Dramatic structure, especially as it relates to scripts, short stories and novels, is a tricky thing.  For some considerable time, analysts have been trying to work out the perfect theoretical structure for a creative piece – too much detail at the beginning and your reader puts your work down, too little and they might not understand the subtleties of what is going on.

When you first wrote stories, I’m guessing it was probably at school, and your teacher would have said something like ‘It has to have a beginning, a middle and an end’ – but where did the idea of this three part structure come from?

Over the centuries, certain folks have had a go at producing the right formula for creative work to follow, needless to say this has changed through the decades, so here’s a whistlestop tour around the big names and what they proposed:

Aristotle (in his work Poetics) c.335BC “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end” – the first time for the three part structure.

Horace – (Ars Poetica) proposed a five act structure. “A play should not be shorter or longer than five acts

Elizabethan playwrights imitated the Roman five act structure.

Freytag – 1863 – the proposal of Freytags Pyramid – a five act structure.  the plot of a story consists of five parts: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement/resolution/revelation/catastrophe.  Mind you, he was mostly analysing Shakesperian and Greek drama and it doesn’t quite go so well for modern drama.  Sometimes his pyramid is called ‘plot mountain.’

Late 19th C. constructed plays in four acts.

Volker Klotz (1978) proposed texts had Open or Closed structure – Closed-the scenes built on one another to the conclusion, and Open– the scenes only loosely hang together and the ending does not bring conclusion. (for example Waiting for Godot)

Frank Daniels (1920’s) – a Sequence Approach in which 8-10 fifteen page sequences are used.  This stems from original cinema reels which were 10 minutes long each, so a feature film had 8 reels of film.  The theory was published by his successor Gulino

Syd Field 2005 – advocates a four act structure, focusing on plot points

Watts – 2006 – describes an eight point story arc

So, from all this, we can conclude that structure of a writing piece works in different ways, and the same piece can be analysed in different ways.  So, what about your own work?  Does it confirm to one of the above structures?

If you’ve got some reading time available and you’ve got all that under your belt and are hungry for more, you might want to look at Campbells ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces‘ in which he examined mythical stories for parallels in the Hero’s Journey archetype.  Volger bases his The Writers Journey partly on this.

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