Rethinking Shakespeare’s 5-act Structure

For most of my twelve years teaching high school English, I’ve taught a lesson on the 5-act structure of Shakespeare’s plays.

 

I even put it in a book.

 

But I don’t think any of it is right.

 

Two weeks ago, as we waited in a church pew for our oldest son’s preschool graduation ceremony to begin, my wife, Liz, and I got into a debate about the climax of Hamlet, said debate beginning with my above-repeated admission that what I’ve been saying to students about Shakespeare’s 5-act structure I no longer believe to be true.

 

What I’ve been saying—off and on for twelve years—and what I also included in a chapter on Taming of the Shrew in our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (co-written by Liz and me; she wrote the Hamlet chapter), is that Shakespeare’s 5-act structure can be roughly mapped onto the familiar plot diagram as follows:

 

Act I = Exposition

Act II = Rising Action/Complications

Act III = Climax

Act IV = Falling Action

Act V = Resolution/Denouement

 

I, of course, am not the first nor the only teacher to teach this. It all started with Gustav Freytag, a 19th-century German novelist and playwright, who diagrammed the five story parts above (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution) using a triangle, now known as Freytag’s Pyramid, which looks like this:

 

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As an example, Freytag mapped the 5-act structure of a Shakespeare play onto his pyramid (said mapping making its way from Freytag through generations of teachers and teacher resources to me, around twelve years ago, and on to my students, some of whom now teach, and into an additional teacher resource, co-written by me).

 

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The last couple of times that, out of habit, I drew the above diagram on my whiteboard, I knew there was something wrong with it.

 

This was perhaps because it did not square at all with the diagram I had been drawing for students during my short fiction unit.

 

About halfway through my teaching career, I figured out that Freytag’s Pyramid, as shown above, is problematic when applied to fiction writing, particularly short stories, and particularly when trying to help students draft well-plotted short stories.

 

I started drawing this, instead:

 

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The biggest difference between Freytag’s diagram and this one is the latter’s lack of symmetry (reason to follow).

 

A similarity is that they both begin and end with a flat line.

 

The flat line on the left-hand side represents the ground situation (I also discovered, about halfway through my teaching career, that I’d been teaching exposition wrong, telling students that it’s the part of the story in which the author introduces the setting, the characters, and the conflict. All of that is true, but what is more helpful to students who are drafting stories is to tell them that the exposition has two vital components: the ground situation [the state of things, often teeming with potential conflict, before the conflict is incited] and the inciting incident [just what it sounds like: an incident, often but not always the addition of a character, that incites the conflict and sends the previously flat-lined diagram angling upward]).

 

The flat line on the right-hand side represents the new state of affairs after the conflict has been resolved and the knot unraveled.

 

This post-denouement state of affairs does not/should not/cannot return to the same state of affairs represented by the ground situation. A change must have occurred, otherwise no story has been told, hence the lack of symmetry in the latter triangle (this is not original; it is a modification to Freytag’s triangle suggested by John Barth in his metafictive story, “Lost in the Funhouse” [and probably elsewhere, too, by others]).

 

The other big difference between the two triangles is the elimination, in the latter, of the falling action, one discovering when studying (or simply consuming) stories that the resolution often comes on the heels of the climax (another reason for the lack of symmetry: there is usually much more story before the climax than there is after it).

 

What I like to say to students about the above-drawn diagram is that it is a formula that allows for infinite variations. It is inexhaustible. And it is.

 

I said the same thing to a roomful of teachers at February’s CATE Conference, where Liz and I were leading a workshop on teaching contemporary short fiction.

 

After I had said the above and had used one too many Pixar movies as an illustration, a participant, as a sort of friendly challenge, asked if we could apply the same structure to “The Flowers” by Alice Walker (a one-page story describing a single incident), which we had earlier in the workshop read on the lookout for concrete details.

 

I wasn’t prepared for such a challenge, nor had I previously attempted the suggested application, but the clever teachers in the room quickly discovered, despite all of the differences between “The Flowers” and Finding Nemo, that the structure did indeed fit both. Perfectly.

 

So, then: Shakespeare.

 

Liz’s and my church pew debate came at the end of a week in which I had listened to dozens of high school juniors, during their oral examinations, explain that the Mousetrap (Hamlet’s play-within-the-play, manufactured to reveal Claudius’s guilt) is the climax of the play.

 

When, in our pew, I asked Liz what the climax of the play is, she answered that it is the Closet Scene, particularly Hamlet killing Polonius.

 

The students’ reasons were fuzzy (for many, they were unstated altogether; the reason that was the climax was that their English teacher had said so).

 

Liz’s reasoning, on the other hand, was fully- and well-articulated (she is brilliant in many many things, but particularly astute when discussing Hamlet): that, to poorly paraphrase, by killing Polonius (believing he is killing Claudius) Hamlet demonstrates the resolution that, two acts later, allows for resolution.

 

Both the students’ and Liz’s proposed climaxes occur in Act III (scenes 2 and 4, respectively) and therefore fit the Freytag map of Shakespeare’s 5-act structure.

 

Freytag supposedly leaned heavily on Aristotle, but it is precisely the lessons in Poetics that lead me to question Freytag and my own previous teaching.

 

Aristotle says that the Complication (what we often call the Rising Action) is a causal sequence of story events (or scenes) in which, scene to scene, the stakes (and thereby drama) increase and increase until we arrive at the climax (which Aristotle describes as a reversal in fortune [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).

 

After this final reversal, Aristotle says, there is nothing but the unraveling.

 

How, then, can this causal sequence reach its peak in Act III, with two acts to go?

 

From our pew, I argued that the climax of Hamlet is the duel in Act V. It all builds to that. Hamlet dies (final reversal), after which there is only the unraveling (Fortinbras takes over, honors Hamlet, etc.).

 

Freytag, those juniors, and Liz are right about one thing, though: Act III is climactic.

 

That is because each act has a climax (or reversal, or turn [bad to good, good to bad, etc.]).

 

Aristotle says that lengthier works need at least three turns to keep the audience interested (Walker’s one-page “The Flowers” needs only one), hence the three-act structure often found in movies and plays and novels (most of the novels I’ve taught are divided into three parts, or three books, or their number of chapters is divisible by three).

 

When we map this 3-act structure onto our modified triangle, it looks like this:

 

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Three turns, probably alternating (good to bad to good, bad to good to bad, etc.).

 

Shakespeare’s structure is similar, but with more acts. Five turns, each building toward the final reversal in Act V:

 

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So, right or wrong, the above is my new way of drawing Shakespeare’s 5-act structure. It makes sense to me. At least for now.

 

In our pew, after the third time I said, “Aristotle says,” Liz said that John Green says that Aristotle got almost everything wrong. I was about to say something in response, but the ceremony began.

CATE Conference 2018

A few weeks ago, Liz and I flew down to San Diego for our second CATE (California Association of Teachers of English) Conference.

 

Last year, the conference was in Santa Clara (a not-too-long drive for us), and we gave a presentation based on a chapter of our book, Method to the Madness. The presentation was titled, Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature (which is also our book’s subtitle).

 

This year, our presentation was based on another chapter of the book and was titled, Contemporary Short Fiction: the Key to Unlocking Potential and Leveling the Playing Field for Students of All Ability Levels (long title). We had given a longer version of the presentation to Tracy Unified School District in January.

 

The presentation began with the rationale for building curriculum centered on quality literature (fiction, poetry, drama, creative nonfiction). There was (still is?) a misconception that Common Core equals less literature in the English classroom and more “informational” reading. This, of course, is a misunderstanding that the framers of the standards have addressed: “Said plainly, stories, drama, poetry, and other literature account for the majority of reading that students will do in the high school ELA classroom. […]The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature — that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA.” (David Coleman & Susan Pimental)

 

Next, Liz gave her pitch for using contemporary short stories in the English classroom, particularly as an opening unit, such stories being accessible to a variety of students (including those with attendance issues). These high-quality stories can be taught in a single class period (or two), and they offer students the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of voices while allowing the teacher the opportunity to establish (or remediate) essential skills.

 

We had prepared to use three short stories—Sticks by George Saunders, The Flowers by Amy Walker, and How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes) by Lorrie Moore—but we only got through the first two.

 

Each of those stories (Sticks and The Flowers) fits onto a single page, but each story is very meaty. We asked our participants to read and annotate each story, and, despite (as mentioned) each story being only one page, they each led to a wide-ranging academic discussion of the significant choices being made by the author.

 

(Note: all of the above was great, great, great, and a lot of fun, because our participants were so great, and also because Liz is so great at this.)

 

We ended with a discussion of narrative structure (the traditional plot curve, which is sometimes incorrectly perceived as a restraint to creativity and voice [a view I once embarrassingly held] but that instead allows for infinite variation).

 

We were getting short of our time, there were several slides to go, and I was sort of floundering, describing the plots of Pixar movies. Liz would later say that when I gave a third such example, she knew I was in trouble.

 

But a participant saved me by asking if, when learning about this narrative structure, which is so obvious in Pixar movies, students can apply the elements (ground situation, inciting incident, conflict, complications, climax, resolution) to something like The Flowers, which is so short and describes a single event.

 

This was exactly where, despite all floundering, we were supposed to be headed, and, as a group, we tried it. It turns out, despite being only one page and describing only one incident, The Flowers “fits” the narrative structure perfectly (infinite variation).

 

So, we modeled lessons on two one-page short stories (Sticks, by the way, Liz describes as the only “magic bullet” for English teachers: a two-paragraph story that students always like and always have so much to say about). Each story is accessible to a variety of students, and each story provides the opportunity for critical reading, critical thinking, analytical writing, and academic discussion.

 

Several people came up at the end to buy books (which was very nice), and a few told us that it was the best presentation they had been to all weekend (but maybe they say that to all the presenters).

This is What Happens When Two English Teachers Raise a Child

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN TWO ENGLISH TEACHERS RAISE A CHILD:

 

4-year-old, to preschool teacher, upon arrival Monday morning:  “I have a Macbeth speech.”

 

Preschool teacher: “What?”

 

4-year-old: “I have a Macbeth speech.”

 

Preschool teacher: “You have a Macbeth speech?”

 

4-year-old: “Yes.”

 

Preschool teacher: “Can I hear it?”

 

4-year-old: “When shall we thwee meet again,/In thwunder, lightning, ow in wain,/When the huwly-buwly’s done,/When the battle’s lost and won!

 

FIVE MINUTES LATER:

 

Mom, in reference to sunflower plants sprouting from small pots: “Can you tell me about these?”

 

4-year-old: “Oh. That’s science.” [Walks away]

 

CATE Conference 2017: Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature

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Two Fridays ago (February 17th),  Liz and I attended the California Association of Teachers of English (CATE) Conference in Santa Monica, CA, where we led a workshop on creating critical thinkers through the study of literature.

We had a group of 25-30 English teachers from around the state, all of whom were very nice and very engaged (and a bunch of them bought our book, which was super nice).

[We also had a really really great time! And we would have stayed the whole weekend but, you know…babysitters and kids and all that {thanks, by the way, to Liz’s mom, Ellen, for watching our kids}. And we really really want to thank the people behind the CATE Conference for having us! It was great! Thank you!]

The workshop was based on our book, Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature, and began with the rationale for using quality literature to meet the common core standards (and that common core in the English classroom does not mean more informational texts and less imaginative literature). Our premise is that by building units around quality works of fiction, drama, poetry, and creative nonfiction, you can meet all of the common core literacy standards (including the informational text standards).

We then moved on to an activity for introducing close reading (or critical reading) in the classroom. The purpose of the activity (which can be found in Chapter 2 of Method to the Madness) is to help students…

…recognize and identify significant choices made by an author

…analyze and evaluate the effects of those choices (that’s the “So what?”)

…use the appropriate academic language (literary terms) when discussing those choices

…prepare a text for analysis by annotating it.

The activity also helps students recognize that literary terms work together–specifically, in this case, diction and imagery combine to create a particular mood, or atmosphere.

Our next activity was centered on a short story by George Saunders (whose first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was recently released). The story is titled “Sticks”. It’s just a two-paragraph story, but there’s a lot packed into those two paragraphs. The story was included in Saunders’ 2013 collection, Tenth of December, but “Sticks” is actually an older story that was first published in 1995.

Here’s a picture of Liz reading the story in the workshop:

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Liz and I have been using “Sticks” in the classroom for about a decade. It’s a great teaching tool precisely because it is so short while being so meaty.

For the workshop, we read the story aloud and then put the participants into groups of four. The groups had five minutes to annotate the story and identify as many literary techniques and devices as they could (they were also given a list of these).

At the end of the five minutes, each group was given a piece of poster paper, on which they were instructed to write a statement about the story. The statement had to make a declarative claim and also had to incorporate at least one literary term.

Each group then shared their statement and supported it using specific evidence from their annotated story.

After the workshop, we had a short autograph session, and we got to browse around the exhibition hall for a while (and also pick up swag).

At the KQED booth, we got a selfie stick (I never thought I would ever own a selfie stick) plus a free tutorial on how to use said selfie stick.

Here’re two photos, one demonstrating my selfie abilities pre-stick, and one post-stick (and post-stick tutorial [hey, I just realized: sticks is a motif in this blog post]):

We were supposed to then post the picture on the right on social media with the hashtag on that card. But we’re getting old, and it was already a big day.

Married Couple Abandons Parenting for 3 Months to Write Book

Potential headlines for this story:

Married couple writes book.

 Married couple writes book in only 3 months.

 Married couple abandons parenting for 3 months to write book (ultimate winner).

Married couple surprised by how little they come to hate one another while writing book in only 3 months.

Married couple, as side effect of co-writing book in 3 months, becomes those people at Starbucks with all their computers and cords and stuff and about whom you wonder Don’t they have a home?

Parents of infant and toddler who placed ad in search of parents found at local Starbucks, indexing.

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post titled, Things that Have Happened Since the Last Time I Posted on My Blog, in which I singled out five things:

Thing #1: I quit blogging.

Thing #2: I had a second kid.

Thing #3: I (we) took first kid and second kid to Disneyland. Twice.

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife.

Things #5: I was informed I have high cholesterol.

 

In that last post, I went into more detail about Thing #1 and Thing #2. This is Part 2 of that post and will be about Thing #4, skipping Thing #3 for the time being, just because.

 

Thing #4: I wrote a book with my wife

A full explanation of the book’s intent and the impetus behind it is explained here.

So we (Liz and I) had this idea for a book. We’re both high school English teachers, and it’s a book about teaching high school English.

The idea started out as a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five, the idea later expanding to a book about teaching Slaughterhouse Five as well as half-a-dozen other books we like to teach.

We batted it around for six months or so, getting serious enough from time to time to draft some chapters and eventually reaching the point at which we began to think about the possibility of submitting it, at which point we learned about book proposals.

So we spent (spent should be precisely defined here as referring to no more than ten to fifteen minutes every few days scratched [into? out of?] an at-home schedule dominated by parenting and grading and Netflix) the next six piecing together a book proposal, which included a query letter and an overview and an annotated table of contents and market research (I say included market research not actually knowing by any degree what market research is and therefore whether or not what we did is it but anyway we analyzed who/what our market is and other books for which the market is the same and how our book was/was not similar and etc.) and a sample chapter.

We sent the proposal out to a handful of education publishers, from which we received rejections, some of which were non-form and encouraging, before finally hearing from a very nice acquisitions editor at Rowman and Littlefield named Sarah (in fact, R&L had been suggested to us by one of our previous non-form and encouraging rejecters).

Sarah asked for some additional materials and some revisions to the sample chapter and then needed to take the proposal to the editorial board. A few days later, she wrote back with an acceptance. We were delighted.

Here’s the said-sarcastically-fun part. Sarah’s acceptance came on July 23rd of 2015. In the same email, Sarah expressed that it would be an advantage for the book—though it would not yet be published—to have an ISBN number and be promotable at the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) conference that November, and for that reason Sarah wanted to know if we could submit to her the final manuscript by early September (this would later be extended to the first of October).

Now, at that point (July 23rd), we had the sample chapter and a couple of other very rough and incomplete chapters, all amounting to less than fifty pages.

We also, at that point, had a nearly-three-year-old and a nearly-three-month-old, as well as full-time jobs: me teaching and Liz at home with the kids, Liz having taken leave from that upcoming school year. I also had a part-time teaching job some evenings and Liz also was working on her Master’s degree.

But I had this memory from grad school of one of the faculty members, a novelist who also wrote screenplays, giving the advice, said advice delivered within an anecdote about a screenplay, that the answer is always, Yes! Like, for example, if “they” ask you if you happen to have any stories/manuscripts/screenplays/whatever about bla bla bla, you always answer Yes, and then go write a story/manuscript/screenplay/whatever about bla bla bla, and it was with this anecdote with its embedded advice that I convinced Liz that despite the apparent impossibility of pulling it off we should just say Yes!

So we did.

For the several months that would later follow the book’s release, when people would ask something along the lines of How’d you do it, I would repeatedly give the same jokey answer: “We just quit parenting for 3 months and did it.”

But we didn’t really quit parenting or abandon our children–Liz in fact clutched our three-month-old and declared that we could not let this affect our time with the kids–though we did for a time parent them less.

We wrote early in the morning. We wrote at night after bedtime. And for a rather large chunk of each of about twelve consecutive Sundays we got a babysitter and went to our local Starbucks.

 

Things you notice when you spend 10 or more hours per month at your local Starbucks:

  • Much like Walmart, people will wear almost anything to Starbucks.
  • In any span of several hours at the local Starbucks, a lot of people come and a lot of people go, but the four or five people who remain through all of those hours are pretty much the same four or five people who are also there week after week.
  • If you are one of those four or five people, location is everything, and the ideal location depends upon your purpose. For some, it’s those comfy chairs. For us, it was a balance of table space and access to a power outlet.
  • Though you may not start out there, if you stay at the local Starbucks long enough and if you’re willing to repeatedly pack up all of your stuff and move, you will eventually get your ideal spot.
  • If there are two of you, and you each have a laptop and papers and books, you may very likely need to initially split up, but you will eventually (see above) reunite.
  • Starbucks food seems wholesome and even kind of high-end. And you get the impression that they (Starbucks) don’t even really see it as food people would regularly eat, like at McDonald’s, but food people get to go with their coffee or food people need because they’re starving after waiting in line so long for coffee. It seems more like premium food.

But it’s not. In reality, it’s food taken out of a plastic package and put in a microwave, which is what you get when you eat at a gas station (which I happen to know a lot about), except at the gas station you do the microwaving yourself, and when you eat enough re-heated Chicken Artichoke on Ancient Grain Flatbreads, they just start to taste like gas station food.

My first book took three years to write. All the same things happened with this book—frantic drafting with the recurrent thought that nothing that I am typing right now can ever be in a book in fact it’s so awful it can never ever be seen by anyone ever; never-ending laborious revisions such that one reads the same chapters and the same pages and the same paragraphs and sentences over and over and over again; that feeling that when this is over I never want to read or see or even think about this book ever ever again in fact I’m never going to do anything difficult with my free time again just Netflix and ice cream from now on. All the same stuff, just this time crammed into 3 months.

But it all worked out. We finished. On time. And the people we need to thank are: Sarah; our babysitter, Lizzie; our two readers, Susan and Ellen. And of course our kids, for getting along without us for a while.