Two Act Structure

The story is neatly divided into two parts. The first part will be lighthearted and straightforward compared to the second, which will wrap things up in a realistic mixed-bag sort of way. This structure is most common in musicals. It comes in two flavors: the rise-and-fall variety, which has everything on the up-and-up in the first act and, in the second act, shoots it all to hell; and the parallel variety, where the darker, more intricate and realistic second act makes some sort of point about the first act.

Often, the dark turn will be heralded by the last moments of the first act. A sizable period of time between the two acts is also commonplace.

There must be a change in tone for this trope to apply. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, for instance, divides its two acts at a good stopping place in a continuous progression, nothing more, and so this trope doesn't apply to it.


Rise And Fall

  • Titanic (1997) (VHS edition): the first cassette ends with the crash and Mr. Andrews' pronouncement of doom.
  • Scarface (1983): Act One is about Tony Montana's rise to the top of the Miami underworld, while Act Two is how everything goes straight to hell.

  • This is in Animorphs with the secretive guerrilla war, and then the final story arc.
  • This accurately describes the entire Harry Potter series, with the turning point being Goblet of Fire where Voldemort is reborn and suddenly Any One Can Die. Fittingly, A Very Potter Musical has the act break right in that very spot, and while it remains a light-hearted parody, the characters still feel like they're going through hell.

Live-Action TV
  • The television show Skins keeps the same cast for two seasons before starting over with a completely new cast and story; each "generation," as they are called, tends to roughly follow the Rise and Fall pattern, with a somewhat simpler, sunnier first season followed by a Darker and Edgier second season where things start falling apart.
  • Stargate shows split their seasons into two parts, often having some kind of cliffhanger or game-changer before the intermission.
  • Many a U.S. Sitcom up until the 1990s used a two act structure, with a plot twist at the commercial break and a second act where the Zany Scheme fell apart, restoring the status quo.

  • The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
  • Camelot; for that matter, the Arthurian mythos and all works based on its whole.
  • Fiddler on the Roof, with the Cossacks' invasion of the wedding as the turning point.
  • Wicked. Act One details the college years of Elphaba and Galinda at Shiz University and shows the growth of the girls' friendship. The second act, opening several months after the close of the first is comparatively darker, as the darker side of Ozian politics becomes apparent, as several characters experience the sometimes horrific consequences of permanent magic, and as each of the two leads deals with the repercussions of the decisions that she made during "Defying Gravity": Elphaba is defamed throughout Oz as a wicked witch and watches all of her good intentions backfire until her Heroic BSOD in "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished", and Glinda, obliged to go along with the Wizard and Madam Morrible's propaganda against her best friend, finds, deconstructing her celebrated position, that her happy ending is not at all what she expected it to be.
  • Avenue Q: Both halves are funny, but by the end of Act 1 most of the characters have fundamentally screwed up somehow; Act 2 focuses on them realising what they've done wrong and making amends.
  • Paint Your Wagon
  • Shakespeare's tragedies tend to go this route, particularly Romeo and Juliet. The first part, taking up Acts 1 and 2 and the first half of Act 3, is your basic tragicomic affair, but the second part, after Tybalt kills Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt in vengeance, is where it all really goes to hell.
    • Also applies to West Side Story, with the Rumble occurring right before intermission.
  • Ragtime: Where Act 1 is an endearing tribute to the pratfalls and triumphs of the oughts (with an against-all-odds love story to boot), Act 2 begins with the prescient child-narrator dreaming about (soon to occur) explosions and with Coalhouse firing a rifle indiscriminately from a clocktower.
  • Jeff Wayne's The War of the Worlds; Act I describes the conquest of Earth by the Martians, and Act II its aftermath.
  • Jesus Christ Superstar: The break comes between Judas' betrayal of Jesus and the Last Supper. It's all dark, but the second act is darker than the first.
  • In Little Shop of Horrors, the first act ends after Orin's death-the first point at which Seymour really kills.
  • Merrily We Roll Along purposely inverts this trope; since the plot runs backwards, Act I is where Frank's life has already gone to hell, whilst Act II is sees him becoming younger and thus more promising and optimistic.
  • Into the Woods wraps up its massive Fairy Tale Crossover as neat and tidy as a military-school bunkroom in the first act, and then goes into the repercussions of everyone's means of getting their happy endings with a far-less-defined sense of what to do, brought home by killing the Narrator.


Anime and Manga
  • Much like Into the Woods, the anime Princess Tutu, the first season has dark moments, but is overall a happy Magical Girl romp through fairy tale tropes with a ballet twist. The season even ends in a way that makes it seem like the ending of a typical fairytale, with Mytho and Princess Tutu dancing happily together after their victory against Princess Kraehe. The second season, however, seems more like a deconstruction of a fairytale, with Mytho being poisoned by Raven's blood and becoming a villain, character's motivations being questioned and dark backstories revealed. Edel's Catch Phrase—"May those who follow their fate find happiness, may those who defy it be granted glory"—takes on a whole new meaning when looking at the two seasons of the show.

Films — Animated
  • The first half ofBambi involves Bambi growing up and meeting the inhabitants of the forest, until his mother is killed by hunters and he is taken off to be raised by his father. The second half involves an adult Bambi protecting the animals from a wildfire set off by the hunters, ultimately becoming Prince of the Forest. The 2006 midquel takes place between the two acts.
  • The Lion King has been called "Bambi in Africa" due to it's similar structure (the first half being the protagonist's childhood and how he loses a parent, the second being about his adulthood).

Films — Live-Action
  • The Princess Bride, with the turning point being Westley's capture.
  • Life is Beautiful. First half, light-hearted romantic-comedy. Second half, heartbreaking tragi-comedy set in a concentration camp.
  • Akira Kurosawa was quite fond of this trope:
    • Ikiru. The first half focuses on the protagonist, Watanabe, grappling with his terminal cancer diagnosis. The second half takes place at Watanabe's wake, where we learn of the good he did during his final months.
    • High And Low. The first act is about ransoming with a kidnapper. The second act is about finding the kidnapper and bringing him to justice.
  • Melancholia is divided into two chapters, of which the second one is more gloomy.
  • The narrative of Mulholland Dr. breaks down into two distinct parts.
  • He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not starts off light-hearted, but turns scary after the Plot Twist.
  • Full Metal Jacket. The first half takes place at boot camp. The second half takes place on the actual battlefield.


  • The Fantasticks has its two acts explore the difference between forbidden love and real love.
  • RENT, complete with a shift in storytelling pace (the first act takes place in a single night, and the second act takes an entire year).
  • A Madhouse in Goa by Martin Sherman.
  • Dreamgirls. The first act is about the girls' rise to stardom and subsequent challenges, and ends with Effie being kicked out of the group as her replacement is brought in. The second act opens 8 years later. Deena and Curtis are married, and Effie is a single mom on welfare with Curtis' child, and decides to give a shot at a solo career.
  • Waiting for Godot subverts this by having the second act be more or less the same as the first, without much difference in tone. Hence the reviewer who said that it is "a play in which nothing happens, twice."
  • Spring Awakening is a curious case since although most of the tragedy happens in Act II, the real shift in storytelling is actually in the middle of Act I, right around where Moritz flunks and Melchior and Wendla's romance takes a serious turn. However the two acts do complement each other nicely as Act I is about sex (i.e. life) and Act II is about death.
  • Sunday In The Park With George. Act I ends with the completion of Georges Seurat's most famous painting; Act II picks up after a Time Skip of nearly a century and explores the 20th century artistic struggles of Georges's Identical Grandson.
  • Heathen Valley has a very optimistic ending to act one, where everything seems to be going right. Then act two starts up with tenser undercurrents, leading to the end.
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory strikes this structure and reverses it in one aspect: Act Two is darker than the first, but it's also far more fanciful. The first act is set in the ordinary world and follows the Golden Ticket search and the five children who find said tickets to the titular factory. Charlie — the only nice kid of the bunch, poor though he is — seems to have the least chance of winning the mysterious secret super-prize come tour's end, as the other four are Spoiled Brats who each have it made. That's when they and the audience are introduced to the reclusive owner/creator of the factory, who is dazzling, hammy, eccentric, and...well, a touch the Act One finale. The Black Comedy bubbling its way through Act One explodes in Act Two as the tour group travels through a wonderland that dishes out the Laser-Guided Karma the "real" world didn't — the brats meet dreadful fates for their misbehavior and Charlie winds up getting a joyous Happily Ever After. (Also has a shift in storytelling pace in that Act One unfolds over a few months and Act Two takes place over a single day.)
  • The Lion King: The first half of the movie is about Simba's childhood and Scar's plot to become King. Act 1 with Hakuna Matata and the reveal of Adult Simba. The second half is adult Simba coming to terms with his guilt and grief and deciding to reclaim his throne from Scar.