Dramatic Structure

If you think of a work of literature as a building, plays, novels, and poems have a structure too. In this analogy, words are the building blocks, and the structure is what holds them together and gives the text its shape and form. Just as there are different types of structures in architecture, there are different types of structures in literature. Depending on the structure, the text is able to evoke a certain reaction in the audience or the reader.

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Table of contents

    Dramatic structure: meaning

    Dramatic structure is like the skeleton of a text. In theatre, the structure stands for the order or the sequence in which the play progresses on stage.

    Dramatic structure, also known as dramaturgical structure, refers to the stages in which the plot unfolds or the different 'sections' that make up a text or a play.

    There are different types of dramatic structures. Writers often play with the structure for different reasons, such as innovation and experimentation. The most widely discussed theory of dramaturgy today is discussed in Aristotle's Poetics (c. 335 BCE).

    Poetics is also considered to be the book that inaugurated literary theory and criticism in the West. There were performative traditions indigenous to almost every part of the world. They developed over time and were often an integral part of the local culture. Some of them had different dramatic structures from contemporary European drama.

    Three-act structure

    In his discussion of tragedy, Aristotle (384-322 BCE) identified the ideal structure and plot of a good play. According to Aristotle, the plot should follow the basic structure and have a beginning, middle, and end. This is called the three-act structure. There should be a plausible reason (known as the tragic flaw) that contributes to the downfall of the hero. The ultimate goal of a tragedy is to invoke fear and pity in the audience, leading to catharsis.

    Catharsis refers to a release of emotions achieved through art.

    Although Aristotle's model is considered to be the first work on the theory of dramaturgy, historians have unearthed ancient treatises on performance arts from other parts of the world. An example is Nāṭya Śāstra, a Sanskrit compendium on performing arts estimated to be written between 500 BCE and 500 CE.

    Dramatic structure: key terms

    Before we delve further into dramatic structure, it's a good idea to familiarise some of the terms associated with it.

    • Plot

    The order or sequence in which the events in a story or play take place.

    • Exposition

    Background information and back stories that the audience needs to know in order to understand the plot.

    • Juxtaposition

    Juxtaposition is the technique of placing two or more contrasting elements in opposition to one another.

    • Objective

    The goal or the desired ending that the characters strive for.

    Conflict refers to either the tension between two opposing elements or characters in the novel or the roadblocks that stand in their way.

    • Obstacle

    The trials and problems characters go through to achieve their objective.

    Dramatic structure: types

    Let's take a look at the different types of dramatic structure.

    Five parts of dramatic structure

    Nineteenth-century playwright and novelist Gustav Freytag (1816-1895) proposed the five-part model that is widely used today. Freytag's model divided the dramatic structure into five basic units or stages. To understand the concept of dramatic structure better, let's take a look at the elements of the structure.

    Exposition or introduction

    As the name suggests, the introduction is the beginning where the context and the background are set up. This is where readers or the audience are introduced to the characters and receive important information about what is to come later. The introduction usually contains an instigation or an event that sets the plot in motion.

    Rising action

    At this stage, suspense is created following the incident that took place in the introduction. The characters behave or act in a way that sets the stage for the climax. Elements and theatrics that add suspense are used here to create tension.


    Unlike in popular terminology, 'climax' in Freytag's model does not mean 'the end'. Instead, it refers to the turning point in the narrative. It is the stage between the events leading up to the peak of tension and the events that eventually lead to the end of the story. The turning point, or as we like to call it, the 'plot twist', is when something is revealed that changes the course of the story. Depending on the theme and genre of the text, this change may be for the better or for the worse.

    Falling action

    The fall or the falling action is what comes after the climax. We can call this stage a kind of unravelling where the build-up of conflicts and tensions plays out. At this stage, the reader or the audience might get a sense of where the story is headed.

    Resolution or dénouement

    Also known as catastrophe or revelation, this is the final stage in a text or play. It is the conclusion where everything is laid open for the audience.

    The U-shaped model

    The Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye (1912-1991) proposed an alternate model in his comparison between the Bible and literature. There are two dramatic structures in his model: a U-shaped structure, which is the shape of the comedy and an inverted U-shaped structure, which is the shape of the tragedy.

    Frye developed this model in the series of lectures he gave at the University of Toronto called 'the Bible and Literature'. In the U-shaped model, the plot begins in a state of happiness and joy, which is unsettled by misfortune, and the plot eventually rises back to happiness. In the inverted U-shaped structure, the opposite happens, starting at the top and falling to the lowest point of the curve due to adversity.

    Other types

    While Freytag's pyramid is a good model of dramatic structure, it is not necessary that every text and play comply with it. With the rise of experimentation and innovation in literature, more and more writers are keen to explore the boundaries of text and performance. There are different structures that vary in different aspects, such as time, space, and style of narration. Some dramatic structures follow a non-linear narrative by using flashbacks and flash-forwards. Other types of dramatic structures include:


    These are some of the characteristics of the climactic structure:

    • The plot begins later in the story rather than at the start.
    • A limited number of acts, characters, and settings.
    • Tightly constructed plot with no superfluous details.
    • A definite and linear chain of events that leads to the climax.


    • The plot begins at the start of the story.
    • The story expands with the addition of more and more characters and locations.
    • A mix of short and long scenes in plays.
    • Possibility for subplots and parallel plots.

    Some plays defy the rules by combining the features of both episodic and climactic structures. For example, Anton Checkov's last play The Cherry Orchard (1904) is a climactic play but has features of the episodic structure with a plot that covers a long duration of time and has a long list of characters.

    Cyclical or serial

    The cyclical or serial structure forms a circle of events where the plot begins and ends at the same place. It follows a sequence of events centred around a singular theme or issue. It creates the effect of coming full circle. Repetitions and patterns are features of cyclical narratives.

    Avant-Garde theatre

    Avant-garde theatre, like avant-gardism in visual arts, preferred experimentation over tradition.

    Avant-garde: a nineteenth-century movement in arts and literature with an emphasis on innovation and experimentation. The name avant-garde is derived from a French military term and signifies advancement or innovation ahead of its time. It was first used by the French socialist Henri de Saint-Simon.

    Avant-garde artists believed that the traditions of the past were not relevant to modern society. Naturally, avant-garde theatre is known for its departures from the old theatrical traditions. They broke away from the old conventions by using non-verbal gestures, tableaux, and improvisation on stage.

    Tableau: a static representation of an image or a scene. The characters use costumes, props, and background settings but remain still. The birth of Christ is a popular theme for tableaux around Christmas!

    Avant-garde theatre also experimented with the limits of the stage and performance, by using different techniques to influence and interact with the audience.

    Antonin Artaud's The Cenci (1935), Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Szechwan (1939-42), The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941), Schwyck in the Second World War (1941-43) and Eugene Ionesco's The Bald Soprano (1950), The Lesson (1951), The Chairs (1952) are examples of avant-garde or experimental theatre.

    Theatre of the absurd

    The name theatre of the absurd was given by the critic Martin Esslin to the twentieth-century plays in which themes of existentialism and the absurd were the dominant themes. The plays are notable for their lack of definable structure and plot.

    Among the most celebrated play characterised as the theatre of the absurd is Waiting for Godot (1952) by Samuel Beckett.

    Dramatic structure: diagram

    The diagram below is a visual representation of Freytag's model of dramatic structure.

    Dramatic structure, a graphic representation of Freytag's pyramid, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Freytag's pyramid is a popular model of dramatic structure.

    In this model, the plot begins with the introduction and rises with the build-up of tension and suspense until it peaks at the climax. This marks the turning point, beginning the descent towards the denouement, as either resolution or catastrophe.

    Dramatic structure: examples

    Let's have a look at some examples of the dramatic structures mentioned above.

    • Episodic

    Ancient Greek theatre (estimated to be from 550 BC to 220 BC): plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.

    • Climactic
    • Shakespearean drama.
    • Modern European theatre based on works of Henrik Ibsen, and Bertolt Brecht.

    Shakespeare's Macbeth (1623) is a great example to illustrate this type of dramatic structure. Macbeth is a five-act play surrounding the rise and fall of Macbeth.

    Act one: introduction

    Positions Macbeth as a victorious soldier and trusted confidant of king Duncan. The incident with the three witches on his way home prophesies that Macbeth would become the king.

    Act two: rising action

    Incited by Lady Macbeth, the couple decides to kill Duncan in his sleep. Macbeth takes Duncan's place as the king. Macbeth kills Banquo as he perceives Banquo to be a threat to his newfound power.

    Act three: climax

    Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo at the banquet at their home. Lady Macbeth is driven mad with guilt and the fear of consequence.

    Act four: falling action

    Macbeth visits the three witches seeking reassurance. They give him three prophecies that initiate the upcoming events of the story. Macbeth murders Macduff's family to secure himself from rebellion, which becomes a reason for Macduff to plot revenge against Macbeth.

    Act five: denouement

    Act five shows the prophecies of the witches come true, to Macbeth's shock and dismay. Macbeth is killed, and Malcolm becomes the king of Scotland. Macbeth's ambition and moral decrepitude are considered his tragic flaws.

    Dramatic Structure - Key takeaways

    • The dramatic structure is the manner in which the incidents that take place in a story are ordered.
    • The most popular model of the narrative structure was proposed by the German playwright Gustav Freytag.
    • Freytag's model includes five stages: introduction or exposition, rise, climax, fall, and resolution. The visual representation of his model is called Freytag's pyramid.
    • The idea of dramatic structure applies to many forms of literature but is most discernible in the study of theatre.
    • Not all writers obediently follow traditional dramatic structures. Experimentation and creativity have led to the creation of various innovative structures in literature and performance arts.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Dramatic Structure

    What is a dramatic structure?

    Dramatic structure is the way in which the plot is structured in a text.

    What are the different types of dramatic structure?

    Different types of dramatic structures include episodic narratives, climactic narratives, non-linear narratives, and circular narratives. 

    What is the typical structure of drama?

    The typical structure of a drama is as follows:

    1. Introduction

    2. Rise

    3. Climax

    4. Fall

    5. Resolution

    How do you write a dramatic structure?

    The five elements suggested by Gustad Freytag work as a good starting point while writing. Freytag’s pyramid is a popular model but by no means a rule. While it is good to keep an eye on these elements to help build a deep, comprehensive narrative, it always helps a writer to take creative liberties with the material and the structure, be it a novel or a play. 

    What is an example of dramatic structure?

    The five-act plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries are good examples of Freytag’s model of dramatic structure. They follow the model, with reasons and motives for every event and action in the plot. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What centuries did the Medieval period encompass?

    During which centuries did the Middle Ages occur?

    During what century did the domestic drama develop?


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