An act is a major division of a theatre work, including a play, film, opera, ballet, or musical theatre, consisting of one or more scenes.[1][2] The term can either refer to a conscious division placed within a work by a playwright (usually itself made up of multiple scenes)[3] or a unit of analysis for dividing a dramatic work into sequences. The word act can also be used for major sections of other entertainment, such as variety shows, television programs, music hall performances, cabaret, and literature.

Acts and scenes

An act is a part of a play defined by elements such as rising action, climax, and resolution. A scene normally represents actions happening in one place at one time and is marked off from the next scene by a curtain, a blackout, or a brief emptying of the stage.[1]

The elements that create the plot of a play and divide it into acts include the exposition, which sets up the rest of the story by giving basic information. Another element is the inciting incident, which starts all the action that will follow. Going along with the inciting incident, the major dramatic question is formed, which holds the rest of the play. The majority of the play is made up of complications, which change the action. These complications lead to the crisis, which is the final plot point. At this point, the major dramatic question is usually answered. Finally, the play culminates with a resolution, or the dénouement, where everything comes together and the situation has been resolved.[4] These elements of the plot are the main things used to divide a play into acts and sometimes scenes. In some scenarios, the play may not end with a resolved situation; it may leave the audience on a peak and have a sequel to it, otherwise known as a cliffhanger.

Though there is no limit to the number of acts in a dramatic work, some may have been derived from different interpretations of Aristotle's Poetics, in which he stresses the primacy of plot over character and "an orderly arrangement of parts",[5] and others may have been derived from Freytag's Pyramid.[6]


Roman theatre was the first to divide plays into a number of acts separated by intervals. Acts may be further divided into scenes.[7] In classical theater, each regrouping between the entrances and exits of actors is a scene, while later use describes a change of setting.[citation needed]

Modern plays often have only one level of structure, which can be referred to as either scenes or acts at the whim of the writer, and some writers dispense with firm divisions entirely.[citation needed] Successive scenes are normally separated from each other in either time or place, but the division between acts has more to do with the overall dramatic structure of the piece. The end of an act often coincides with one or more characters making an important decision or having an important decision to make, a decision that has a profound impact on the story being told.[citation needed]

Contemporary theatre, in line with screenwriting and novel forms, tends towards a three-act structure. Many operettas and most musicals are divided into just two acts, so, in practice, the intermission is seen as dividing them, and the word act comes to be used for the two-halves of a show whether or not the script divides it into acts.


One-act plays

Main article: One-act play

A one-act play is a short drama that consists of only one act; the phrase is not used to describe a full-length play that does not utilize act-divisions. Unlike other plays which usually are published one play per book, one-act plays are often published in anthologies or collections.[8]

Three-act plays

See also: Three-act structure

In a three-act play, each act usually has a different mood. In the most commonly used structure, the first act has a lot of introductory elements (that is, who, what, when, where, why, and how); the second act is usually the darkest, with the antagonists having a greater compass; and the third act has a resolution (dénouement), often with the protagonists prevailing.

Five-act plays

Shakespeare's plays generally use a five-act structure.

Until the 18th century, most plays were divided into five acts. The work of William Shakespeare, for example, generally adheres to a five-act structure.[10] This format is known as the five-act play, and was famously analyzed by Gustav Freytag in Die Technik des Dramas (Dramatic techniques). The five acts played specific functions in the overall structure of the play similar to that of Freytag's pyramid.[11][12]

A similar five-part structure is also used in traditional Japanese Noh drama, particularly by Zeami Motokiyo. Zeami, in his work Sandō (The Three Paths), originally described a five-part (five dan) Noh play as the ideal form. It begins slowly and auspiciously in the first part (jo), building up the drama and tension in the second, third, and fourth parts (ha), with the greatest climax in the third dan, and rapidly concluding with a return to peace and auspiciousness in the fifth dan (kyū).[13]

Other media

As part of a television program, each individual act can be separated by commercials.

In film, a number of scenes grouped together create a story. The three-act structure is commonly referred to in film adaptations of theatrical plays.

See also


  1. ^ a b Baldick (2004)
  2. ^ Turco (1999)
  3. ^ Waters, Steve (2010). The Secret Life of Plays. London: Nick Hern Books. p. 32. ISBN 978-1-84842-000-7.
  4. ^ "Resolution". January 23, 2016. Archived from the original on August 19, 2020. Retrieved August 17, 2020.
  5. ^ "The Internet Classics Archive | Poetics by Aristotle". Archived from the original on February 26, 2017. Retrieved February 10, 2017.
  6. ^ Freytag, Gustav (1863). Die Technik des Dramas (in German). Archived from the original on January 16, 2009. Retrieved January 20, 2009.
  7. ^ Encyclopedia International. Encyclopedia International. Grolier. 1963. p. 46. Archived from the original on July 24, 2023. Retrieved August 23, 2020. ACT, major portion of a play. It may have one or more components, called scenes. It derives from the Roman theater, which was influenced by the earlier Greek theater's practice of separating sections of the ...
  8. ^ M., Dunn, Francis (1996). Tragedy's end : closure and innovation in Euripidean drama. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-508344-X. OCLC 896946798. Archived from the original on November 21, 2021. Retrieved August 9, 2021.((cite book)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ a b c Cannell, S. J. (n.d.). What is the three-act structure? [Lecture transcript].
  10. ^ Snuggs, Henry L. (1960). Shakespeare and Five Acts: studies in a dramatic convention. New York: Vantage Press.
  11. ^ Bunting, Joe (August 22, 2022). "Five Act Structure: Definition, Origin, Examples, and Whether You Should Use It In Your Writing". The Write Practice. Retrieved July 24, 2023.
  12. ^ Callaghan, Fija. "The Five-Act Structure: The Foundation of an Engaging Story". Scribophile. Retrieved July 24, 2023.
  13. ^ Quinn, Shelley Fenno (Spring 1993). "How to write a Noh play – Zeami's Sandō". Monumenta Nipponica. 48 (1): 58–62. doi:10.2307/2385466. JSTOR 2385466.

Further reading