The Five-Act Structure

We're delving into the world of Gustav Freytag with this one, but first some background:

The three-act structure of Aristotle dominated literary form until Horace started seeing the world in five acts.

Think about that for a minute.  Aristotle was born in Greece in 384 BC and Horace, a Roman, wrote his Ars Poetica around 18 BC.  We're talking about a big span of time. It's far too easy to condense timelines for things that happened a long time ago.

Now, because this isn't a history of literature from start to finish, jump way ahead with me to the Renaissance (from 1500 to 1642 when Puritans closed theaters).  Renaissance dramatists loved the five-act structure.  Think Shakespeare and Marlowe.  Most of us are familiar with the five-act structure.

Then 19th-century dramatists like Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen started getting adventurous again. (Yes, I did just include this picture of Ibsen because he looks awesome.  Of course I did.)

Ibsen and others started experimenting with the 3-act structure--and even (gasp!) the four-act structure.  What was the world coming to?

Enter Gustav Freytag, a German novelist and playwright, who reacted against this new trend.  In his literary criticism, Freytag explains how the five-act structure works.  From Freytag, we get the pyramid we are so often made to memorize in middle school:

But here's the big question:

How well does Freytag's Pyramid work for structuring our own novels today?

John Randall says, "No real story-teller follows Freytag's Pyramid in any sort of literal way," and yet just last year I attended a writing conference where the speaker talked at length about how essential it is to use Freytag to structure a good story.

The bottom line for me?  If it helps you, use it.  If not, don't stress about it.  Writing is more art than recipe.


  1. [...] Harness walks us through the five-act structure, while Kristen Lamb talks about how genre affects [...]


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