When it comes to writing, your plot and story might develop concurrently, or you start with a plot and the story comes as you’re writing it, or you know what story you want to write and you try to write a plot around that. Basically, this is a disclaimer that while we will be talking about plot structure and discuss specific plot points in these structures, this discussion is more about theoretical frame work and thinking about how plot is structured in preexisting media than it is about how to create a plot. That’s not to say that you can’t use these as reference– think of it like a mac and cheese recipe. The overall product is recognizable, but maybe you baked yours in the oven as opposed to doing it on the stove top, or maybe you used Velveeta instead of actual cheese. The process that you use to get there is more important than making sure that it fits a specific outline. Furthermore, you’re not going to find a writer or storyteller that will tell you to sacrifice story for plot. Maybe you decide to throw bacon in with the mac and cheese, or want to try using blue cheese or feta instead of cheddar or Colby. If the story is pulling you in one direction, follow it. Even if you end up turning back later, you’ll have learned something about your writing instincts and what you want out of a story.
That being said, having an idea of where you’re going when you start can help guide that process.
The Elements of Plot
All plot, no matter what the overall structure of it, has a couple of basic elements. There will be some kind of Backstory, the characters will come into some sort of Conflict which will build up in the Rising Action to a Climax which will result in the Falling Action and lead to the final Resolution. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a three, five, seven, nine, or fourty-two-act structure– it is very difficult to find stories without these elements, even in the most experimental of works.
Most stories will also have some sort of Inciting Incident and/or a Point of Attack. There are some people who claim that these two are the same thing. These people are (mostly) wrong. The Point of Attack is a moment, usually outside of the protagonist’s control, that sets the story into motion– the tornado that takes Dorothy to Oz, the ghost of King Hamlet appearing in Elsinore. The Inciting Incident is a moment where the protagonist does something in reaction to the Point of Attack– Dorothy decides to visit the Wizard, Hamlet decides to revenge his father. That doesn’t mean that the Inciting Incident and the Point of Attack can’t be simultaneous, or at least very close to each other. In The Little Mermaid, the Inciting Incident and Point of Attack are the sequence where Ariel saves Prince Eric from drowning. Without that sequence, the rest of the story doesn’t happen, but the whole thing happens in that one sequence, and so it’s a bit harder to untangle.
There’s also various definitions of Climax and what it means to the story. The Climax is not necessarily the final fight at the end. At that point, you’re probably actually in the Falling Action and possibly even spilling over into the Resolution. The Climax is actually the point at the story where there is the most tension and the protagonist makes an irreversible decision— Dorothy and friends are chased through the castle and Dorothy throws water on the Witch, Hamlet finds King Claudius praying and is about to kill him but does not. The rest of the story and plot are shaped by these decisions. Now, the Climax isn’t always in the protagonists control– it could be argued that the Climax of Fellowship of the Ring is when Gandalf sacrifices himself fighting the Balrog so that the rest of the Fellowship can escape. Or in the original Star Wars, the Climax could be placed in the escape from the Death Star, where Obi-Wan sacrifices himself fighting Darth Vader.
The elements of a plot come together to form an overall structure. The structure informs the shape of the story– how far the Climax is from the Inciting Incident, whether or not the Point of Attack is a part of the story or if the story starts in medias res (Lit-speak for “in the middle”). I’m going to go over two plot structures that are pretty common in terms of specific plot analysis. First, I’ll talk about the ubiquitous Three-Act Structure that you see in almost every movie. Then I’ll talk about the Shakespearean Five-Act Structure (there are actually a few different five-act structures) and then throw in a few words about how neither is necessarily better than the other in terms of writing, it all depends on what your goal is.
The Three-Act Structure starts in the First Act with Backstory, setting up where the character is in their life and what their baseline “normal” is. In Moana, this is the opening song “Where You Are”, where Tui, the villagers, and Moana explain life on Motonui. The Point of Attack sometimes is shown in the film, sometimes isn’t, but ultimately is the source of the external conflict of the story. Maui steals the Heart of Te Fiti and is defeated by Te Kā, causing a rot to spread across the Pacific ocean and causing him to disappear for a thousand years. At this point in the story, we get a sense of the protagonist’s inner conflict– Moana wants to be a good chief and leader, but can’t resist the call of the ocean. This leads to the Inciting Incident, the point at which the external conflict/Point of Attack is revealed to the protagonist and they have to do something about it. Moana sees that the rot has reached Motonui, Tala gives Moana the Heart of Te Fiti and explains that their people were once voyagers and wayfinders, and Moana is convinced that they need to go find Te Fiti and return the Heart. Because of the Inciting Incident, the story leads to a Lock In, which marks the end of the First Act. Tala dies, and Moana sets sail to find Maui.
The Second Act used to be the longest act of a story, though that’s not necessarily true anymore. The first part of the Second Act involves the protagonist achieving a small goal that leads them to the larger one. Moana makes it to the island under the fishhook constellation and finds Maui. The next part builds up to the Midpoint, where the protagonist discovers a new problem in their quest. Moana and Maui retrieve Maui’s hook, but Maui’s powers aren’t working properly. This also is the point where other subplots and character conflicts start to effect the story more directly. Maui’s self-esteem issues are his fatal flaw, and that will inform the rest of his character arc. The next part builds on this conflict, while also progressing the main external conflict. Maui and Moana have a training montage on their way to Te Fiti. The final part of the Second Act leads up to the Main Culmination, where the protagonist suffers a major defeat and is at their lowest point. Moana and Maui fail to get past Te Kā, Maui leaves because of his damaged fishhook, and Moana gives the Heart back to the Ocean.
The Third Act starts with the external conflict changing in some way. Moana decides to take the heart back herself and explains her plan to Hei Hei “none of which you understand, because you are a chicken”. This leads to the Twist in the Third Act, which is pretty self-explainitory. Moana makes it to Te Fiti, only to discover that she’s no longer there. This leads to the Resolution, where the protagonist realizes the solution to the external conflict. Moana returns the Heart to Te Kā, who is restored to being Te Fiti.
The Three-Act Structure is a value neutral concept. It’s not ruining film any more than CGI or superheroes– it’s a tool. And like any tool, there are some who use it better than others. But also notice how much of the substance of the film is left out. The plot structure is not the be-all and end-all of a story. But since I brought up Shakespeare…
Shakespearean Five-Act Structure
You probably learned about this structure in class every time you read a Shakespeare play, probably using Freytag’s pyramid. While the overall structure is simple, Five-Act stories are typically anything but, especially when Will’s got the pen. The First Act is typically some kind of Exposition, which explains both the Backstory as well as the main external conflict of the story. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (MSND), we are introduced to our four lovers in the first act, as well as their dynamics, and we also learn about Theseus and Hyppolyta’s wedding, and that they are having a play presented there, with the Rude Mechanicals hoping to be chosen to perform. In Henry IV part 1, we learn that there is an uprising in Wales and that King Henry is disappointed in his layabout heir, Prince Hal, who is secretly preparing for his kinghood by observing the people he will be ruling. In Hamlet, we learn that Hamlet is resentful of King Claudius marring his mother the Queen, and that Claudius might have killed Hamlet’s father for the throne. Shakespeare didn’t always use a consistent Inciting Incident or Point of Attack, especially when he was working with larger ensembles or with historical events, but he pretty consistantly introduced both the protagonists (the four lovers, Prince Hal, Hamlet) and the main conflict (Will Hermia and Lysander get married?, Will Hal assume the responsibility of the throne?, Did Claudius murder his brother?) in that first act.
The Second Act is the Rising Action— the conflict gets more complicated, and future clashes start to form. In MSND, we are introduced to the fairies and their conflict and find that the lovers have walked right into their territory. Oberon gives Puck instruction to help Helena win Demetrius, but Puck instead gives the potion to Lysander. In 1 Henry IV, Hal and Poins thwart a robbery that Falstaff had planned and Hotspur is rallying people behind him in order to overthrow King Henry. Hal is summoned to speak with his father and he rehearses the scene with Falstaff, ultimately ending with Falstaff pleading not to be sent from Hal’s company and Hal’s only response being “I do, I will.” In Hamlet, Hamlet is passing strange (wrong play, I know) and a troupe of actors come to Elsinore. Hamlet decides that “The play’s the thing, / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” At this point, the conflict has lead our protagonist(s) to a decision, and the Third Act will play out how that decision goes.
The Third Act is the act that contains the Climax. In MSND, Puck turns Bottom into an ass and leads him to Titania, and Oberon discovers that Puck applied the potion to the wrong Athenian and orders him to fix it, which Puck does… but not before watching Demetrius and Lysander fight for the previously unrequited affections of Helena. In 1 Henry IV, Hal and Henry have their conversation and Henry puts Hal in charge of a group of soldiers to go fight the now united Wales and Hostspur. Hal also drafts Falstaff into the war as well. In Hamlet, of course, we get the famous “To Be or Not to Be” speech, as well as “The Mouse Trap”, and this all leads to Claudius running off to pray and admitting to the audience/God that he killed his brother. Hamlet goes to kill him, but doesn’t because he fears that Claudius’ soul will go to heaven if his prayer absolves his sins, and then later kills Polonius by mistake.
The Fourth Act is the Falling Action. Based on the events of the Climax, the conflict begins to resolve itself. In MSND, the lovers are reconciled, Oberon and Titania are reconciled, and Bottom is no longer an ass. Or, at least, his head has turned back to normal. In 1 Henry IV, we learn about the two armies that are amassing and they begin to march towards each other. In Hamlet, Hamlet has been banished for killing Polonius, but sneaks away before he can be sent to England to die. He resolves, upon seeing the Norwegian army marching to Denmark, that his “thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth”.
The Fifth Act is the Resolution. This is where the question in the conflict is finally answered. In MSND, the lovers marry and the mechanicals perform their play. In 1 Henry IV, Hal kills Hotspur, but Falstaff takes the credit. Hamlet succeeds in killing Claudius, but he and nearly everyone else dies in the process.
“One, Two, Five!” “Three, sir!” “Three!”
The Shakespearean Five-Act Structure is no better or worse than the Three-Act Structure, in the same way that a screwdriver is no better or worse than a hammer. But when all you have is a hammer…
I think that the reason that some critics have advocated for the Five-Act over the Three-Act is two-fold. One, they’re tired of the amount of movies that have a Three-Act Structure. It’s like driving through a suburb and knowing that no matter what the houses look like, they all have the same floor-plan and layout. Two, they feel that the Three-Act Structure is too rigid a formula. You’ll notice that while the Three-Act Structure has a lot of story beats that most movies that follow it hit just about every time, the Five-Act structure doesn’t prescribe certain story beats at any particular moment other than the general arc throughout. 1 Henry IV has four scenes in the second act, while Hamlet only has 2. But on the other hand, that flexibility can lead to other issues. The conflict of MSND is more or less already resolved in the fourth act, as is the conflict of Henry V, with the final acts of each a tangent to showcase a scene that works thematically, but seems more like an epilogue than a true ending.
Meanwhile, the Three-Act Structure doesn’t entirely describe the entire story. Think about how much of Moana I didn’t talk about in breaking it down to the main story beats. And while it is a more rigid framework, it also works much better for a single protagonist, whereas Shakespeare, who had to write for an entire acting troupe, not just a single actor, had lost of featured roles and speeches that were not the main protagonist and antagonist characters. Think about the speeches Falstaff and Bottom get, or the long-winded monologues of Polonius. Think about how much of the plays get cut out when they’re adapted for screen (I mean, unless you’re Kenneth Branagh). Hell, five-act plays can be adapted into three-act films and work really well– The Lion King, for example, as well as Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man all have more or less Three-Act Structures and are all adapted from Shakespeare. Just because something is conventional, or its used poorly by others, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t work properly when put in the right hands.
Plot Leads to Story Which Leads to Plot
As I said at the beginning, learning about plot structure isn’t necessarily how you learn about how to write a plot. And it’s definitely not how you learn to write a story. Because the story is not the plot, at least not entirely. The plot of Moana is the Three-Act Structure plot described earlier, but the story of Moana is about a girl who needs to reconcile her heritage and traditions with her desire to explore the world beyond her island. The plot of Hamlet follows the Five-Act Structure, but the story is about death and mourning and mental illness, and the dangers of revenge and regicide. The story is what your story is about, not the plot.
So if you’re going to take a preexisting plot structure and plan your writing around it, go ahead, but don’t be afraid to break that structure if the story decides to show up in the middle of your draft. You can always rework the structure, but emergent themes and topics are harder to get rid of. No matter how rigid the structure you’re using is, it’s up to you, as the writer, to be flexible.
What plot structures do you tend to gravitate towards? Do you want to link to Film Crit Hulk’s article on the Three-Act Structure, assuming that I haven’t read it? Let me know in the comments. Also, like if you can, and subscribe– or follow us on Facebook!— so you don’t miss any new content.