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The power of

five-act structure

Why did Shakespeare write in five acts? And how can that help you? John Yorke explains why act structure underpins all powerful stories – from Macbeth to Succession to the speeches of Ronald Reagan.

Act structure and ordering the world

As John Yorke demonstrates in his bestselling book Into the Woods, we’re all familiar with act structure because it mimics the fundamental process by which our brains assimilate knowledge. We find something new, then explore it and finally assimilate it. To perceive the world we observe, we absorb, we change: a three-stage process.

In fact, we are incapable of not ordering the world in this way, and stories are the dramatisation of this process: thesis, antithesis, synthesis – beginning, middle, end.

This three-act shape forms the basic structural model of almost every Hollywood feature, but also every other successful story, whether you are telling a joke, making a speech or writing a company’s origin myth – mission, journey, climax; beginning, middle, end.

The more I’ve told stories, the more I’ve realised that what the audience demands has an extraordinary uniformity.

– John Yorke

Three and five act structure – what’s the difference?

Five-act structure is a refinement of three-act structure. Originally, it was designed to deal with the demands of long plays delivered in open-air theatres where the majority of the audience were standing up.

While not all stories have five acts, you can break all stories into five sections. Why do this? The simple answer is that it gives you much greater control over the shape of the story – the structure is then held up by five girders rather than three. And in addition, it creates regular gripping turning points that increase narrative tension.

In other words, if structure is about joining dots, then the five-act structure gives you more dots. This makes the final drawing easier to fill in, increases the forces of antagonism and forces you to create a classic story shape.

Five-act structure is not a fill-in-the-blanks mould to fix a failing story (though it does do that). It’s the innate shape all well-written stories fall into. Learning to use it will make you a better storyteller.

Illustrations from Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive

Why learn about five-act structure?

  • Mastering the building blocks of narrative means your stories will no longer suffer from sagging midsections, and your climaxes and resolutions will feel hard-earned and satisfying.
  • You’ll be able to diagnose – and fix – problems in your own stories more effectively, storyline more efficiently, and edit the work of others with more sensitivity.
  • If you manage / are part of a team, learning five-act structure can unify your whole workforce’s approach and create a shared vocabulary of story. This can help you create irresistible stories that resonate with audiences, customers and staff alike.

Book story training

John Yorke teaching Storycon
Macbeth five act story breakdown

Five acts of Macbeth

  • Act 1 – Witches tell Macbeth he will be king, Macbeth decides to kill Duncan. (Inciting Incident)
  • Act 2 – Banquo suspects Macbeth of committing murder, Macbeth kills Banquo. Banquo’s son escapes. Macduff (Antagonist) defects and raises an army against Macbeth.
  • Act 3 – Macduff leads the English army and marches on Dunsinane. Lady Macbeth goes mad and kills herself, leaving Macbeth alone. (Midpoint)
  • Act 4 – Macbeth is confronted with the worst consequences of regicide, and is killed by Macduff. (Crisis)
  • Act 5 – Banquo’s son returns and becomes king; order is restored. (Resolution)

Read Macbeth

The Godfather five act story breakdown

Five acts of The Godfather

  • Act 1 – War hero Michael Corleone stands outside family firm. Hears of an assassination attempt on his father (Inciting Incident) and rushes to the family side.
  • Act 2 – Michael allows brother Sonny to take charge – formulates revenge plan.
  • Act 3 – Michael executes Sollozzo and McCluskey (Midpoint) and flees to Sicily. His new wife and Sonny are killed.
  • Act 4 – Michael returns to NYC and promises to go legit. Pressure builds from other families and Greene. Father dies after warning of a traitor (Crisis)
  • Act 5 – Michael learns Tessio is the traitor and kills everyone. Now head of the family. He lies to Kay. (Resolution)

More on The Godfather

Uncharted five act story breakdown

Five acts of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

  • Act 1 – Nate and wife Elena have retired from a life of adventure. His ‘dead’ brother Sam needs help finding treasure (Inciting Incident). Nate lies to Elena.
  • Act 2 – Nate & Sam travel and bond, always one step ahead of Rafe (Antagonist).
  • Act 3 Elena catches Nate in his lie – Nate refuses to give up the quest to go after her (Midpoint).
  • Act 4 – Nate and Sam make it to Libertalia but the treasure’s been moved. Rafe reveals Sam’s deception, Nate shoved off cliff (Crisis).
  • Act 5 Elena and Nate repair relationship and rescue Sam. Nate defeats Rafe (Climax). Nate and Elena decide to embrace a life of adventure (Resolution).

Play Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Reunion five act story breakdown

Five acts of Reunion (Google Advert)

  • Act 1 – Suman’s grandfather shares memories of childhood friend Yusuf in Pakistan. She realises Google can help her in her quest (Inciting Incident).
  • Act 2 – Suman’s journey of discovery – she locates the sweet shop from his story and makes a call.
  • Act 3 – Yusuf still owns the shop. As Suman speaks, he smiles as he understands her quest (Midpoint).
  • Act 4 – Suman and Yusuf’s grandson use Google to organise his visa. Grandfather tearfully says he misses Yusuf. Suman is running late to the airport (Crisis).
  • Act 5 – Yusuf surprises his old friend – they embrace (Resolution).

Watch Reunion

Five acts of Man on Wire

  • Act 1 – Petit learns to wirewalk and learns the twin towers are now built (Inciting Incident). His partner Annie wants him to stop.
  • Act 2 – Petit starts gathering intelligence about the towers – his key ally, Jean-Louis, says it’s too difficult.
  • Act 3 – They start training. Disagreements between Petit and Jean-Louis. They go to NYC and we know that Petit is determined to go to the end of his dream (Midpoint).
  • Act 4 – Tensions escalate – it looks like they won’t recover the wire to get it rigged before dawn and Jean-Louis’s accomplice quits (Crisis). 
  • Act 5 – Petit makes it across – he’s arrested but the judge drops the charges. We learn the walk marked the end of his and Annie’s relationship (Resolution). 

More on Man on Wire

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