A Play in Five Acts
Structure! Structure! Structure! Sometimes one might imagine that this is all there is to script writing the way some writing teachers and coaches talk – me included.
There’s no doubt about it, structure is important. Even proponents of anti-structure still have some sort of structure to their style. However, probably the most dangerous and confusing concept is the Three Act Structure, which is a common obsession. How many times have I read or heard the expression”the difficult second act?” The concept never existed before the “invention” of the three-act-structure. It is difficult because that one act is meant to represent at half of the screen time and no-one seems to be able to explain the process of writing it.
Let’s have a look at where the concept of acts came from.
Shakespeare wrote in five acts. He was not the first but previously such plays were written, mostly, with the intention of being read rather than being acted. Our understanding of this structure mostly comes for Fraytag’s writing (Die Technik des Dramas) and is described thus:
Act 1: Exposition or introduction
Act 2: Rising action or complication
Act 3: Climax
Act 4: Falling action
Act 5: Denouement or conclusion
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dramatic_structure for simplified explanation
As an example, let’s take a look at Macbeth.
Act 1: Exposition/Introduction.
The witches set the theme “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” The witches give Macbeth their prophecies. There is a war, during which the Thane of Cawdor is executed and hence Macbeth is given the title. (First prophecy fulfilled). Not satisfied with this new found status, Lady M plots Duncan’s murder so that Macbeth will become king (and, thus, fulfil the second prophecy). Lady M manipulates Macbeth into go along with her plan.
Act 2: Rising action
Macbeth has doubts but talks himself into following through. Macbeth breaks down following the deed so Lady M completes the scheme by framing the guards. After Macduff discovers Duncan’s body, Macbeth kills the suspects (guards) in a fit of sorrow and rage. The kings sons (Malcolm and Donalbain), fearing for their lives, flee the castle.
Act 3: Climax
Banquo begins to suspect that Macbeth is the real killer so Macbeth sends out some thugs to kill him and his son. While Banquo is killed, his son escapes. At a banquet, Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost and begins, once again, to breakdown, ranting and raving. Lady M tries to cover this up by making excuses about Macbeth being prone to fits. Meanwhile, Macduff has gone to England looking for support because of his suspicions about Macbeth.
Act 4: Falling action
Macbeth seeks out the witches who tell him that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth,” leading him to believe that he is indestructible since their other prophecies have come true. He sends more assassins to Macduff’s castle to kill him. Meanwhile, Macduff is in England persuading Malcolm to return to Scotland to seize the throne from the tyrant Macbeth.
Act 5: Denouement/Conclusion
Lady M has now descended into madness. Some of the Scottish Lords agree to help Malcolm and Macduff. Meanwhile, Macbeth is unconcerned because of the latest prophecy. However, Macduff did not enter the world by natural childbirth; rather he was born by caesarean section. Thus, in the final conflict, Macduff kills Macbeth and becomes the rightful King of Scotland.
So why five acts? Well, it is suggested in some texts that the act structure was just a convenience for Elizabthan theatre, partially because of the necessity to trim candles at regular intervals. Arbitrary or what?
Also worth of note is that Shakespeare, apparently, did not write in Acts and that this was a later division by those who reproduced the plays. It is suggested that the five act straight jacket was only imposed on Shakespeare a hundred years after his death!
Next time I’m going to take a look at the film industry’s apparent obsession with the three act structure.