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Structures of a Play

Plays first originated in ancient Greece. Aristotle was one of the first to write about drama and describe its three segments: beginning, middle, and end. Over time, dramas evolved, the Roman poet, Horace advocated for five acts, and many centuries later, a German playwright, Gustav Freytag, developed the five-act structure commonly used today to analyze classical and Shakespearean dramas. The pattern of this five-act structure can be seen in the familiar plot diagram:



The Three Act Structure

Aristotle believed that every piece of poetry or drama must have a beginning, middle and end. These divisions were developed by the Roman, Aelius Donatus, and called Protasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe. The three-act structure has seen a revival in recent years, as cinema blockbusters and hit TV shows have adopted it.


The Five Act Structure

The five act structure expands the classical divisions and can be overlaid on a traditional plot diagram, as it follows the same five parts. Shakespearean plays especially are known for following this structure.

In the illustration above, the narrative arc of the Plot Diagram is between the Five Act Structure (top) and Aristotle’s divisions (bottom).


Format of a Five Act Structure

Act 1: The Exposition

Here, the audience learns the setting (Time/Place), characters are developed, and a conflict is introduced.


Act 2: Rising Action

The action of this act leads the audience to the climax. It is common for complications to arise, or for the protagonist to encounter obstacles.


Act 3: The Climax

This is the turning point of the play. The climax is characterized by the highest amount of suspense.


Act 4: Falling Action

The opposite of Rising Action, in the Falling Action the story is coming to an end, and any unknown details or plot twists are revealed and wrapped up.


Act 5: Denouement or Resolution

This is the final outcome of the drama. Here the authors tone about his or her subject matter is revealed, and sometimes a moral or lesson is learned.


Examples of the Five Act Structure with Shakespeare's Plays

Romeo and Juliet


Create a Five Act Storyboard*

Act 1: The Exposition

  • Setting: Verona Italy, 16th or 17th century
  • Characters: Capulets and Montagues, specifically, Romeo and Juliet
  • Conflict: The Montagues and Capulets are feuding

Act 2: Rising Action

  • Romeo and Juliet fall in love but cannot be together because their families do not like each other. They decide to get married in secret. ​

Act 3: The Climax

  • After crashing the Capulet party, Tybalt goes after the Montague crew and kills Mercutio.
  • To avenge his friend, Romeo duels with and kills Tybalt - Juliet's cousin.
  • Romeo is banished, but before he goes he gives Juliet a proper wedding night!

Act 4: Falling Action

  • Juliet’s parents arrange a marriage for her to Paris.
  • She and the Friar have an elaborate plan to get her out of a second marriage by faking her death. Part of this plan is that Romeo will receive a letter saying she’s not dead.
  • Romeo - never having received the letter - thinks Juliet has died (see our article on dramatic irony).
  • Romeo buys poison and goes to her tomb to commit suicide.

Act 5: Denouement or Resolution

  • Romeo confronts Paris at Juliet’s tomb, and slays him before taking his own life.
  • Juliet awakens from her sleeping potion to see Romeo has committed suicide.
  • She takes his dagger and kills herself.
  • The Friar and Nurse explain to the Capulet and Montague families that the two lovers were married in secret.
  • Both families are saddened by the situation, and vow to end their long-standing feud.

As You Like It


Create a Five Act Storyboard*

Act 1: The Exposition

  • Setting: France, the story starts in Duke Fredrick's court, however, the rest of the play is set in the Forest of Ardenne.
  • Characters: Duke Frederick, Duke Senior, Rosiland, Celia, Orlando, Oliver, Touchstone, and Jaques
  • Conflict: Duke Frederick has exiled his brother, Duke Senior, to the forest. His daughter, Rosiland is banished shortly thereafter. Orlando must escape the persecutions of his older brother, Oliver.

Act 2: Rising Action

  • Rosalind disguises herself as young man, Ganymede.
  • There is a great deal of mistaken identity in the forest, and many characters fall in love with people who do not love them.

Act 3: The Climax

  • Rosalind/Ganymede craftily arranges a set of promises to make sure everyone will get married, and no one will be disappointed.
  • Rosalind then reveals her true identity to the other characters.

Act 4: Falling Action

  • Orlando saves his brother from a lion, and the two are reconciled. Oliver falls in love with Aliena.
  • There is a giant wedding for all of the couples.

Act 5: Denouement or Resolution

  • All of the characters, except Frederick and Jacques, who become religious hermits, return to the dukedom.


Macbeth: “The Scottish Play”


Create a Five Act Storyboard*

Act 1: The Exposition

  • Setting: Scotland, at the end of a war
  • Characters: Macbeth and his friend Banquo are introduced.
  • Conflict: Three witches have brewed an evil plot involving Macbeth, and they tell him that he will be king!

Act 2: Rising Action

  • Macbeth and his wife kill the King and take the throne.
  • They go on a tyrannical killing spree. The action rises as the audience sees how ambitious Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have become.

Act 3: The Climax

  • Macbeth holds a banquet and sees the ghost of Banquo (who Macbeth had killed).
  • Lady Macbeth becomes mentally unstable, and the couple begins to fear the consequences of their murderous deeds.

Act 4: Falling Action

  • A rebellion is instigated by Macduff to restore the throne to Duncan's exiled son.
  • Macbeth learns another set of prophecies from the witches and begins to think he will be saved.

Act 5: Denouement or Resolution

  • The three witches’ predictions come true, and the castle is stormed. Macbeth is killed.

Common Core Standards

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.6.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.7.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text


  • ELA-Literacy.RL.6.5: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the theme, setting, or plot
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.7.5: Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.8.5: Compare and contrast the structure of two or more texts and analyze how the differing structure of each text contributes to its meaning and style
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5: Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact


  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.6: Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6: Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement)


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