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). This article focuses primarily on Gustav Freytag's analysis of ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama.
According to Freytag, a drama is divided into five parts, or acts, which some refer to as a dramatic arc:
The exposition provides the background information needed to properly understand the story, such as the protagonist, the antagonist, the basic conflict, and the setting.
The exposition ends with the inciting moment, which is the incident without which there would be no story. The inciting moment sets the remainder of the story in motion beginning with the second act, the rising action.
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.
During the falling action, or resolution, 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 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.
Although Freytag’s analysis 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 the pyramid is not always easy to use, especially in modern plays such as Uhry's "Driving Miss Daisy", which is actually divided into 25 scenes without concrete acts. A visual aid for Freytag’s analysis of dramatic structure is Freytag’s Pyramid.
Freytag's analysis was intended to apply not to modern drama, but rather to ancient Greek and Shakespearean drama.
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 encounters their greatest fear or loses something important. This loss gives them the courage to take on another obstacle. This confrontation becomes the classic climax.
Diagrams of Freytag's Pyramid with explanations:
Other scholarly analyses: