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Dramatic Terms

When watching a dramatic work, have you experienced intense emotions as the performance progresses? If so, have you wondered how the actors or the playwrights evoke such complex, diverse reactions in audiences?  This is accomplished through the use of certain stylistic devices, props, and techniques that are referred to as dramatic terms.

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Dramatic Terms

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When watching a dramatic work, have you experienced intense emotions as the performance progresses? If so, have you wondered how the actors or the playwrights evoke such complex, diverse reactions in audiences? This is accomplished through the use of certain stylistic devices, props, and techniques that are referred to as dramatic terms.

Dramatic terms definition

Dramatic terms are the terminology used in the genre of drama to describe devices that achieve certain effects, as well as depict types of characters, plot structures, or even parts of the stage set. They are important for analyzing, interpreting, and creating dramatic works, as well as for understanding and communicating about the art of theatre. Outside of some common literary terms, drama and theatre use specific terms that are worth learning if you want to gain a deeper understanding of the genre, though there is often overlap with other genres outside of the theatre.

Irony and satire are also used in poems, novels, and plays, but many dramatic terms are uniquely used for plays.

As a play is obviously a different art form from a poem or a novel, the genre makes use of extensive amounts of terminology specific to drama and theatre. If you understand dramatic terms, it will add another layer to your comprehension of the playwright’s intent.

Can you think of an example of dramatic irony in a play and irony in a poem or novel?

The elements of dramatic terms

In the terminology of drama there are three main categories. These categories are literary elements, technical elements, and performance elements.

Literary elements

These elements mostly overlap with other literary forms such as novel writing. They include terms like plot structure, rising action, climax, and falling action. Literary elements also include terms such as conflict, theme, language, style, dialogue, and monologue. Devices such as satire, parody, and irony are also considered literary elements.

Technical elements

Generally includes elements related to the set such as stage, scenery, costumes, light, or sound. This term includes often-overlooked elements such as make-up and hair, all of which may have their own dedicated stylist.

Performance elements

The performance aspects of plays include acting, speech, figure behavior, and non-verbal gestures. An actor may break the fourth wall and create a certain effect by lowering his voice and leaning forward as if sharing a secret with the audience, for example.

As you read through the terms in the glossary below, put them into one of the three categories already discussed.

Glossary of dramatic terms and devices

We will focus on a few key dramatic terms for this glossary to begin to understand how drama and theatre have constructed their terminology.

Acting area

During a play, the acting area is the stage or play area that is used by the actor. Generally, the actor is able to move about in this space and still be in full view of the audience.

Action

Similar to plot development, but specifically refers to the sense of forward movement within a play. This impression of movement of time can be created by plot and character developments.

Apron

Apron is a theatre-specific term that refers to the space between the edge of the stage and the curtain.

Area stage

This type of stage dates back to the amphitheatres in Ancient Greece and plays of William Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre. Similar to a Theatre in the Round, this is a stage where the audience surrounds the stage and there is no separation by a frame or arc.

Aside

An actor will make an aside when they want the audience to know something that they do not want the other characters to know. This is similar to some narrator techniques used in novels.

Adlib

To freely improvise, using lines and actions that are not in the script.

Blocking

This is the actors plotted path across the stage during a play. Both the actor and director determine this path. Usually, it is documented in the script. The movement across the plotted path can emphasise certain lines or emotions.

Catharsis

A term that dates back to Aristotle and his work Poetics (around 335 BC), catharsis is used to describe the audience’s feeling of 'terror and pity' during and after watching a tragedy. A catharsis is a purging of intense emotions after viewing a dramatic performance.

Denouement

The specific time in the plot of a drama where an important plot point is brought to light or explained.

Dialogue

The words spoken between two or more characters within a play. Dialogues are often used to drive the plot, develop characters and allow the audience to understand the interplay between roles.

Exposition

An essential part of the play that introduces the audience to the main themes, key characters, and their context or situation.

Freytag’s pyramid

A diagram with a triangular shape that depicts how a plot unfolds. This is a type of plot structure.

Dramatic Terms, a graph of Freytag's Pyramid, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A key dramatic term is Freytag's Pyramid.

Fourth wall

This is the imaginary 'wall' between the audience and the play. An actor may choose to 'break the fourth wall' by using an aside that dissolves the barrier between the stage and the audience.

Falling action

Also part of the Freytag's pyramid, the falling action is the series of events and circumstances that lead up the the final part of the play, the denouement.

Improvisation

Acting done without a script that can be used to help create a rounded character. There is a genre of theatre dedicated to improvised acting, much like jazz is often dedicated to improv.

Leitmotiv

In drama, this is the repetition of a word, image, or phrase to create a sense of rhythm or to highlight a point.

Mime

A mime is an actor who uses no speech, only movement to convey thoughts and feelings.

Monologue

This can be a long or fairly short solo speech by one actor. Often delivered when the actor is alone on stage, a monologue can also be performed in the presence of other actors.

Performance elements

This term covers all aspects of an actor's performance from acting to speaking to gestures.

Playwright

The author of plays. They are the theatre world’s version of a novelist.

Prologue

The speech at the beginning of the play that introduces the work.

Rake

The slope of a stage floor that changes in height.

Resolution

How a conflict in a drama is bought to a conclusion.

Rhetorical devices

Language that is used to convince the audience to adopt a certain thought process or opinion. For example, a character may use certain subject matter and language to persuade another character or the audience. In Julius Caesar (1599), Mark Anthony uses sarcasm and words of praise to convince the Roman public to turn on the conspirators.

Rising action

A part of the Freytag's pyramid, the rising action is the series or chain of events that build up to the dramatic climax.

Scene

The building blocks of an act, scenes are shorter snippets that often happen in one place and at one time. Changes between scenes can be marked off by a curtain fall, a blackout, or the actors leaving the stage.

Scenery

The background props that are used to create environmental context and atmosphere for a play.

Script

The written version of a play, composed by a playwright. The actors will need to learn their lines from this document.

Soliloquy

Similar to a monologue but the difference is that a soliloquy is always performed by a solo actor alone on stage. They will share their innermost thoughts with the audience to develop characters and drive the plot.

An example of a famous soliloquy is the one below from William Shakespeare's Macbeth (1606).

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,Signifying nothing.’ - Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5.

Tableau

This is similar to a freeze-frame in movies but the term in theatre is a tableau (plural: tableaux). Here an actor or actors will freeze for dramatic effect.

Tempo

The pace of a play, it's cadence and rhythm.

Tragedy

Originating in Ancient Greece but popularised by Shakespeare, a tragedy will often have a protagonist who is a tragic hero. Aristotle wrote in his work Poetics (around 335 BC) that tragic plays inspire feelings of 'terror and pity' in the audience.

Tragic hero

The hero or main character of a tragedy is called a tragic hero. Tragedies originated in Greece and tend to depict the actors as victims of destiny. A hero in a tragedy is often an ethical or moral character who ends up miserable due to a character flaw, a judgment error, or social pressure.

Are dramatic terms also used in other forms of literature?

Sure, some dramatic terms are also literary terms and could be used to describe devices employed in a poem, short story, or novel. You can understand dramatic terms by thinking of them as a subgenre of literary terms, as plays are a part of literature, just like novels or poems.

Some of the many dramatic terms also used in other forms of literature are:

  1. Foreshadowing: a literary device in which an author hints at events that will occur later in the story.
  2. Irony: a contrast between what is expected and what actually happens, often used for comedic effect.
  3. Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities.
  4. Imagery: language that creates vivid mental images for the reader.
  5. Metaphor: a comparison between two things that are not literally alike, often used to create a deeper meaning.
  6. Allegory: a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning.
  7. Personification: giving human characteristics to non-human objects or animals.
  8. Hyperbole: exaggeration for emphasis or effect.
  9. Allusion: a reference to a person, place, or event from literature, history, or culture.
  10. Satire: the use of humor, irony, or exaggeration to expose and criticize societal issues or vices.

Dramatic Terms - Key takeaways

  • Dramatic Terms are used within the genre of theatre to describe devices used to achieve certain effects as well as types of characters, plot structures, or even parts of the stage.
  • There are three main sections to this glossary: literary elements, technical elements, and performance elements.
  • There is an overlap with literary terms or devices but many dramatic terms are unique to plays and theatre.
  • Dramatic terms in other forms of literature such as novels include plot, character, satire, parody, pace, and dialogue
  • Some dramatic terms that are unique to the theatre are tableau, soliloquy, mime, and denouement.

Frequently Asked Questions about Dramatic Terms

Dramatic terms are used within the genre of drama to reference devices that achieve certain effects or depict types of characters. These include terms for types of plays, plot structures, or even parts of the stage.

Dramatic irony is a type of irony that occurs in plays. Usually it occurs when the audience knows something that some or all of the characters don't appear to know.

These are the terms that overlap between literary forms like plays, novels, and poems. Examples include dialogue and monologue.

A tragedy is a type of play that usually features a tragic hero. These plays originated in Greece and usually depict the actors as victims of destiny or fate. Aristotle wrote about tragedies in his work, Poetics (about 335 BC).

The seven types of Drama are:



  • Tragedy.
  • Farce.
  • Opera.
  • Comedy.
  • Tragi-Comedy.
  • Melodrama.
  • Musical.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

True or false: Soliloquies developed as a dramatic device in the 1800s

The Elizabethan Age is also known as the _________ Age

What verse form is a soliloquy typically written in?

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