Narrative Analysis: The Basics
The Five-Act Structure is a dramatic structure that divides the narrative into five distinct acts, each with its own unique tension and momentum. It dates back over two-thousand years to the poet Horace, who first wrote in Ars Poetica that: “No play should be longer or shorter than five acts.”1 Over the years, the Five-Act Structure has been studied and refined, most notably by the 19th-century German playwright Gustav Freytag. Freytag named each of the five acts—Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution—then mapped them onto a triangular graph that has come to be known as Freytag’s Pyramid. The lines represent the relative rise and fall of tension in each act, and together they show the narrative arc as a whole.
As seen in Freytag’s Pyramid, the Five-Act Structure emphasizes the middle act as the height of dramatic tension. This is a noteworthy departure from the classic Three-Act Structure, which emphasizes the final act as the dramatic peak. According to John Yorke, author of ‘Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story’, the midpoint is the height of tension because it is where the protagonist’s fortunes are reversed. “[It] marks the point of no return for the protagonists,” he states; “[It’s] the end of the outward journey to find their ‘solution’ and the beginning of their journey back.”2 Yorke’s use of the term ‘journey’ is intentional, as it ties the Five-Act structure back to a to another well-known dramatic structure, the Hero’s Journey. In doing so, he reveals the relationship between the common dramatic structures, showing that they are all different ways to break down the same stories. In Yorke’s words, this is a “…roadmap of change, one that charts a growing knowledge of a protagonist’s flaws; their gradual acceptance, further doubt and final total rebirth.”3
Like the Hero’s Journey and the Three-Act Structure, the Five-Act Structure can be used for both writing and analyzing video game narratives. The stories that conform best to the Five-Act Structure are the ones with strong midpoints, as the structure emphasizes the reversal of fortune in the middle of the story. Konami’s Silent Hill 2 is a perfect example, as the midpoint hinges on a character reveal that throws the protagonist’s world into upheaval. Using that reveal as a guidepost, the entire story of Silent Hill 2 can be broken down to illustrate the Five Acts: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Resolution.￼
1 Horace. Ars Poetica (sec. 1926). Loeb Classics.
2 Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (p. 59). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.
3 Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (p. 50). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Run: SHN Survival Horror Network. “Silent Hill 2 Enhanced Edition | 4K 60fps | Longplay Walkthrough Gameplay No Commentary.” Youtube, 2019.
** Reference Script: DestaV. Silent Hill 2 – Full Game Script. IGN, 2002.