Hook: Bilbo is eleventy-one! But he feels "scraped thin."
First Act: Frodo learns about the power of the Ring and decides to leave the Shire.
First Plot Point: Frodo leaves the Shire?
Second Act A: The Old Forest, Tom Bombadil and the Barrow-Downs
-- Midpoint: Meeting with Strider?
Second Act B: The journey to Weathertop
Third Plot Point: Frodo is stabbed by a Ringwraith on Weathertop
Climax: The confrontation at the Ford
Resolution/impetus into next book: The Council of Elrond: Frodo is appointed Ringbearer. (Strictly speaking, this comes at the beginning of Book 2, but Book 1 finishes on a cliffhanger
Hook: The Fellowship is setting off with a duty laid upon them
First Act/: Travel south and attempt on Caradhras
First Plot Point: Decision to travel by Moria
Second Act A: Epicness in Moria
-- Midpoint: Gandalf falls
Second Act B: Idyll in Lorien
Third Plot Point: Starting down the River Anduin
Climax: Boromir falls
Resolution/impetus into next book: Merry and Pippin taken captive; Frodo and Sam set off alone
Hook: The hobbits have been captured! But first, a funeral.
First Act: Journeying through Rohan
First Plot Point: Gandalf's back!
Second Act A: Edoras/Fangorn
-- Midpoint: Theoden is awoken/March of the Ents?
Second Act B: Helm's Deep
Third Plot Point: Gandalf's back again! Victory at Helm's Deep!
Climax: Confrontation with Saruman at Isengard
Resolution/impetus into next book: Pippin looks into the Palantir and sees Mordor move against Minas Tirith.
Hook: Gollum's back!
First Act: Frodo and Sam travel to Mordor
First Plot Point: The Black Gate Is Shut
Second Act A: Journey through Ithilien
-- Midpoint: Faramir rejects the Ring
Second Act B: Journey to Cirith Ungol
Third Plot Point: Gollum almost-but-doesn't repent
Climax: Shelob's Lair
Resolution/impetus into next book: Frodo is alive but taken by the Enemy.
Hook: THE DARK LORD IS ATTACKING, EVERYONE PANIC
First Act: Gandalf and Pippin travel to Minas Tirith and meet with Denethor.
First Plot Point: Aragorn takes the Paths of the Dead
Second Act A: The siege of Minas Tirith
-- Midpoint: PELENNOR FIELDS
Second Act B: The Houses of Healing
Third Plot Point: Aragorn determines to go to the Black Gate
Climax: The Black Gate Opens
Resolution/impetus into next book: The Eagles are coming!
Hook: Frodo's captive!
First Act: "...there's a big Elf or hero running around..."
First Plot Point: Rescue of Frodo
Second Act A: Struggle through Mordor
-- Midpoint: MOUNT DOOM
Second Act B: Resolution in Gondor and Rohan
Third Plot Point: The hobbits return home...to a lot of orc-rules and nothing to smoke or drink.
Climax: The Scouring of the Shire and the death of Saruman
Resolution: "I will not say, Do not weep..." *everyone bursts into tears*
Again, I'm not positive I have everything mapped out correctly here. However, the first thing that struck me about these smaller "micro-plot" structures is how differently they're structured to how I expected. True, each of them begins with a slow build to a more thrilling later section. Each of them, except for the last, ends on a progressively more exciting cliffhanger. But here's the thing that stunned me:
The real climax of each Book does NOT occur in Act 3.
But wait! Didn't I specifically label part of each third act - the Scouring of the Shire, for instance, or Shelob's Lair - as a climax? Well, yeah. I'm just mapping 3-act structure onto what Tolkien's got. But what Tolkien's got here doesn't match up perfectly with what KM Weiland's got. If you define a story's climax as the most thrilling, gripping, and memorable segment of a plot - a classic setpiece, like the journey through Moria, or the Battle of the Pelennor Fields - then the truth is that with few exceptions, the climax of each of Tolkien's micro-plots occurs squarely at the midpoint of each Book.
Ooohh, I thought. Now where have I seen that before?
And it struck me: this is five-act structure.
And I began to get excited, because I'd never before been really sure how five-act structure was meant to work. And now suddenly it was happening before my eyes.
Three-act structure is the structure we're most familiar with these days. To recap, reduced to its most simple components, the first act of a three-act structure sets the scene, introduces the characters, and defines the conflict that they will have to overcome for the rest of the book. The second act, taking up roughly 50% of the runtime or wordcount, introduces plot complications which the characters must overcome as they work toward a resolution of the conflict. This second act usually sets up a catastrophic reverse (if the story is meant to end happily) or a victory (if the story is meant to end sadly). Last, the third act showcases a final climactic struggle and a brief resolution.
KM Weiland's three-act structure is a somewhat fleshed-out version of this. But I'd also heard of five-act structure. I knew Shakespeare used it. I had an inkling it was a somewhat more classical approach (it was based on Roman playwrights like Seneca), so I immediately suspected Tolkien was using it here.
Five-act structure is enjoying a bit of a resurgence right now, especially championed by internet pundits who think it represents a revolutionary new/old approach to plotting, but I'm not so convinced. Five-act structure actually maps pretty well on top of three-act structure. The five acts of this structure are commonly labelled Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution, as you see in the diagram above. Exposition corresponds to the First Act of three-act structure; Resolution or Denouement corresponds to the Third Act; and the other three--Rising Action, Climax, and Falling Action--all describe stages of the Second Act, with the Climax mapping onto the Midpoint.
So if five-act structure and three-act structure are simply different ways of describing the same thing, what's the difference? Well...I think there can be a difference of emphasis. If you think in terms of three-act structure, I think you'll wind up expecting to save all your thunder for the third act. Say you have a climactic battle to include in your story, in three-act structure you'll tend to postpone it till the third act. Whereas if you think in terms of five-act structure, the natural place to slot it in will be at the midpoint, and you won't stay up late at night trying to come up with some even more climactic final confrontation. In practical terms, five-act structure means that I no longer have to fit an epic battle scene into the last act, the last 25% of the plot, and then somehow provide a satisfying denouement on top of that. Instead, like Tolkien, I can showcase the battle at the centre and then spend the rest of the plot tying up loose ends, dealing with fallout, fleshing out the resolution, and so on. A final climactic scene - technically known as the Catastrophe - or an ultimate resolution of the conflict, such as the Scouring of the Shire, or the deaths at the end of a Shakespeare tragedy, may occur, but the writer is freed from the obligation of saving the very best for last.
But what would this plot look like in the hands of a storyteller wedded to three-act structure? The answer is pretty simple actually - you just have to watch the Peter Jackson movie version of the same book. Because audiences don't expect the climactic battle to finish a bit over halfway through, Jackson pruned Tolkien's five acts into three for The Two Towers, padding the storyline leading up to Helm's Deep and cutting much of the Isengard material after. The result works just fine and is among the least of Jackson's cinematic sins, but it does mean that Saruman's storyline is barely resolved.
Now oddly enough, although the micro-plots of LOTR seem to fit best into a five-act structure, the macro-plot itself fits more naturally into what I'd call a three-act structure. The midpoint of the macro-plot, the Breaking of the Fellowship, is neither a set-piece nor a turning-point on the same scale as the Mount Doom chapter. Definitely the climax occurs near the end. This makes sense - in a book this long, you need to save the most compelling thing for last. Five-act structure, on the other hand, is a terrific way to structure the smaller internal plots which make up the plot elements of the bigger story.
So that's how The Lord of the Rings combines three-act and five-act structure to build tension in steady waves to its thrilling finish. It's a wonderfully elegant structure, for all its complexity, and having picked apart why it works, I feel excited and confident about using what I've learned on my own project!
Disclaimer: I have not, by a long shot, explained everything there is to know about five-act plotting in this short post. After having my interest whetted through analysing the LOTR microplots, I actually sat down and spent a whole day analysing four Shakespeare plays and trying to figure out how he used five-act plotting. Not only was it a fair bit different to how Tolkien used it, I discovered all sorts of fascinating nuances. Perhaps another blog series is warranted...!