How to Outline Your Story in 5 Acts

Let’s be honest: Shakespeare’s plays aren’t always easy to translate, even though they’re technically written in Modern English. Between the inverted syntax and obsolete words, it can sometimes feel like you’re reading a different language.

Despite that (and often because of it) Shakespeare’s writings are phenomenal. He wrote beautifully about the human condition, tackling any number of subjects that are as relevant today as they were centuries ago. Really, is it any wonder that there have been so many modern adaptations of his work? From tragic romance to witty comedic intrigues, his work is timeless, filled with strong, well-developed characters we can all relate to.

I didn’t like Shakespeare when I first started reading him, mostly because I was intimidated by the language he used. My attitude didn’t change until I had to read Macbeth for an English class in 2017 and learned to fully appreciate the complexity of his work. This inspired me in my own writing, particularly when it came to the way he structured his plays.

Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of outlines. I’ve used bullet points and Roman numerals, though those only worked for short stories or academic papers. I’ve attempted a basic three-part structure (catalyst-climax-ending), which was also too simplistic. Scene-by-scene or chapter-by-chapter? Those felt too rigid, something that couldn’t evolve with my story as it changed and grew.

The one outlining method that has worked? A five-act structure inspired by Shakespeare, which offers the perfect balance between rigidity and flexibility. It gives me the structure I need to avoid long, rambling drafts (well, not as rambling), yet it’s relaxed enough that I can fully explore my characters and plot.

Of course, writers have different needs, so what works for me might not work for you. If you’re feeling stuck, however, this method is definitely worth a try!

Act One: Exposition

In Act One, you’re setting up for the latter parts of your story. You’ll want to introduce your protagonist and other main characters, provide necessary background info, and establish a conflict or inciting event.

Act Two: Rising action

The key characters start reacting to the conflict you’ve established (internal and/or external) in the second act. Events start to build toward a climax – at this point, the protagonist makes a choice that changes the course of the story.

Act Three: Climax

The third act is called the climax. As the name implies, it is the release of tension that’s been building throughout the first two acts, the pivotal moment that determines your protagonist’s fate. There’s no turning back now – your character must rise to the challenge, deciding to confront whatever it is that stands in their way.

Act Four: Falling Action

After the climax comes the falling action, which is also known as act four. This is where your protagonist might start to doubt themselves due to unexpected obstacles or other complications. Will they ultimately triumph? Probably, though they’ll need to reckon with their own fears and shortcomings in order to do so.

In general, this is where the protagonist and antagonist have their final showdown and the protagonist wins. (Or not. That’s up to you!)

Act Five: Resolution

This is the final act, the point where the story winds down and reaches its inevitable conclusion. As the name suggests, this is the time to tie up loose threads and answer any remaining questions.

Speaking of questions, please leave a comment if you need any help with this format. Good luck with your outlining!

Author: Katherine

Katherine is a moderator and blogger at Story Scribes. She spends her free time trying out different creative interests such as baking cakes, playing piano, and writing. She is currently writing a series about dragons that doesn’t want to end.

4 thoughts on “How to Outline Your Story in 5 Acts”

  1. Totally agree with Dee! I’m definitely a “pantser” rather than a “plotter,” but I appreciate things like this because sometimes I wish I could have a little more of the “plotter” mentality.

  2. Great article! Am reading Macbeth now for the first time: AMAAAAAZINNG! Seriously awesome! And I like this structure as well; I’m making notes on how Shakespeare builds the tension throughout as I read. Well done, Kate.

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