Five-Act Structure, Part One
Narrative Analysis: The Basics
Act I: Exposition
Like Act I in the Three-Act Structure, Act I in the Five-Act Structure is meant to answer the audience’s essential questions: the who, when, where, what, and why of the narrative. This is the place to introduce the protagonist (who), the world (when and where), the problem (what), and the protagonist’s reason for solving the problem (why). In Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey into Story, author John Yorke describes this bridge between the set-up and the point of no return as the transition between ‘no knowledge, growing knowledge, and awakening.’1 At the beginning of Act I, the protagonist has no knowledge of the problem in their world; by the end of Act I, they know there is a problem, and they know it must be solved.
Silent Hill 2 begins by introducing its protagonist, a young man named James Sunderland. He’s parked at a highway overlook with a letter he received from his wife, Mary. In the letter, Mary says she’ll be waiting for James in their ‘special place’, but there’s a problem: Mary died three years ago. To figure out what’s going on, James is heading to that special place: the town of Silent Hill. Although this introductory sequence lasts a few minutes at most, it establishes all the key elements of an opening: the protagonist (James), the time and place (three years after Mary’s death, Silent Hill), the problem (Mary wants to meet in Silent Hill), and the reason for the protagonist to solve the problem (James never thought he’d be able to see Mary again). With all these details set up, the game has everything it needs to segue into Act Two: Rising Action.
Act II: Rising Action
Act II, Rising Action, is where the protagonist crosses the threshold into the new world, gaining allies and enemies in the process. This section roughly corresponds to the First Turning Point and the pre-Midpoint Obstacles in the Three-Act Structure, or the Seek step in Dan Harmon’s Story Circle. John Yorke classifies this Act as the transition between ‘doubt, overcoming reluctance, acceptance.’2 When Act II begins, the protagonist is unsure how to approach the problem presented in Act One. By the time Act II is over, the protagonist is has overcome those fears and accepts the path ahead.
In Silent Hill 2, James enters Silent Hill believing it to be a quiet resort town. His first indication that things are not as he remembers is when a thick fog stops his progress and he has to stop at a graveyard on the edge of town. Thankfully, a girl in the graveyard is willing to give him directions, but she urges him not to enter the town because it’s dangerous. This is James’s opportunity to turn back. Instead, he presses on, saying: “I guess I really don’t care if it’s dangerous or not. I’m going to town either way.” When asked why, he replies: “I’m looking for… someone[…]Someone… very important to me. I’d do anything if I could be with her again.” With this line, James makes it clear that he’s moving forward on his journey, no matter the cost. Even though he can still turn back physically, he has crossed the mental threshold and overcome his reluctance. All that’s left is for him to see Silent Hill for himself.
As James ventures into town, he meets other people in the fog: Eddie, an defensive teenager with a vomiting problem; Laura, a young girl who hates James on sight; and Angela, the young woman from the graveyard. Repeated encounters prove that each of these people knows more about the town than they’re letting on, and they’re all struggling with problems of their own. James also has his first encounter with the entity known as Pyramid Head, a semi-nude man with a pyramid-shaped helmet and a massive sword. Unlike the lost humans, Pyramid Head presents an immediate threat, forcing James to defend himself until a siren forces Pyramid Head’s retreat. This marks the first major obstacle that James has overcome. By fighting off Pyramid Head and establishing new contacts, James has seen what madness lies in Silent Hill and accepted it, paving the way for Act III: the Climax.
Act III: Climax
The term ‘Climax’ has been used in connection with a story’s final act so often that the two concepts have become synonymous. In the Five-Act Structure, Climax carries a slightly different meaning, as it refers to the height of dramatic tension. For those who prefer the Three-Act Structure, the idea that a story’s climax occurs at the midpoint can be hard to accept. To help, John Yorke explains it as: “…the point at which, in the ‘Hero’s Journey’, the protagonist enters the ‘enemy cave’ and steals the ‘elixir’; it is – in our paradigm – the moment of ‘big change.’ It isn’t necessarily the most dramatic moment, but it is a point of supreme significance.”3 In other words, the midpoint is considered the Climax because it is the essential turning point: the moment where the protagonist finds what they thought they were looking for, only to learn that their quest has just begun. In Yorke’s change paradigm, he labels this moment of understanding as the transition between ‘experimenting pre-knowledge, gaining key knowledge, and experimenting post-knowledge.’4 Like any turning point, the Climax contains a crossing that must be crossed, and that crossing makes up Act III.
In Silent Hill 2, the Climax centers around James’s meeting with Maria. Maria is a perfect doppelganger of Mary, James’s late wife, yet she claims not to know Mary and has little in common with her. Mary was quiet and restrained, choosing simpler clothing; Maria is brash and seductive, wearing clothing that shows her figure. The dichotomy is startling for James, given how eerie the resemblance is, but it helps James accept that Maria is not his Mary. His initial disbelief is the experimentation before knowledge; his acceptance is when he gains the key knowledge. This woman may look like Mary, but he still has searching to do.
James resolves to continue searching Silent Hill, and allows Maria to come along when she asks to join him. Their journey together represents James’s post-knowledge experimentation, as his understanding of his relationships with both Maria and Mary are continually challenged. When Laura reappears, claiming to have seen Mary less than a year ago, James begins to doubt his own recollection of Mary’s death. His perceptions of reality are further distorted when he loses track of Maria and finds himself in distorted parallel world. Reuniting with Maria in this new world brings him little comfort, as she’s furious that he abandoned her and seems to be getting ill. Although they’re able to talk things out, their reunion is short-lived, as Pyramid Head reappears and kills Maria in front of a helpless James. By experimenting with the knowledge of ‘new’ Mary, James has come to learn a harsh truth: she can be taken from him, just as the ‘old’ Mary was. With this knowledge, he is ready to enter Act IV: Falling Action.
1-2 Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (pp. 50-51). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.
3 Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (p. 58). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.
4 Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (pp. 50-51). 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.