Dramatic Structure

In case you missed it, I’m currently working at the Unschool Adventures Writing Retreat in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. On the first day of the retreat, I got to lead a workshop that I had designed entitled “Dramatic Structure”.  I knew that I was excited about the topics that I was presenting, but I wasn’t sure that anyone else would be.

As it turned out, it was the best-attended workshop I had ever facilitated, and the students seemed really excited about the topics I was presenting. Because of their excitement, I decided to create a blog post about the topic for your reading pleasure.

So, what is Dramatic Structure? To me, it’s the “arc” of a story- the way that various pieces or plot points of a story are organized. Modern American stories almost invariably have the same dramatic structure, but most writers don’t understand that structure explicitly. I believe that understanding traditional dramatic structure inside and out can make you a better writer because you can choose to utilize or reject it consciously rather than mimicking storytelling elements that you’ve seen over and over without really understanding them.

The philosopher Aristotle was the first person to propose something similar to modern dramatic structure. He wrote the Politics and the Poetics, and he proposed that stories had a three act structure. He was writing specifically about tragic drama, and he wrote about the importance of catharsis: the purging of pity and fear through experiencing it secondhand while watching a play or listening to a story. He was the first person to talk about inciting incidents and denouements.

The next influential writer on the subject of dramatic structure was a German by the name of Gustav Freitag who lived in the 1800s. He proposed that modern drama possessed a five act structure. This is the model that most books, movies, and plays follow today.

The first act is Exposition or background information. For example, in the first Lord of the Rings movie, this act occurs during the party. The world that Tolkien created is being introduced, along with the characters and circumstances surrounding the story. In movies, this is the part where characters often have really stupid conversations that they would never actually have about their backgrounds so that the audience knows what’s going on. For example, one character might say to another, “Nothing’s really been the same since mom got addicted to heroin and died in a fiery car crash.”
The second act consists of rising action, and it begins with the Inciting Incident. Something occurs to start the forward action in motion, and then the stakes begin to rise for the main character. In the first Harry Potter book, for example, the inciting incident occurs when Harry is on the island with his adopted family and Hagrid shows up and tells him he’s a wizard.

After that, other plot elements and complications are introduced, and the stakes keep getting ratcheted up, until the main character has everything left to lose.

The third act is the climax. This is the most dramatic part of the story, where everything that has been building up finally comes to a head. Taking the first Harry Potter book as an example again, the climax begins to occur when Harry, Hermione, and Ron make it past the three headed dog and begin facing the challenges that block their path to the sorcerer’s stone. The action peaks when Harry finally makes his way into the room with the mirror of Erised, gains the stone, and meets Voldemort.

The fourth act consists of falling action, or the unraveling of the plot. The main conflict is resolved, for better or for worse. In a comedy, this typically means that a misunderstanding is cleared up and everyone lives happily ever after. In a tragedy, everyone kills each other. For example, Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Othello ends with a murder-suicide.

The fifth act is the denouement. This is the final period of resolution for the characters, and things return to normal (except some characters might be dead, but there’s no drama going on anymore). In Harry Potter one, the denouement occurs when Dumbledore comes to visit Harry in the hospital and answer some of his questions.

Here’s a diagram of Freitag’s Pyramid (with Freitag spelled incorrectly):

Okay, okay, so lots of stories have the same structure, but all stories have different plots, right? Nope. The author Christopher Booker proposes that all stories can be boiled down into seven plot archetypes. I’ve outlined each of them below.

1. Comedy. A comedy isn’t necessarily funny- it just ends with the characters better off at the end than they were at the beginning. Comedies often end with a wedding.

2. Tragedy. Just the opposite. Tragedies end with the protagonist worse off than he was at the beginning and usually dead.

3. Overcoming the monster. The story of David and Goliath is a classic example of this plot archetype. An underdog has to defeat an opponent who is much stronger than he.

4. The Quest. A person or team of people are searching for something or someone. The Knights of the Round Table is a good example of a quest story.

5. Voyage and Return. Often a war story. A person or group must go accomplish something and come back afterward. Think “The Odyssey of Homer” and “Lord of the Rings.”

6. Rags to Riches. Pretty self explanatory. Think Aladdin.

7. Rebirth. This is a story of reform- of a bad guy turning good. A classic example of this is Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol.”

Another element often found in stories is a Plot Device. This is a story element that exists only to move the story along. The two most common plot devices, a MacGuffin and a Chekhov’s Gun, are outlined below.

A MacGuffin is an object that the characters are chasing. The Sorcerer’s Stone is a MacGuffin. So are the Horcruxes. So is the Holy Grail. Alfred Hitchcock said, speaking of MacGuffins: “In crook stories it is almost always the necklace, and in spy stories it is almost always the papers.” If you’re wondering whether something is a MacGuffin, ask yourself if it is interchangeable. Could the diamond necklace just as easily be a ruby pendant? Could the Picasso be a Monet? If so, then you’ve got a MacGuffin.

A Chekhov’s Gun is a story element that is casually introduced early on in the story, but then becomes vitally important at the end of the story. This element comes from a comment that Anton Chekhov once made, cautioning playwrights about including pointless elements in their stories. He said “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, in the third act it absolutely must go off.” Often a Chekhov’s Gun is a skill, like lockpicking. Maybe a character picks a lock to open a locker at the beginning of a movie, and then needs to pick the lock of a door in a locked room where a fire has been started at the end of the movie.

That’s most of the content of my workshop; I hope you enjoyed it. Happy Writing!

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