Act 1 and combines the climax and denouement in Act 3. Everything else is Act 2.

Being a firm believer in the power of the outline, I love this idea. If you were to implement it, you would want to have your plot planned out along these lines before you write. But some people can’t write that way. We often call them “seat of the pants” writers or pantsers. These are the kind of writers who say “I need to write the story to find out how it ends.” If you are this kind of writer, this kind of structure may be unenjoyable or even unfeasible.

So I also mentioned Steven James in my talk. He has rightly pointed out that if your plot is based on a series of cause and effect relationships, it will flow naturally, which trumps architecture. He calls this organic writing, and has called “seat of the pants” a derogatory term. He writes about organic writing at his own website, and will be teaching about it at the Florida Christian Writers Conference at the end of this month. I am eager to learn more about it.

James calls outlining a mistake, and I disagree with him there. It’s just a different style. It’s also possible to use a hybrid of the two styles. But it doesn’t really matter whether one outlines or not. The most important thing is not whether all your scenes fit neatly into a structure of some arbitrary number of acts. The important thing is that each scene happens not after the previous scenes, but because of them.


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

4 comments on “Discarding the five-act structure

  1. Great points, Kristen. I’ve got an outline I’m going by for my current work in progress, but it’s about to undergo some revisions…as I need to ramp up the action, and bring the major players head to head–or actually, sword to claw–

    • Well, that is a valid way to look at story structure. But it’s just semantics to say 5 acts = 3. You could as well say 3 acts = 1 story, where .25 is the opening, everything through .75 is the middle, and 1 is the end.

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