Dramatic Structures: Definition, Types, Examples

The plot in any story don’t simply exist as a series of events, moving from point A to B to C and so on, without consideration for the bigger picture.

Whether a narrative exists within a novel, short story, poem, film, or TV show, the dramatic structure is how each element of the plot fits into the overall story. There are conventions that are often followed that provide a natural sense of flow to the reader.

A dramatic structure is like the architecture of a story, the blueprint that helps a writer decide how each plot point will work in correspondence with the rest.

Dramatic structure definition

Dramatic structure refers to the different sections that make up the plot of a story. It provides an outline for the sequence of events within a text and the order in which plot points happen.

The typical outline of a dramatic structure

While different narratives employ different dramatic structures, many nevertheless follow the same overarching outline:

  1. Introduction/exposition
  2. Inciting incident
  3. Rising action
  4. Crisis
  5. Climax
  6. Denouement

Understand the role that each of these sections play in the overall narrative is important when writing your own story. Being able to break down a story into each of these elements helps to realise how the plot flows from one part to another.

Dramatic structure diagram

To help visualise how a dramatic structure works, here’s a diagram outlining one of the most common types of plot structure:

A dramatic structure diagram showing the general beats of a narrative.

Remember that a dramatic structure diagram like this only shows the a very general outline that can be applied to most plots. Depending on how long a narrative is and what type of story is being told, each section of the dramatic structure will be more or less important from one story to another.

For example, falling action isn’t commonly used in modern storytelling, and the denouement often immediately follows the climax.

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Types of dramatic structure

While most dramatic structures follow the general sequence of events outlined above, the are different types of dramatic structure which can be used for different stories and to different effect.

Three-act structure

Nearly every story conforms to a three-act structure, even in a loose sense: they will all have a beginning, middle, and end.

Five-act structure

As an alternative to having three acts, many dramatic structures instead have five. This has a long-standing tradition, with many plays from hundreds of years ago, such as Shakespeare’s, being separated into five acts.

Line graph outlining Freytag's pyramid, a basic structure for storytelling.

A five-part model for storytelling was proposed by Gustav Freytag in the nineteenth century, and it offers a variation of other forms of dramatic structures (especially with how it places the climax at the centre). Sometimes called Freytag’s pyramid or Freytag’s triangle, this structure is one of the most common tools for outlining the basic sections of any story:

  1. Introduction: This opening segment of a story includes exposition to provide important details to the reader, from information about the setting to the main characters and their wants and needs. The introduction typically ends with an inciting incident which changes the direction of the action.
  2. Rising action: After the inciting incident, the protagonist has to take action and progress towards their objective. They face obstacles and other challenges along the way as the action continues to rise.
  3. Climax: The culmination of the rising action is the climax of the story (not to be confused with the ending or finale). This is usually a turning point in the story arc where the protagonist has to face the main antagonistic force, such as a villain.
  4. Falling action: Events following the climax of the story constitute the falling action, where all the tension that builds up during the rising action is able to wind down.
  5. Resolution: All plot lines and character arcs are resolved in this concluding act of the story. The resolution might also be called a denouement.

Note that the climax in Frytag’s pyramid is in the centre of the dramatic structure, rather than towards the end where most readers would expect it. This is because his use of the term climax is more synonymous with a turning point, whereas the more modern usage defines it as the highest point of action which typically falls in one of the final scenes of a story.

Dramatic structure examples

Because of the range of different dramatic structures available for writers to use, it can be helpful to understand how the more common structures work within well-known pieces of literature.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth

As was the convention during Shakespeare’s time, his Scottish play is divided into a five-act structure which corresponds with Frytag’s triangle:

  • Act 1 – Introduces Macbeth as a victorious soldier and lord, as well as bringing in the witches and their prophecy that sows the seeds for the main plot to begin. The act ends with the inciting incident – Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to kill the king.
  • Act 2 – As part of the rising action, Macbeth kills King Duncan and becomes the king himself when the rightful heirs flee and become the key suspects. Meanwhile, his friend Banquo begins to suspect Macbeth is the true murderer.
  • Act 3 – The climax (according to Frytag’s definition) comes when Macbeth arranges the murder of Banquo. This can be seen as the turning point in the story, as from here he sees Banquo’s ghost and both he and Lady Macbeth suffers from a decline in their sanity.
  • Act 4 – Macbeth receives more prophecies from the witches and then orders the killing of Macduff’s family.
  • Act 5 – In the denouement of the play, the witches’ prophecies come true and Macbeth is killed, with his ambition becoming his fatal flaw.
An open book showing the first pages of William Shakespeare's Macbeth.

Dramatic structure FAQs

What is a dramatic structure?

A dramatic structure is the way that the plot is structured in a story. While there are different types of dramatic structure, they tend to include the same key elements such as exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution.

Are there different types of dramatic structures?

There are several different forms of dramatic structure, such as three-act, five-act, episodic, non-linear, and circular narratives.

What are the most common types of dramatic structure?

Most stories follow a three-act or five-act dramatic structure. These are the most traditional methods of arranging a narrative and are the most familiar to many readers.

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