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- The Shakespearean Five Act Structure... and Using it For Games!
The last structure I'm going to cover on this blog (at least for the time being), is the five act structure as used by Elizabethan playwrights such as Shakespeare. Unfortunately not much of their recorded methods or writing theory survives today, so we're left with very little to serve as a base for our understanding of their favored full length play structure. We have to instead piece it together with what we still have, and we still have quite a few plays.
In this little essay I'm going to use Shakespeare's four great tragedies: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. It won't hurt to have a Wikipedia level understanding of what happens in these plays. I have broken down their action act by act and they will serve as a helpful guide to build on what we do know. I'm also going to be calling on the ideas and theories I've heard and read in many Shakespeare lectures and books, while probably all somewhat conjectural, I trust the better ideas I've picked up to not lead me astray.
Let's actually start, not with Shakespeare, but with Gustav Freytag. If you look up "five act structure" on Google you will invariably see Freytag's name along with his little dramatic pyramid. And usually at best a very, very cursory summary of his take on the five acts. I'll save you time finding that cursory summary, basically he puts the five acts thusly:
Act 1 - Exposition: We find out about the story.
Act 2 - Rising Action: The action rises (upwards!)
Act 3 - Climax: The turning point of affairs.
Act 4 - Falling Action: Look out below!
Act 5 - Denouement: The story resolves.
While I'm sure Gustav was a smart guy and he acquired plenty of experience writing by the end of his life, if you read his actual book, where he goes over this in more depth, he doesn't really have a lot to say. Honestly, his simple little pyramid pretty much sums it up. He knows he's seeing something going on, and he can label it with a made up term (like rising action), and he can certainly point to many examples in Shakespeare to refer to what he's talking about... but that's it. There's nothing there for an actual craftsman to use, and that's pretty much par for the course when it comes to how-to books on writing and structure. Too many vague terms, viewed from the spectators position, but no awareness of how to utilize that knowledge, no comprehension to be able to understand what's truly going on.
It's a little bit like if someone, trying to explain cars to you, popped the hood, gestured to the engine and went, "...and these are the go parts." That's a fine label for somebody who is basically going to do nothing with the knowledge, but it would be useless to an engineer trying to build an engine. "There's some oily parts, I'm pretty sure some of the things spin around, there's a few tubes, it makes a lot of noise, I could go on." That's understanding a car without any real comprehension.
So, I apologize for the divergence, but I wanted that to show, that's exactly what won't help us. And it's important because a dumbed down version of Freytag is basically what passes for most of our understanding of story creation and structure in modern times. And if you wish to read more about that, I would direct you to this all caps essay by Film Crit Hulk. (Warning, it's filled with salty, salty language.) We want to understand how Elizabethan, and Roman before them, playwrights actually structured their stories from a writer's perspective, and then see how that knowledge helps us structure our stories, in this case, for the purpose of making excellent RPG adventures.
Act 1We start now at the beginning, Act 1. The first act of course reveals the setup of the play, the story up until now. We meet many or all of our main characters, we find out what they've been up to, and then we have some sort of plot point (turn, reversal, or situation of some kind) which leads a character to an inciting incident. Shakespeare doesn't, nor most good writers, write about stories that just seem to happen, they write about events caused by decisive human action. Rarely does he feature a pure hero fighting the forces of evil either, though we probably will in our roleplaying games.
Another interesting thing to note, none of the four tragedies (and no play of his that comes to mind) starts in a state of total stasis. Things aren't copesetic in the world when we open on any play here, though that is the preferred state of things for many modern stories on television and in movies. In Hamlet the King has just died and been replaced by his own brother, Othello has just managed to marry Desdemona despite her father's protestations, Scotland has just fended off invasion during two simultaneous wars in Macbeth, and in Lear, we really do have something close to a stable start, merely King Lear is old and has already decided before this to split up his kingdom. That's not too far off from stasis really, but generally we open on stories that are taking place in active worlds where it seems like the conflicts merely lead into new conflicts, stories that we don't get to see lead into ones we do. Othello is widely considered an example of Shakespeare playing with this idea, it comes across like the first two acts of that play should be the last two acts of a happy comedy, ruined by a villain who just won't go away.
Adventures tend toward having a pre-existing conflict in place, the Adventure Creator encourages you to create a background for the story when you first start, but things really take off once our heroes get involved in the story. But like I said above, these stories are about somebody making a choice to address some issue before them with an active decision. Hamlet resolves to take revenge, though with the significant caveat that he wants some proof besides a ghost telling him what to do, Lear decides to split up his kingdom because he's so old, Macbeth kills the King so he can take his position, and Othello's treacherous friend Iago commits to enacting a plan to ruin him on their trip to defend Cyprus.
I think we'd be giving short thrift to this structure to say we've basically got all of this covered with the first act of the basic three act structure I use in the book. This structure invites a different kind of story than the usual RPG fare where heroes come into a situation of wrong doing and seek to fix it. At the very least we can consider: what about stories that involve our PCs integrally? Stories that involve a PC who decides he wants a change of life and makes a huge decision, a PC who decides he can't let things continue on as they have been and embarks on a large scheme, PCs who decide to shake up a continually shook up world, this time for their own gain.
It would be different, I can think of lots of objections, it takes you out of the basic set-up of heroes save the day, and the basic set-up is used because it works really well. And it keeps things clean, heroes are heroes, villains are villains, we know what everybody wants, plus the heroes can show up to situations and involve themselves in them, but when they're over they can split cleanly. Also stories done in five acts tend to be about important people, because such people can make big decisions that affect the world, many games feature adventurers who are the "little people," before long we're doing family dramas when we're supposed to be playing D&D. But, as a sometimes variation from what you normally do, I still think this could be quite an interesting story type.
So to sum up, we start off introducing the existing conflicts in our world which are about to be changed thanks to the heroes and villains of the story resolving to take new actions. They are incited into taking this new actions thanks to inciting incidents, something which gives them reason to come up with a new plan. Our scenes have to give the backstory, introduce the NPCs, provide a spark to cause the inciting incident, and then have a character resolve to do something which will in turn cause the entire story to happen.
Act 2The second act marks the beginning of the actual events of the story's plot. Now that characters have resolved themselves to their actions, what we seem to see here is the results of those actions playing out. Macbeth kills the King, the Princes flee, and the remaining thanes declare Macbeth the new king during an offstage meeting. Hamlet resolves to pretend to be mad while he figures out what to do so he can be sure Claudius is guilty, and the second act is mostly about people trying to figure out why he's mad and finally ends when the players arrive and he figures out that he can put on a play which will reveal his uncle's guilt or innocence.
If it helps to use a single simplifying term to describe act 2, I like entanglement. This newly unleashed plot begins to entangle things, the characters, the world. It's about showing off the consequences of the actions done in the first act. King Lear has given his kingdom up to his two wicked daughters, and now reaps their poor treatment, their power and lack of decency allowing them to treat Lear like he's the child now. Even Iago manages to get Othello's second in command fired for being drunk and disorderly in a single scene, allowing him to use this event to confuse Othello later on.
What does this mean for adventurers? Well it may mean that they need to face some "challenges" they must overcome in order to fully enact their plans by the end of act 2. Or they may face some opposition if they've already successfully pulled their plan off, and now must deal with burgeoning schemes of others who may oppose them or this new order.
We'll summarize the whole mess at the end and imagine a full roleplaying adventure using five acts, but right now we can think of some examples. If we were playing some heroic knights, perhaps they might discover some evidence or are told by a concerned party that the King of Fairlandia is being controlled by the foul sorceries of his Court Magician, a demon-summoning evildoer under an assumed identity. So they may then commit to finding out the truth and saving the kingdom. But the party might decide they can't just rush the guy, they need proof, but they can't bring it before the King or any of his subjects because he may be under the evil wizard's control. So they decide they must find craftier means to discover the truth.
The second act would then involve them discovering their crafty means. Maybe they need to create a distracting event so some of them can rifle through the Court Magician's stuff. Or perhaps they can befriend the Magician's apprentice, ask her if she's noticed anything strange about him. Of course they would need to do something to gain her confidence, which is another challenge all on its own. Though they may unwittingly alert the familiar of the villain, who overhears them and can inform its master so he can in turn take actions against them. This example actually shows a pretty standard setup for an adventure, which of course can still be used despite my thoughts above that you should consider different courses to start a story with.
You get the basic idea hopefully, there's a problem and the characters decide they need to do something, act two is about the resolution of that. Or in the case of Macbeth and Romeo and others, there's a desire to do something and they take it, and the act resolves the start of that. Of course just because they are resolved in their actions doesn't mean conflicts don't continue to occur, as others will invariably stand in their way, or will be incited to as the story moves forward.
Act 3I think it's fair if you generally consider the 2nd and 3rd acts of a five act story to be the "middle" of the story. The second act shows off what occurs after the inciting incident changes the characters' world, the third act then shows off what that does or causes now that a new situation has achieved some stasis.
Lear having been turned out by his daughters, his former power fully lost, goes mad. His friend and parallel father character Gloucester is betrayed by his bastard son after wrongly trusting him, and turning on his good son. That betrayal ends with Gloucester being tortured and blinded. At the same time we discover an army from France has landed with Lear's good daughter Cordelia leading it. She has come back to wrest control from her wicked sisters and right what they have done to their father. One change leads to another.
In Macbeth no sooner has he been declared king in at the end of the second act, than he becomes paranoid and crazy by the first scene of the third act, hiring murderers to remove his friend and his friend's son so that they do not one day usurp his power. Lady Macbeth too has become restless and distraught over what they have done. Scotland has become a dark place filled with spies and murder. Macduff, a powerful lord, decides to go to England to help one of the exiled princes raise an army. And finally, Macbeth goes back to the witches who he foolishly let get him into this mess in the first place, and they placate him with lies about his invulnerability through magical spirits.
The main characters in these stories face major internal changes due to what has transpired up until this point. Lear goes insane and his actions are largely meaningless outside the confines of the art and poetry of the play (admittedly very important), while Macbeth still has agency to act within his world, ordering more deaths in order to protect his position. He's got what he wanted, but not how he wanted it.
The PCs should find themselves facing increasingly delicate and perilous situations, challenge scenes which they must survive and larger plot arcs they must find their way out of. The goal of completing what they set out to do in the first act may fall by the wayside temporarily while they have to handle more pressing incidents, like attempts on their lives, false accusations, and other such traps. Or they may have carefully spent the second act looking for ways to get what they want, and now that they've discovered the means they will be busy trying to execute them.
The thing is, they can't complete the adventure yet, no matter their plans they shouldn't be in a position to reach that final goal, that final challenge. They're just setting things up, or other people are setting things up against them. Let's try another example! If our heroes were Victorian detectives they may have discovered evidence of a murder plot that goes right up to the top of the social strata in London during the first act. They found enough evidence to convince them of who the villains were in the second act, but not enough to stop them or accuse them openly. Now as they look for a way to get the villains to out themselves so they can be arrested, the villains can turn the tables on the heroes and frame them for a crime. That new stasis of "detectives on the trail of villains" has caused the villains to act. And so our detectives must escape the officers of Scotland Yard, find a safe hiding place, and then also continue their quest to solve the case.
That would just be one challenge that could be sent the heroes' way in the third act, you would probably provide several, completing some of them would help the heroes get closer to resolving the story, and some of them would simply be challenges to survive.
There's one remaining thing about third acts we need to cover, and that is the third act climax. Third acts have their own sort of second inciting incident, where the main characters commit to their final course of action. Or at least, they often do. Hamlet has been ordered to England and on the way to the ship sees the Norwegian army on its way to Poland to fight and die over a pointless piece of land. Moved that so many could commit to die over nothing but the bragging rights of winning worthless land, Hamlet himself commits to actually doing what needs to be done in order to revenge his father. Macbeth sees his kingdom coming apart all around him, but after meeting with the witches and receiving false promises of invulnerability commits himself to seeing his wicked kingship through to the end. Othello becomes totally convinced of his wife's infidelity during the third act and ends it by swearing before God that he shall punish those who have wronged him.
King Lear meanwhile doesn't have any such moment, though he's lost his faculties and gone mad. Instead the third act seems to end with Gloucester being blinded and cast out into the wilds to die. This brings up a point about Shakespeare for those following along with his plays that I would like to mention. The act breaks we have for Shakespeare's plays were actually added later, they weren't in the original scripts they had saved. That has led some well meaning but confused souls to suggest that Shakespeare actually just wrote his plays as a pile of scenes and the acts are totally made up. No... just no. But while he did write his plays in five acts, these were writer's acts, as we're seeing, made up to provide structure to the infinite chaos of writing a story, and subsequently weren't recorded, leaving the editors of his collected works to have to try and to put the acts back in. But you kind of have to wonder if they get it right sometimes. Both Hamlet and Macbeth's climaxes are officially listed in the fourth act, showing no discernible reason for the act breaks in either play. So I think it's fair to assume those are both the actual endings to the third acts of those plays. And both are in turn followed by scenes which one would expect to find in a fourth act.
Back to business, within the context of an adventure I think the clearest route to take is to allow the PCs to finally see that final means they could use to achieve their goal, even if it's a bit vague or broad as far as goals go, at the end of the third act. They've made it through the challenges of the act and survived, perhaps even advanced their plans. Now they see the opportunity, even if they don't also immediately see the means to achieve it. Our detectives for example may now be holed up in a safe house, but they realize there is a way to reveal the guilt of the villains publicly, if only they can do X, Y, and Z. And that ends the act.
Act 4Now I'm going to be honest here, the fourth act seems kind of awkward for the purposes of an RPG adventure. That's because Act 4 is designed to resolve on-going subplots, provide a set-up for the final events to occur in act 5, and also to get the lead of the play off-stage so he or she can finally have a ten or fifteen minute break and get ready for throwing themselves into the ending scenes. In our case we don't need to take the main characters away, as the players are also the audience. But we can still resolve subplots and set-up things for the big finale.
In Hamlet we watch as Ophelia goes mad and dies, while her brother Laertes raises a mob and storms the castle all in response to their own father dying. In Macbeth, Macduff's family meets an untimely end while he is away in England. In King Lear, the wicked daughters Goneril and Regan fight over the wicked son Edmund, and preparations are made for a decisive final battle. Lastly, in Othello, Othello appears in the scenes more than our other leads, but the act is mostly about his wife Desdemona discussing her current predicament.
If you have subplots in your story now would be a good time to resolve them, or at least resolve them as fully as can be done without the final resolution occurring. NPCs who have had their own problems outside of the main plot can have them resolved, situations or characters that were planted earlier in the story can come back now and reveal that they may yet have a part to play in the ending.
In game terms I think this is the time to present final challenge scenes for smaller problems. Again, if there were subplots that could be resolved at this time. That clears lesser events out of the way so you can have a smooth, uninterrupted ending. You could also have event scenes where NPCs or past situations come back so they can be utilized in the fifth act.
I think for the purposes of a game you can feel free to be a little more exciting with events than Shakespeare was. Let's suppose that you were playing some Jedi knights trying to stop a secret Sith Lord who is also a planetary governor. One subplot could involve a group of Mandalorian warriors serving as his personal bodyguard, but the PCs manage to arrange for them to be led into a trap, where they are captured by Alliance soldiers. This gets them out of the way for the finale and resolves them as a subplot. Or perhaps they can fight a lesser boss, like the lord's apprentice, who must be stopped before he messes up their final plans to take down the villain. It's a big challenge, but not as big as the one they will face to resolve the story once and for all. And of course, with the Sith Lord isolated, they can reveal who he really is to everyone and then fight him one on one in the inevitable battle that will follow.
Act 5Now at last we reach the final act. In Shakespeare the final act will often fly like an arrow to the resolution, especially since all the lesser matters of the plot have been resolved. Let's take a look at how all four of our tragedies finish things (warning, major spoilers about 400 year old plays to follow!!!).
In Macbeth the English army led by Prince Malcolm and Macduff are already marching on Macbeth's castle. Lady Macbeth kills herself right before the battle, offstage, and Macbeth uses the moment to discuss what he was already discussing, which is how upset he is and how much he hates life. Then the battle happens and he's killed. The end.
In Hamlet, Hamlet returns to Denmark after an ill-fated attempt by the villain Claudius to send him to England where he would be murdered. He starts the act by attending Ophelia's funeral, then accepts a challenge to duel Laertes in a fencing match, taking time to explain the entire point of the play to his best friend Horatio on his way. The duel is a secret assassination attempt, everybody dies except Horatio. The end.
King Lear has a battle, which the French lose, Lear and Cordelia are sent off to be executed, Goneril kills Regan and then herself, Edgar kills Edmund, they try to save Lear and Cordelia before the execution but are too late, Lear himself has murdered the executioner with his bear hands after Cordelia was hung, but she is already dead, and then he dies from old age and the weight of events. The end.
Finally, Iago tries to have his unwitting toady kill Cassio, but fails, Othello decides to kill Desdemona and smothers her, her handmaiden Emilia, who is also Iago's wife, then explains that Othello's supposed evidence is all wrong since Iago used her to help unwittingly plant it, Iago stabs Emilia and she dies, Othello stabs Iago, both are placed under arrest, but Othello kills himself rather than be put on trial, while Iago is drug off to be tortured and executed. The end.
These are obviously tragedies for a reason. But things are resolved. In an adventure you're likely to have a final battle of some kind to stop the villain. You can spend the fifth act with scenes setting up and then performing that finale. As you can tell from the plays above, sometimes you have a lot to resolve. In King Lear for example, both the wicked sisters need to die, the English army wins, but the side of good still needs to prevail, so Edgar kills Edmund and the Duke of Albany demands Lear and Cordelia be saved from execution since they were taken without his approval. It isn't enough, both Cordelia and Lear then die before the end. Not only does the battle happen but the English have to sort themselves out, and King Lear must find his end.
So you may need the PCs to resolve some lesser matters even after the fourth act if they only make sense being finished now. But each scene in the fifth act should lead clearly and inexorably toward that final challenge.
To reuse our examples, the heroic knights reveal the evidence against the Court Magician and break his control on the King, leading to a spectacular knight vs. wizard fight. The detectives get the appropriate evidence to Scotland Yard and other high ranking characters, before chasing the head villain through London and finally catching him after a dangerous fistfight on the rooftop of Parliament. And lastly, the Jedi knights reveal the identity and wrong-doings of the Sith Lord before the Planetary Council, only to have him turn all wrinkly and come at them with a red lightsaber! (And, yes, I realize all my examples have actually been the exact same story with a different setting smeared across the top, but it's a good example!) That's how to handle your fifth act.
An Epic Summary ConclusionSo let's see if we can take that entire breakdown and make it quicker to read. It's my own little Freytag summary, except for me and not him:
Act 1: Exposit the existing conflicts and nature of the world in our story. Introduce all the characters and then provide some turn in the story which leads the inciting incident.
Act 2: Show off the immediate consequences of the inciting incident, watch as the characters figure out what they want to do next, or enjoy the fruition of their past planning.
Act 3: Now that a new normal was presented in the last act, see how people respond to it. Characters change because of what they've done, or they resolve to take action because they don't like how things are playing out. The act ends with a third act climax, the main character figures out what he's going to do now to end things.
Act 4: Resolve lesser plots and set-up the ending. Make sure everything is in place, and get unnecessary stuff out of the way. Also if you're writing a play, get the main character offstage, they need a break.
Act 5: The ending. Play out the final events as the main character follows their commitment in the third act climax to its eventual conclusion. If you're writing a tragedy try to kill everybody, except for a few side characters to drag the bodies off the stage.
And there you have it. How to write five act stories. Well, kind of.
The Five Act RPG AdventureOkay, now lets have one little bit at the end to apply what we've learned and see how we can make it into a cool adventure with swords and laser guns and portals to other dimensions!
I apologize in advanced if I use some jargon and concepts that I haven't fully fleshed out here, or which you have to read the entirety of my Kickstarter page and take notes to understand. I shall try to explain things quickly but completely.
I think the five act structure will provide a good alternative to the modular adventure, the long kind of adventure that plays out in self-contained acts one after the other (see Masks of Nyarlathotep, Beyond the Mountains of Madness, or Horror on the Orient Express from Call of Cthulhu for examples). It's the three act structure expanded to greater dramatic depth and also gametime. The three act uses a first act with event scenes that provide some set-up to the story and ends with an inciting incident, a second act with challenge scenes that block our heroes from getting to their ultimate objective too easily, and a third act where they reach that ultimate objective and overcome the final challenge to get it.
Now in the five act structure we've got a similar first act, a second act that uses challenges which the heroes must overcome and more events which just present things and information, a third act which does that again but with more intensity, and then two final acts, one for the small resolutions, and the last act for the big resolution. Which is a vague outline, but let's see if we can't get more specific with an example adventure.
I'll stick with Call of Cthulhu as my setting for this example, it handles big adventures quite well obviously. So just spitballing here, let's assume we're in Arkham during the 1920s and one of the ranking members of The Order of the Silver Twilight decides the cult's latest scheme is just too evil, and that the leaders are playing with forces they do not comprehend. This defecting cultist has already been accosted by a private detective due to his suspected involvement in a murder actually performed by the cult. This first meeting is obviously hostile, but the detective has made friends with a local professor who knows a lot about the supernatural, a local nun who has collected evidence the devil is at work in Arkham, and let's just say a professional boxer who owns a lot of shotguns. Since this cultist is having a change of heart, he decides to find this detective again before his own cult brothers quietly eliminate him and bury him on the Unvisited Isle.
That's our first act. Maybe the turncoat cultist is an NPC, or maybe the GM finds a player who is game to perform the role, even though it's a little pre-scripted. We can have scenes about the characters meeting, scenes of the cultist finding out about the Order's newest evil plans and seeing they don't make sense for the continuation of humanity, and some random events that just take place around Arkham, so we can meet NPCs, find out the police are no help, that the diner is a good meeting place, and so on. Then we end the act with the cultist coming to the detective himself, explaining what's going on and having the detective agree to help, however skeptical he is of the man's claims. All that would come off the first act chart and creation set-up that I already have for first acts in the Adventure Creator.
The second act may be about the cultist proving his outlandish claims, maybe that's one of the challenges, he needs to break into the Lodge and steal some magical artifact which will blow everyone's mind. Or steal some journals which reveal that they really do operate this secret cult. And then maybe have the rest of the characters sneak into position so they can witness some terrible rite the Order does somewhere outside of Arkham. And they can also have more event scenes and more scenes run by the characters. They happen into some scamps who break the detective's car window with a slingshot, and the detective's overly hasty attempt to turn the cultists into the police after what he's seen causes him to be thrown out of the station and told to leave town or face the consequences from the officers tired of dealing with him. The sum of the act is that the cultist is now working with the PC group, and by the end of it his resolution to get them on his side has led them to see all manner of supernatural horror and they actually believe him.
Now we contend with this new situation in the third act. The PCs are all heavily motivated to stop this evil cult. But a good GM will throw in a few twists. No sooner do the PCs take the initiative than the cultist is outed as a traitor. Now they are all on the run, and some of the most powerful men in Arkham have it in their interest to see all the PCs murdered as quickly as possible. Whether the cultist is captured or stays alive might depend if you found someone to play him, but let's assume you did, maybe the other characters have to rescue him before the cult is through interrogating him and drives him to Innsmouth to throw in the outgoing current. The PCs now face several challenges in order to survive, perhaps we can dispense with event scenes entirely, all the action is about the main plot with no time for diversions. So they all have to hide from the cult, hide from the police, save their cultist friend, secure food and shotgun shells from the friendly NPCs they know, and maybe even break into the office of a head cultist so they can find out enough specifics on their secret plot in order to actually stop it. When they do, we have the third act climax, the PCs will need to get out of town by finding a ride, and head upstate to the Pit of Shoggoths where the evil ritual is to take place.
In the fourth act they resolve lesser plots, the detective knocks out a local mob tough who was threatening the diner owner, the nun gets the scamps to help them steal a car by creating a distraction, and they manage to slip into the local magic shop on the way out of town to get what they'll need to prevent the ritual. A combination of lesser final challenges and some preparatory work.
Events are now running downhill, the PCs get to the ritual location, going in on foot so they aren't seen, maybe they have to knock out a few guards so they don't raise an alarm before they get there. Then the cultist throws on a robe and tries to slip in close enough to throw some eye of elder thing into the summoning portal to Azathoth, stopping the ritual, all before a big shotgun battle resolves everything. The nun gets eaten by a shoggoth, but the boxer knocks it out with a right hook and pulls her out of the gelatinous mess before she takes any wounds, then they blast damage away the cult leadership in just a few rounds and run for it.
Add in a denouement where they all decide to leave town before they are killed in revenge and you've got a got yourself a real five act adventure! It probably need some more polish to get it ready for the book, but that's the gist of it.