Plotting in 5 Acts

(or How to Get Your Readers to Binge-Read Your Story)


It’s the end of the day and you’re curled up on the couch (stretchy pants on) binge-watching a show. Just before the break your favourite character gets shot (or fired, or kissed)!  You need to watch just a little bit more. Before you know it, you’ve watched the entire episode… or season.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

What is it that keeps you absorbed and watching? Simple. Television shows are designed that way. Scripts are purposefully structured to draw you in to the story and to keep you watching.

As an author, you want your readers to be so engrossed they can’t put your book down – to binge-read your story. Designing a short story in 5 acts, like a television show, engages and captivates your readers.

The 5-act structure is effective because it focuses each act on a component in the story and assigns every act a percentage of total word count. This paces the story naturally by distributing twists in the most effective position in the story arc. By purposefully calculating act length, breaks, twists, and cliff-hangers, you can lay out the blueprint of a compelling, binge-worthy read.


The 5-act structure (plus teaser) is as follows:

The Teaser – Hint At The Coming Conflict – 6%

This optional “mini-act” sets up your story and catches the reader’s attention. It introduces the main character and hints at the coming conflict, drawing the reader in. It is helpful to write the Teaser last of all the acts.

There are two popular strategies in writing an effective teaser:

1. Jump ahead in the story to reveal a snapshot of the final struggle. Use the point where all seems lost, before the protagonist succeeds.

2. Have the protagonist encounter a mini conflict or obstacle that hints at or parallels the final conflict. Introduce a flaw in the protagonist that could potentially hinder their success.

Example:

Agent Newbie of the FBI concentrates on the exposed wires of a ticking bomb. As the countdown nears zero, she freezes, unable to decide which wire to cut. The countdown ends, but there is no explosion. It’s a practice bomb, and Newbie has failed the training.


Act 1 – Introduce Your Characters and Present the Problem – 22%

Image by Gunter Ladzik from Pixabay

Introduce your characters and the world they live in. Lay the foundation (emotionally and physically) that will bring the characters to the point of conflict or to a new situation. Show any necessary flaws or traits that will factor in the final conflict.

Close the act with a twist that presents the main problem or struggle of the story.

Example:

Agent Newbie settles in to her new job with her partner and mentor, Agent Olddog. They work well together. Newbie has potential but is often reminded of her training blunder. Olddog encourages her to overcome her indecision.

Newbie’s first major case comes in – multiple bomb threats.


Act 2 – Escalate the Problem – 22%

Image by ar130405 from Pixabay

The problem is in full swing. Things get worse as the problem escalates, but it looks as if everything will work out. There is still hope or a chance of winning, until…

Close the act with a twist that squashes hope and reveals that the protagonist may not succeed.

Example:

Newbie and Olddog investigate the threat of three bombs. The first bomb is located, the area evacuated and the elite bomb squad disarms the bomb. The partners discover the second bomb in another location and begin evacuations. New clues lead Newbie closer to catching the bomber. The bomb squad attempts to disarm the second bomb, but it is a trap.

There is a mole in the FBI.


Act 3 – Worst Case Scenario – 16%

This is the center of the story where things start to peak. Our protagonist takes a turn for the worst (or for the most exciting) causing the reader to become emotionally engaged in the story. The worst thing that can happen is happening and the bad guys are winning. The hope the protagonist had previously is proven false causing her to reach her lowest point.

Close the act with a twist, or change of directions for the story. Hope returns.

Example:

The bomb explodes killing the squad. With the investigation at a dead end, Newbie is devastated and emotionally drained. Newbie and Olddog disagree about the investigation and part ways. Newbie is all on her own – no elite squad, no partner.

By following a hunch Newbie uncovers a new trail of clues leading her closer than ever to the bomber.


Act 4 – The Ticking Clock – 18%

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Against all odds the protagonist begins to prevail, but time is running out. She learns from her mistakes and applies that new knowledge to the conflict. The characters reveal themselves for who they really are and secrets come out. The reader feels closer to the protagonist. The moment occurs that pushes the protagonist toward action.

Close the act with a significant hook or cliffhanger that leads to…

Example:

Racing through the streets, Newbie follows the clues to the third bomb, but the countdown has already begun. There is no time left, she must defuse the bomb alone. With great effort, she overcomes her hesitation and cuts the wire. Nothing happens. The bomb is a decoy. Frantic she searches for the real bomb but instead is confronted by the bomber – the FBI mole: Agent Olddog.

Act 5 – The Moment Of Victory – 16%

Image by azboomer from Pixabay

Also called The Finale or Final Battle. The protagonist finally overcomes the struggle, winning the conflict. The reader and characters receive closure.

Example:

Betrayed, Newbie faces Agent Olddog. They battle and because of what she learned from him, Newbie ultimately downs her mentor. She discovers the real bomb, disarming it at the last second. Olddog is detained, and Newbie has grown. She has overcome her flaws to become an exceptional agent.


Now stop binge-watching and go write something to binge-read!

Word Total (100%)Optional Teaser (6%)Act 1 (22%)Act 2 (22%)Act 3 (16%)Act 4 (18%)Act 5 (16%)
15,0009003,3003,3002,4002,7002,400
50,0003,00011,00011,0008,0009,0008,000
80,0004,80017,60017,60012,80014,40012,800
*Example breakdown of words per Act

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