If you’ve ever taken a screenwriting class, read a screenwriting book, or just watched “Adaptation,” you know there are countless opinions on the best structure for your script. But if you’re looking for a time-tested approach with myriad applications, take a look at how to write a screenplay using the five-act structure.
The idea of a successful story having five “acts” was first postulated by the ancient Roman dramatist Horace in his poem “Ars Poetica”: “No play should be longer or shorter than five acts.” Then, in the late 19th century, German playwright Gustav Freytag analyzed classic works from authors such as William Shakespeare to develop his own version of a five-act structure, which is now known as Freytag’s Pyramid.
From these classical explorations comes our contemporary understanding of the five-act structure. Here’s how to apply it to screenplays.
Act 1: Exposition
Beyond the art of communicating information effectively, “exposition” here means a general setting up of your normal world. In your first act, it’s important to establish who your main characters are, where they live, and what an “average day” looks like for them.
However, your first act will end with what’s called the “inciting incident”: a moment that promises a world beyond what your main characters currently know; a moment that, if responded to, means there is no turning back.
Act 2: Rising action
This will be the longest section of your screenplay. Here, your main character becomes acclimated to their new world, while meeting new characters, testing out new choices, and most importantly, confronting more and more new challenges. These moments of conflict should not be easily resolved; rather, you should twist and turn them relentlessly and constantly, raising the action into unavoidable tensions.
These tensions inevitably explode at the end of your second act, a moment called the “midpoint,” which leads us naturally into our third act.
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Act 3: Climax
It might seem counterintuitive to call the middle of your screenplay the “climax,” but the word isn’t referring to the conclusion of your narrative. Rather, here, all of your conflicts and tensions lead to their highest level of intensity. This is where everything your screenplay has been leading toward comes true, and your characters are deeply affected in ways they can’t undo.
Oftentimes, the end of your third act leads into a “dark night of the soul,” where the main character is at their lowest moment as a result of the climax. They believe that they cannot achieve that new, overpowering goal established at the end of Act 1.
Act 4: Falling action
Again, it might seem counterintuitive to call this section “falling action,” as you still want action, conflicts and moments of tension. The term “falling” here refers to the act’s relationship to the climax; now that we’ve hit our climactic point, this act by definition moves in a downward slope toward the unavoidable resolution of your screenplay. Instead of feeling tense about what’s going to happen, your characters should feel tense because they know this next series of events has to happen—and so, too, should your reader.
Freytag suggests this act needs a moment of “final suspense,” where a reader has doubt about whether the screenplay will resolve how they think it should. In other words, don’t let us, or your characters, off the hook just yet!
Act 5: Resolution
A key word to understanding how to shape a resolution is “catharsis,” or the relieving of emotional tensions. What is the keenest way to achieve maximum dramatic catharsis in your resolution? Or, if you’re aware of a reader’s expectations, how can you purposely turn that catharsis on its head?
Also referred to as the “denouement,” or by Freytag as the “catastrophe” when analyzing classic tragedies, here is the point where your story resolves. Your characters complete their final trials, and you decide their final fates, whether they get what they want, and how they feel about their brand new world.
If you’re not using notecards in your outlining process—or the virtual version, a spreadsheet —they can be a simple, high-level starting point for breaking your story.
Make five columns, each with a notecard headed with the title of an act. Then below each titled notecard, place your scenes in an order that follows these act beats and breaks, written in clear, concise summaries of what conflicts, tensions, and emotions you want to happen. With this process (which can be supplemented by placing your story beats over a version of Freytag’s Pyramid), you will see at the broadest level whether your screenplay will hit the emotional journey you want it to, and you will be able to change your screenplay’s direction with a simple flip of a card.
It may also help you break down each act by page count. While there is no hard-and-fast rule for this, here’s an example of what a five-act structure may look like in a typical, 110-page feature screenplay:
- Act 1: Exposition (pp. 1–25)
- Act 2: Rising Action (pp. 25–55)
- Act 3: Climax (pp. 55–75)
- Act 4: Falling Action (pp. 75–90)
- Act 5: Resolution (pp. 90–110)
To see this structure in action, let’s take a look at one of our most enduring contemporary classics of screenplay structure: “The Matrix,” released in 1999, written by Lana and Lilly Wachowski. Spoilers ahead!
Act 1: Exposition
Thomas Anderson is a disaffected computer programmer unhappy with his pre-programmed life. Yet something beyond the surface seems to call to him—evidenced by his meeting an enigmatic fighter named Trinity, a master hacker named Morpheus, and a vicious bureaucrat named Agent Smith. At the end of this act, Morpheus offers Mr. Anderson (who hacks under the name Neo) the choice to take a red pill and accept the truth, or take a blue pill and stay in his own world.
Inciting incident: Neo takes the red pill and is slammed into a new world, realizing he is nothing but a battery controlled by computers in a simulation called the Matrix—and now he has finally woken up.
Act 2: Rising action
Neo learns more about the difference between the real world and the Matrix—including meeting the rest of Morpheus’ crew, learning how to fight by breaking the rules, and understanding the depths of Agent Smith’s power. The rising action of this act is predicated on a single conflict: Is Neo “the One,” a heroic figure that can save humanity and destroy the Matrix? Morpheus seems to believe—but his surrounders, including Neo himself, have serious doubts. And one member of the crew, Cypher, seems to be plotting a betrayal to jack himself back into the Matrix.
Midpoint: Neo visits the Oracle, who tells him, definitively, that he is not the One—and worse, that either he or Morpheus will die.
Act 3: Climax
Cypher puts his betrayal into action. He reveals the team’s whereabouts to Agent Smith, resulting in the death of several crewmembers and Morpheus’ capture. Neo and Trinity return from the Matrix just in time to stop Cypher from killing them, but the damage has been done.
Dark night of the soul: Predicated on the central conflict established in Act 2, Neo insists that he is not the One, and Morpheus’ fate—and therefore humanity’s fate—is sealed.
Act 4: Falling Action
Or is it? Neo and Trinity jack themselves back into the Matrix for a last-ditch attempt at saving Morpheus, whether Neo is “the One” or not. During their whiz-bang action set pieces, Neo demonstrates rad-as-hell, reality-bending moves that no other person, free or not, has ever been able to pull off.
Morpheus and Trinity escape back into the real world. But just as Neo is about to return himself, Agent Smith arrives…
Moment of final suspense: …and kills Neo! Not only is Neo not the One, but he’s dead?
Act 5: Resolution
In the real world, Trinity tells a seemingly deceased Neo that her own Oracle-predicted fate is to fall in love with the One. And, judging by a smooch, Trinity is in love with Neo. Which means, definitively, he is the One. And now, our central conflict is answered.
Catharsis: Neo wakes back up—his central conflict resolved—and kicks the ever-loving crap out of Agent Smith.
Denouement: The final image of the film leaves the audience with an idea of the new status quo: Neo, officially the One, promises to free all of humanity as he flies directly toward the screen.
Now that you understand five-act structure, it's time to get started on that screenplay.