Dramatic structure is the structure of a dramatic work such as a book, play, or film. There are different kinds of dramatic structures worldwide which have been hypothesized by critics, writers and scholars alike over time. This article covers the range of dramatic structures from around the world. How the acts are structured, what the center of the story is supposed to be about widely varies by region and time period.
Africa and African Diaspora
The structure is: 1. Tell Riddles to test the audience.
2. Audience becomes a chorus and comments on the story.
Usually there is a ritual ending.
A story structure commonly found in West Africa told by Griot storytellers, who tells their stories orally. Famous stories from this tradition include Anansi folktales. This storytelling type had influence on later African American, Creole, and Caribbean African diaspora stories.
The story structure is as follows:
- Opening formula-includes jokes and riddles to engage audience participation Story telling events, done seriously.
- the body/expository section- narration of the tale, setting up the characters and the events, defining the conflict.
- the conclusive formula- closure of the story and the moral.
The central driver of the story is memory.
Indigenous Peoples of America and Latin America
Robleto is a story form that originates from Nicaragua. It’s named after Robert Robleto, though the structure is much older than him and discovered by Cheryl Diermyer, and outsider in 2010. It’s mostly under in the farming community. It is made of:
- Line of Repetition
Harawi is an ancient traditional genre of Andean music and also indigenous lyric poetry. Harawi was widespread in the Inca Empire and now is especially common in countries that were part of it, mainly: Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia. Typically, harawi is a moody, soulful slow and melodic song or tune played on the quena (flute). The words of harawi speak of love (often unrequited), plight of ordinary peasant, privations of orphans, etc. Melodies are mainly in minor pentatonic scale.
This is a story type that starts with a dream. It was invented in the Ming Dynasty and exported to Korea. The structure deals with mainly a character either reflecting on their life or telling another dead character about their life. It often reflects regret from the characters about their life choices and helps them to either move on or accept their reality.
East Asian 4-act
This dramatic structure started out as a Chinese poetry style called qǐ chéng zhuǎn hé (起承转合) and then was exported to Korea as gi seung jeon gyeol (Hangul: 기승전결; Hanja: 起承轉結) and Japan as Kishotenketsu (起承転結). Each country has adapted their own take on the original structure. It is notable as one of the story structures that emphasizes no conflict.
The eight-legged essay (Chinese: 八股文; pinyin: bāgǔwén; lit. 'eight bone text') was a style of essay in imperial examinations during the Ming and Qing dynasties in China. The eight-legged essay was needed for those test takers in these civil service tests to show their merits for government service, often focusing on Confucian thought and knowledge of the Four Books and Five Classics, in relation to governmental ideals. Test takers could not write in innovative or creative ways, but needed to conform to the standards of the eight-legged essay. Various skills were examined, including the ability to write coherently and to display basic logic. In certain times, the candidates were expected to spontaneously compose poetry upon a set theme, whose value was also sometimes questioned, or eliminated as part of the test material. This was a major argument in favor of the eight-legged essay, arguing that it were better to eliminate creative art in favor of prosaic literacy. In the history of Chinese literature, the eight-legged essay is often said to have caused China's "cultural stagnation and economic backwardness" in the 19th century.
Jo-ha-kyū (序破急) is a concept of modulation and movement applied in a wide variety of traditional Japanese arts. Roughly translated to "beginning, break, rapid", it essentially means that all actions or efforts should begin slowly, speed up, and then end swiftly. This concept is applied to elements of the Japanese tea ceremony, to kendō and other martial arts, to dramatic structure in the traditional theatre, and to the traditional collaborative linked verse forms renga and renku (haikai no renga).
The concept originated in gagaku court music, specifically in the ways in which elements of the music could be distinguished and described. Though eventually incorporated into a number of disciplines, it was most famously adapted, and thoroughly analysed and discussed by the great Noh playwright Zeami, who viewed it as a universal concept applying to the patterns of movement of all things.
Karagöz (literally Blackeye in Turkish) and Hacivat (shortened in time from "Hacı İvaz" meaning "İvaz the Pilgrim", and also sometimes written as Hacivad) are the lead characters of the traditional Turkish shadow play, popularized during the Ottoman period and then spread to most nation states of the Ottoman Empire. It is most prominent in Turkey, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Adjara (autonomous republic of Georgia). In Greece, Karagöz is known by his local name Karagiozis; in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he is known by his local name Karađoz.
Karagöz plays are structured in four parts:
- Mukaddime: Introduction. Hacivat sings a semai (different at each performance), recites a prayer, and indicates that he is looking for his friend Karagöz, whom he beckons to the scene with a speech that always ends "Yar bana bir eğlence" ("Oh, for some amusement"). Karagöz enters from the opposite side.
- Muhavere: dialogue between Karagöz and Hacivat
- Fasil: main plot
- Bitiş: Conclusion, always a short argument between Karagöz and Hacivat, always ending with Hacivat yelling at Karagöz that he has "ruined" whatever matter was at hand and has "brought the curtain down," and Karagöz replying "May my transgressions be forgiven."
Ta'zieh or Ta'zïye or Ta'zīya or Tazīa or Ta'ziyeh (Arabic: تعزية, Persian: تعزیه, Urdu: تعزیہ) means comfort, condolence or expression of grief. It comes from roots aza (عزو and عزى) which means mourning.
Depending on the region, time, occasion, religion, etc. the word can signify different cultural meanings and practices:
- In Persian cultural reference it is categorized as Condolence Theater or Passion Play inspired by a historical and religious event, the tragic death of Hussein, symbolizing epic spirit and resistance.
- In South Asia and in the Caribbean it refers specifically to the Miniature Mausoleums (imitations of the mausolems of Karbala, generally made of coloured paper and bamboo) used in ritual processions held in the month of Muharram.
Ta'zieh, primarily known from the Persian tradition, is a shi'ite Muslim ritual that reenacts the death of Hussein (the Islamic prophet Muhammad's grandson) and his male children and companions in a brutal massacre on the plains of Karbala, Iraq in the year 680 AD. His death was the result of a power struggle in the decision of control of the Muslim community (called the caliph) after the death of Muhammad.
Europe and the European Diaspora
In his Poetics, a theory about tragedies, the Greek philosopher Aristotle put forth the idea the play should imitate a single whole action. "A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end" (1450b27). He split the play into two acts: complication and denouement. He mainly used Sophicles to make his argument about the proper dramatic structure of a play.
Two types of scenes are of special interest: the reversal, which throws the action in a new direction, and the recognition, meaning the protagonist has an important revelation. Reversals should happen as a necessary and probable cause of what happened before, which implies that turning points need to be properly set up. He ranked the order of importance of the play to be: Chorus, Events, Diction, Character, Spectacle. And that all plays should be able to be performed from memory, long and easy to understand. He was against character-centric plots stating “The Unity of a Plot does not consist, as some suppose, in its having one man as its subject.” He was against episodic plots. He held that discovery should be the high point of the play and that the action should teach a moral that is reenforced by pity, fear and suffering. The spectacle, not the characters themselves would give rise to the emotions. The stage should also be split into “Prologue, Episode, Exode, and a choral portion, distinguished into Parode and Stasimon...“
Unlike later, he held that the morality was the center of the play and what made it great. Unlike popular belief, he did not come up with the three act structure popularly known.
The Roman drama critic Horace advocated a 5-act structure in his Ars Poetica: "Neue minor neu sit quinto productior actu fabula" (lines 189–190) ("A play should not be shorter or longer than five acts"). He also argued for a Chorus, "The Chorus should play an actor’s part, energetically," and the center of the play should be morality as Aristotle did.
"It should favour the good, and give friendly advice, Guide those who are angered, encourage those fearful Of sinning: praise the humble table’s food, sound laws And justice, and peace with her wide-open gates: It should hide secrets, and pray and entreat the gods That the proud lose their luck, and the wretched regain it."
He did not specify the contents of the acts.
The fourth-century Roman grammarian Aelius Donatus in his criticism of Terence's plays Adelphoe and Hecyra in the book Aeli Donati qvod fertvr Commentvm Terenti: Accendvnt Evgravphi Volume 2 and in his review of Terence's Play Andria in P. Terentii Afri comoediae sex used the terms prologue (prologus), protasis, epistasis and catastropha. He often uses the original Greek letters, but does not define these as specific acts, but as parts of the play as having different emotional qualities.
For example for Terence's play Adelphoe he comments, "in hac prologus aliquanto lenior indictur; magis etiam in se purgando quam in aduersariis laendendis est occupatus. πρόγαδις turbulenta est. ὲπίτασις clamosa, lenior χαταστροφή. quarum partium rationem diligentus in proincipio proposuimus, cum de comoedia quaedam dicremus." which roughly translates to, "In this the prologue is somewhat milder; he is more engaged in clearing himself than in injuring his opponents. Protasis is turbulent. The epitasis is loud and gentler catastropha."
He further adds that Hecyra, "In hac prologus est et multiples et rhectoricus nimis propterea quod saepe exclsa haec comoedia diligentissima defensione indigebat. atque in hac πρόγαδις turbulenta est, ὲπίτασις mollior, lenis χαταστροφή." which roughly translate to, "In this the prologue is both multiple and overly rhetorical, because oftentimes this comedy is excluded because it needs a very careful defense. And in this the protasis is turbulent, the milder the epithasis, the softer the catastropha."
However, he also argues that Latins have a five act chorus, which distinguishes Latins from Greeks, "hoc etiam ut cetera huiusmodi poemata quinque actus habaeat necesse est choris diusos a Graecis poetis." which roughly translates to, "In order to have other poems of this kind, it is necessary to have five acts of choruses, distinguished from the Greek poets." making it fairly clear that though he used the Greek for these divisions of play, he did not think of them as part of the overall act structure.
No definitive translation of this work has been made into English.
Shakespeare did not invent the five-act structure. The five-act structure was made by Freytag, in which he used Shakespeare as an example. There are no writings from Shakespeare on how he intended his plays to be. There is some thought that people imposed the act structure after his death. During his lifetime, the four-act structure was also popular and used in plays such as Fortunae Ludibrium sive Bellisarius. Freytag made claims in his book that Shakespeare should have used his 5 act structure, but it did not exist at the time period of Shakespeare.
The German playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag wrote Die Technik des Dramas, a definitive study of the five-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 (originally called introduction)
- Return or Fall
- Catastrophe, denouement, resolution, or revelation or "rising and sinking". Freytag is indifferent as to which of the contending parties justice favors; in both groups, good and evil, power and weakness, are mingled.
A drama is then divided into five parts, or acts, which some refer to as a dramatic arc: introduction, rise, climax, return or fall, and catastrophe. Freytag extends the five parts with three moments or crises: the exciting force, the tragic force, and the force of the final suspense. The exciting force leads to the rise, the tragic force leads to the return or fall, and the force of the final suspense leads to the catastrophe. Freytag considers the exciting force to be necessary but the tragic force and the force of the final suspense are optional. Together, they make the eight component parts of the drama.
In making his argument, he attempts to retcon much of the Greeks and Shakespeare by making opinions of what they meant, but didn't actually say.
He argued for tension created through contrasting emotions, but didn't actively argue for conflict. He argued that character comes first in plays. He also sets up the groundwork for what would later in history be called the inciting incident.
Overall, Freytag argued the center of a play is emotionality and the best way to get that emotionality is to put contrasting emotions back to back. He laid some of the foundations for centering the hero, unlike Aristotle. He is popularly attributed to have stated conflict at the center of his plays, but he argues actively against continuing conflict.
The setting is fixed in a particular place and time, the mood is set, and characters are introduced. A backstory may be alluded to. Introduction can be conveyed through dialogues, flashbacks, characters' asides, background details, in-universe media, or the narrator telling a back-story.
An exciting force begins immediately after the exposition (introduction), building the rise in one or several stages toward the point of greatest interest. These events are generally the most important parts of the story since the entire plot depends on them to set up the climax and ultimately the satisfactory resolution of the story itself.
The climax is the turning point, which changes the protagonist's fate. If things were going well for the protagonist, the plot will turn against them, often revealing the protagonist's hidden weaknesses. If the story is a comedy, the opposite state of affairs will ensue, with things going from bad to good for the protagonist, often requiring the protagonist to draw on hidden inner strengths.
Return or Fall
During the Return, the hostility of the counter-party beats upon the soul of the hero. Freytag lays out two rules for this stage: the number of characters be limited as much as possible, and the number of scenes through which the hero falls should be fewer than in the rise. The return or fall may contain a moment of final suspense: Although the catastrophe must be foreshadowed so as not to appear as a non sequitur, there could be for the doomed hero a prospect of relief, where the final outcome is in doubt.
The catastrophe ("Katastrophe" in the original) is where the hero meets his logical destruction. Freytag warns the writer not to spare the life of the hero. Despite Denouement (UK: / -/,, US: //; being attested as first appearing in 1752, it was not used to refer to dramatic structure until the 19th century.
Clayton Hamilton in A Manual of The Art of Fiction, stated that a proper plot outline is, "A plot, therefore, in its general aspects, may be figured as a complication followed by an explication, a tying followed by an untying, or (to say the same thing in French words which are perhaps more connotative) a nouement followed by a dénouement."
The complication is what Lajos Egri later called the premise and it was later pushed to be part of the inciting incident. The explication was put first and then explained to be the introduction in the contemporary vocabulary. The dénouement would be split later into falling action and conclusion.
In 1939, Rowe published Write That Play in which he outlined what he thought of his ideal play structure. He did not cite any sources, though there looks to be some influence from Freytag's Pyramid.
The parts are: Introduction, Attack, Rising Action, Crisis, Falling Action, Resolution, Conclusion. The attack would be relabeled later as the "Inciting Incident" and the "Crisis" would be relabeled as "Climax" and the "conclusion" as the "Denouement" by Syd Field. The resolution as a turning point was also taken out. The center of the play should be, according to him, conflict as this will excite the most emotion.
He acknowledges other people have used climax, but does not cite who, but objects to the term "climax" because, "Climax is misleading because it might with equal fitness be applied to the resolution. Climax applied to the turning point suggests increasing tension up to that point, and relaxation following it. What actually happens is that the tension continues to increase in a well con-structured play from the turning point to the resolution, but is given a new direction and impetus at the turning point."
Despite this being his ideal shape for a play, he suggests that this can be modified to include more complications on the Rising action or the Falling action. He further suggests that the play structure doesn't need a conclusion. However, if there is a conclusion, he suggests making it shorter than the Introduction and it can either be flat or acute in angle.
This story structure, as suggested, had a strong influence on Arthur Millar (All My Sons, Death of a Salesman).
In his book The Art of Dramatic Writing, published 1946, Lajos Egri argued for more look inside of character's minds and that character generates conflict, which generates events. He cites Moses Louis Malevinsky's The Science of Playwriting and The Theory of Theater by Clayton Hamilton. Unlike previous works he cites from, he emphasized the importance of premise to a play.
He is also far more interested in looking at character creating conflict and events, than events shaping characters. He states this by arguing for different kinds of conflict: Static, jump and rise. These in turn can also be an attack or counterattack. He argues that Rising conflict is the best at revealing character.
He also examines character through the lens of physiology, sociology and psychology.
His work influenced Syd Field, who went onto make the 3-act Hollywood formula.
Northrop Frye's dramatic structure
The Canadian literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye analyzes the narratives of the Bible in terms of two dramatic structures: (1) a U-shaped pattern, which is the shape of a comedy, and (2) an inverted U-shaped pattern, which is the shape of a tragedy.
A U-shaped pattern
"This U-shaped pattern…recurs in literature as the standard shape of comedy, where a series of misfortunes and misunderstandings brings the action to a threateningly low point, after which some fortunate twist in the plot sends the conclusion up to a happy ending." A U-shaped plot begins at the top of the U with a state of equilibrium, a state of prosperity or happiness, which is disrupted by disequilibrium or disaster. At the bottom of the U, the direction is reversed by a fortunate twist, divine deliverance, an awakening of the protagonist to his or her tragic circumstances, or some other action or event that results in an upward turn of the plot. Aristotle referred to the reversal of direction as peripeteia or peripety, which depends frequently on a recognition or discovery by the protagonist. Aristotle called this discovery an anagnorisis—a change from "ignorance to knowledge" involving "matters which bear on prosperity or adversity". The protagonist recognizes something of great importance that was previously hidden or unrecognized. The reversal occurs at the bottom of the U and moves the plot upward to a new stable condition marked by prosperity, success, or happiness. At the top of the U, equilibrium is restored.
A classic example of a U-shaped plot in the Bible is the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-24. The parable opens at the top of the U with a stable condition but turns downward after the son asks the father for his inheritance and sets out for a "distant country" (Luke 15:13). Disaster strikes: the son squanders his inheritance and famine in the land increases his dissolution (Luke 15:13-16). This is the bottom of the U. A recognition scene (Luke 15:17) and a peripety move the plot upward to its denouement, a new stable condition at the top of the U.
An inverted U-shaped structure
The inverted U begins with the protagonist's rise to a position of prominence and well-being. At the top of the inverted U, the character enjoys good fortune and well-being. But a crisis or a turning point occurs, which marks the reversal of the protagonist's fortunes and begins the descent to disaster. Sometimes a recognition scene occurs where the protagonist sees something of great importance that was previously unrecognized. The final state is disaster and adversity, the bottom of the inverted U.
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 doubts, fears, and limitations. The negative climax occurs when the protagonist has an epiphany and encounters the greatest fear possible or loses something important, giving the protagonist the courage to take on another obstacle. This confrontation becomes the classic climax.
In her 2019 book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative novelist and writing teacher Jane Alison criticized the conflict-climax-resolution structure of narrative as "masculo-sexual," and instead argues that narratives should form around various types patterns, for example found in nature.
- Eight-legged essay
- Frame story
- Jo-ha-kyū – dramatic arc in Japanese aesthetics
- Kishōtenketsu – a structural arrangement used in traditional Chinese, Korean and Japanese narratives
- Narrative transportation
- Scene and sequel
- Sonata form
- Ta'zieh – A form found in Iran and other Islamic countries.
- Three-act structure
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