Dramatic Structure

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Dramatic structure is the structure of a dramatic work such as a play or film. Many scholars have analyzed dramatic structure, beginning with Aristotle in his ‘Poetics’ (c. 335 BCE). In ‘Poetics,’ Aristotle put forth the idea that ‘A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.’ This three-part view of a plot structure (with a beginning, middle, and end – technically, the protasis, epitasis, and catastrophe) prevailed until the Roman drama critic Horace advocated a 5-act structure in his ‘Ars Poetica.’ After falling into disuse, renaissance dramatists revived the use of the 5-act structure.

Gustav Freytag’s analysis of ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama is canonical. Although Freytag’s description of dramatic structure is based on five-act plays, it can be applied (sometimes in a modified manner) to short stories and novels as well. Nonetheless it does not always translate well, especially in modern plays such as Alfred Uhry’s ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ which is actually divided into 25 scenes without concrete acts.

In 1863, around the time that playwrights like Henrik Ibsen were abandoning the 5-act structure and experimenting with 3 and 4-act plays, the German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag wrote ‘Die Technik des Dramas,’ a definitive study of the 5-act dramatic structure, in which he laid out what has come to be known as Freytag’s pyramid. Under Freytag’s pyramid, the plot of a story consists of five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and revelation/catastrophe/dénouement.

The exposition provides the background information needed to properly understand the story, such as the problem in the beginning of the story.

During rising action, the basic internal conflict is complicated by the introduction of related secondary conflicts, including various obstacles that frustrate the protagonist’s attempt to reach his goal. Secondary conflicts can include adversaries of lesser importance than the story’s antagonist, who may work with the antagonist or separately, by and for themselves or actions unknown.

The third act is that of the climax, or turning point, which marks a change, for the better or the worse, in the protagonist’s affairs. If the story is a comedy, things will have gone badly for the protagonist up to this point; now, the tide, so to speak, will turn, and things will begin to go well for him or her. If the story is a tragedy, the opposite state of affairs will ensue, with things going from good to bad for the protagonist. Simply put, this is where the main part happens or the most dramatic part.

During the falling action, which is the moment of reversal after the climax, the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist. The falling action might contain a moment of final suspense, during which the final outcome of the conflict is in doubt. The falling action is that part of the story in which the main part (the climax) has finished and you’re heading to the resolution.

The dénouement comprises events between the falling action and the actual ending scene of the drama or narrative and thus serves as the conclusion of the story. Conflicts are resolved, creating normality for the characters and a sense of catharsis, or release of tension and anxiety, for the reader. Etymologically, the French word dénouement is derived from the Old French word ‘denoer,’ ‘to untie,’ and from ‘nodus,’ Latin for ‘knot.’ Simply put, dénouement is the unraveling or untying of the complexities of a plot.

The comedy ends with a dénouement (a conclusion) in which the protagonist is better off than at the story’s outset. The tragedy ends with a catastrophe in which the protagonist is worse off than at the beginning of the narrative. Exemplary of a comic dénouement is the final scene of Shakespeare’s comedy ‘As You Like It,’ in which couples marry, an evildoer repents, two disguised characters are revealed for all to see, and a ruler is restored to power. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the dénouement is usually the death of one or more characters.

More modern works may have no dénouement, because of a quick or surprise ending. On the other hand, an example of a modern work with a particularly elaborate dénouement is ‘The Lord of the Rings.’

A specific exposition stage is criticized by Lajos Egri in ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing.’ He states, ‘exposition itself is part of the whole play, and not simply a fixture to be used at the beginning and then discarded.’ According to Egri, the actions of a character reveal who they are, and exposition should come about naturally. The beginning of the play should therefore begin with the initial conflict.

Contemporary dramas increasingly use the fall to increase the relative height of the climax and dramatic impact (melodrama). The protagonist reaches up but falls and succumbs to their doubts, fears, and limitations. Arguably, the negative climax occurs when they have an epiphany and encounter their greatest fear or lose something important. This loss gives them the courage to take on another obstacle. This confrontation becomes the classic climax.

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